At once a product of her circumstances and a testament to the human capacity to overcome, Joan Rivers was not perfect by any means. But she was powerful and beautifully human.
My love affair with Joan Rivers is complicated, problematic, and enduring.
I suppose it began in the ’80s or early ’90s, when I sat with my grandmother Sylvia and watched her on television. To me, Rivers was the height of glamour. This may suggest something about the sort of person I’d become, but I found her social commentary astute, her Jewish accent familiar, her costumes beautiful, her presence comforting. But I was a very young girl in those days, and really, what did I know about life, art, the nefarious workings of the media?
In retrospect, I see: Joan was arguably at a low point in her career when I first came to know her, and as I grew from child to adolescent to early adult, I developed a feminist critique of the caricature this public figure appeared to become over the course of my young life.
Her commentary is so sexist, I lamented to my grandmother Sylvia—who passed away herself last winter—as we’d sit together and watch Rivers’ excorciate Hollywood starlets for their dresses, their accessories, their very bodies. I just can’t believe how judgmental she is, and that we’re sitting here, watching it.
But watch, we did. Whether Joan was trafficking in vitriol on the red carpet or hawking her wares on the QVC home shopping network, we were rapt.
As recently as five years ago, I’d maintained a naïve and partial narrative about the figure: a lost link to my childhood, redolent of the whip-smart but troubled women in my Ashkenazi Jewish line, Rivers was a complicated antihero, a reflection of all the worst of the mainstream culture. I watched this woman’s plastic surgery metamorphosis and castigation of celebrities with detached judgment, all the while thinking I was above the fray.
In retrospect, I can see how wrong I was.
Joan Rivers was a complex figure, and one that defies categorization.
Depending on one’s vantage, Rivers might be described as a hateful shrew, a feminist innovator, a comedy legend, a judgmental jester, a pop culture icon, a racist or a bigot.
The late comedian and actress engaged in AIDS activism and engagement within LGBTQ communities long before such work was fashionable. She opened doors for generations of women comedians who followed.
She earned a reputation as one of the entertainment industry’s hardest workers, and though her opinions weren’t always popular—they were sometimes horrible—she always spoke her mind. In an era when women were expected to be seen and not heard, in an industry in which women were vastly outnumbered, Joan Rivers found her voice at an early age, and never stopped speaking.
But her later politics were questionable, her recent descent into vitriolic, racist commentary about the “deserved” death of Palestinian civilians is contemptible, and merits no defense. There are dozens of other examples of racism that preceded last month’s inexcusable rant. But Rivers never shied away from controversy. She sought it out, and indeed, embraced it.
She struggled on deep levels with her appearance, her reputation, and her role in the public imaginary.
The problem, I suspect, is that we expect our public figures to be heroes, when they, like the rest of us, are deeply, irredeemably human.
But when I think of Joan Rivers, I think about the tragedy of her story, and of my own. I cannot contemplate the woman without thinking about my daughter, Talya, who died at five weeks old in 2010, not long after the release of the documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.
On one of the hottest days of summer, five days before Talya would die, my second story apartment sweltering, I brought my daughter to a viewing of the Rivers documentary at our local theater. I didn’t know what movie would be showing, I just knew that at midday, a baby-friendly showing would happen, and there would be air conditioning. So I had no choice, really, but to show up and hope for the best.
When I arrived, I was dismayed by the selection. Joan Rivers? I said to myself. Shit. What I knew of her oeuvre, I disrespected, and what I recalled of her surgically altered face frightened me. I was also, quite naively, worried about the effect of swears on my precious daughter’s early language development, a concern that seems laughable, now, in view of her life outcome.
Is there salty language? I asked the disaffected ticket seller.
It’s Joan fucking Rivers, she said, What do you think?
Well, I suppose it will have to do, I said, I just hope this baby’s first word won’t be ‘fuck’, and plunked down the $8 required to enter the theater.
I didn’t expect much, other than air conditioning and a brief reprieve from repressive heat.
But I sat in that tiny theater, my small daughter cradled in my arms, and gained a new admiration for this complicated figure. I developed a richer understanding of the forces she struggled against, both external and internal, and the ways in which she suffered in her personal and professional lives—for respect, for admiration, affection, for a sense of self-worth, the fulfillment of longing, full of the desire to be heard. Rivers endured and overcame sexism, the suicide of her husband, and a career that rose and fell in fits and starts. She suffered, but she carried on.
For her part, my tiny girl slept and nursed throughout the documentary, occasionally cooing, in what would be her first and only film screening.
What a sweet baby, a fellow moviegoer smiled at me as she walked by and beyond us, the credits rolled, I hardly noticed she was here at all. It was not unlike the reaction people had to Rivers herself, I remember thinking at the time—her act, her figure cast a shadow that obscured the person beneath the persona.
I did not know then, as I left the theater, walking out of air conditioning and back into the resplendent heat of the midday sun: not a week later, my sweet and tiny baby would be gone.
I have watched that documentary several times since my daughter’s death, each time I am reminded of my daughter’s brief life, this girl whose memory is bound up, inexplicably but inextricably, in this small act of cultural production. I watch the film about Joan Rivers to remember the life of my daughter. But I watch also because I am moved by the life of this woman, by her complications and her coping mechanisms, her motivations and her work ethic, her capacity for survival, and the depth of her desire to be respected as an actress, thought beautiful, and even loved.
The theater where I first came to see Joan Rivers as she was is no longer there—it folded not long after my daughter’s death, and has since been converted into an Irish pub. My daughter is no longer here, and—as of yesterday—neither is Joan Rivers.
My love for Rivers is not boundless. It emerges in fits and starts, it ebbs and flows, in the very manner of this woman’s life, career, and public reception. Her life was touched by tragedy, her politics were deeply problematic, but for me, Rivers was not a tragic figure.
She brought life to everything she did. She drew on great reserves of strength, chutzpah, and humor for her very survival. She suffered greatly, it is obvious, and I am moved and saddened by her suffering each time I watch the narrative of her life unfold in her eponymous documentary. I find much to critique in her politics, in her performance, in her coping mechanisms. At the same time, I find motivation in her work ethic, beauty in her desire to make meaning from suffering, and inspiration in the strength of her conviction.
At once a product of her circumstances and a testament to the human capacity to overcome, Joan Rivers was not perfect by any means. But she was powerful and beautifully human, and now, after a life of great achievement and tremendous suffering, she has moved on.
Adina Giannelli’s writing has been featured in publications including Babble, Feministing, Salon and the forthcoming anthologies Book Lovers and Three Minus One Equals Zero.