Joan Rivers’ troubling pattern of lashing out at other women

Rivers has come along way in an industry unfriendly to women -- but now she's pulling the ladder up behind her

Topics: Joan Rivers, Jennifer Lawrence,

Joan Rivers' troubling pattern of lashing out at other womenJoan and Melissa Rivers (Credit: AP/Evan Agostini)

If anyone could decisively turn public opinion against Joan Rivers, it’d be Jennifer Lawrence, the starlet who can do no wrong in the eyes of her fans. Lawrence, who’s become perhaps the most in-demand actress on earth in the past 18 months and who’s won fans over with frank talk about the oddness of modern celebrity, directed her sharp critique of Hollywood at Rivers, saying that the shows like Rivers’s “Fashion Police” “are just showing these generations of young people to judge people based on all the wrong values and that it’s OK to point at people and call them ugly or fat.” Rivers responded by calling Lawrence arrogant and hypocritical.

This is classic Rivers, a comedian who’s long been able to dish it out but not to take it. Rivers’ reinvention from comedian to red-carpet reporter and, now, fashion critic has seen her abandon jokes in favor of just flatly stating a negative opinion of a star. On Twitter, for instance, Rivers tells sort of half-jokes about celebrities, statements that aren’t, strictly speaking, funny, just vitriolic enough to make an impression. There’s none of the sort of sophisticated structure that earns tearing someone down; she’s just biting at the ankles of Hollywood, being loud and appealing to the reader or viewer’s vitriol. Watching her shrieking racial slurs at a paparazzi recently as she defended Alec Baldwin’s use of homophobic language gave the strong impression of a comedian no longer, if ever she was, in control of her comedy.



And “Fashion Police” is little different from these flat statements of utter disdain, with its panel composed of publicity-hungry E! personalities and Rivers herself. The show probably made its greatest impact when panelist Kelly Osbourne called Christina Aguilera fat. What a legacy. It’s not that this show is having a deleterious impact on culture — it’s likely more symptom of tabloid culture than cause — but does Rivers really think that her show is above reproach, that anyone who critiques it is arrogant?

Rivers consistently portrays herself as a show-business survivor, and it’s an accurate enough picture; things like the documentary “A Piece of Work” or a New York magazine profile of the comic paint her as a pioneering female comic (definitely true) and someone who works constantly, never saying no to a gig (ditto). But Rivers is strenuously working to burnish her reputation as someone who says clothes are ugly or that women celebrities are stupid. It’s classic ladder-pulling behavior: Joan Rivers has worked her entire life so that she might shame younger performers for their appearance or demeanor, making life tougher for them. She is willing to call her writers “schmuck writers” and “idiots” when they go on strike, pulling the ladder up behind her once again when those who worked for her sought back wages.

The irony is that Jennifer Lawrence’s acknowledging “Fashion Police” by name is the biggest press the show’s had in years. Rivers ought to be thanking Lawrence for calling attention to the program, though maybe putting the actress at the center of one of her barbs, saying she “tripped over her own arrogance,” is her way of doing that. Rivers exists to bedevil celebrities — to her dubious credit, she more or less invented modern, fashion-obsessed red carpet coverage at awards shows. Her shtick is praising the stars on occasion for good red-carpet ensembles but tearing them down when they set a foot wrong, a critique that has nothing to do with anything but Rivers’ aesthetic judgment. Hey, sometimes stars really do look silly in their frocks. But they’re also people promoting their work. Rivers’ critique is perpetually skin-deep.

Rivers’ endurance speaks to the excesses of modern celebrity culture — ideally, there wouldn’t be room for a court jester whose whole job is mocking stars. But given that she does exist as a critic of celebrities, should the stars be thanking her for her insults? She seems to think so. The world would be a better place without “Fashion Police” — or rather, without the sort of flaw-obsessed celebrity-watching that “Fashion Police” simply capitalizes off of. But if we’re stuck with it, maybe Rivers can move on from shaming anyone who takes exception to celebrity culture. Rivers has had to fight, hard, to make it in an industry that’s not particularly genial to women. Maybe she could stop fighting to make life harder for other women.

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...