Joan Rivers’ feminist legacy still felt today

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Steve Rhodes

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By Sean Hickey, Staff Writer

The world was robbed of a loud voice, a brilliant mind and an unmatched work ethic earlier this year when Joan Rivers died on Sept. 4. Yet, for Rivers, who spent decades speaking about the truth of being a woman, her 50 years of comedy have gone generally underappreciated. Rivers’ case is typical for almost all female comedians.

By making jokes about abortions, affairs with married men and putting out to be hired in show business, Rivers broke down barriers before people even thought to put them up in the first place. She cared little for what was politically correct or appropriate. After all, whoever was deciding those rules were the same jerks that in Rivers’ mind were trying to dehumanize women and hide the truth about how women really lived. She did what all great comedians do and have done forever — she told the truth the way she saw it.

The amount of criticism Rivers received during her career is enough to make a hundred other comedians give up and hide in a closet, but Rivers would not let her critics win. Even in her later years, the idea that women are not funny was considered by many to be factual, as if it had something to do with estrogen levels. Rivers appeared in the recently released documentary “Women Aren’t Funny” to say that she still would get “screwed everywhere” because she was a female comedian. While Rivers was telling vagina jokes that were only sort of accepted, male comedians continued making penis joke after penis joke — as if each one would somehow make theirs bigger — and were lauded as the funniest in the country.

To her very last day, Rivers fought for the truth while making people laugh. Many might shy away from calling comedy socially impactful, but the fact is that good comedians like Rivers used a stage and a microphone the same way a politician uses a podium. The work of females gaining equal footing in comedy is far from done, but Rivers’ fearless persistence is the essence of the feminist cause — no apologies, no pulling back, no hiding the truth.

A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2014 Arts Issue. Email Sean Hickey at [email protected]