Media and Society

Subversive Self-Hatred in Joan Rivers’ Comedy’

In 2014 Joan Rivers was asked if she could name one comedian in particular as her inspiration. Rivers said that undoubtedly the comedian who most influenced her work was the Jewish American comedian Lenny Bruce. Lenny Bruce was an established comedian in New York during the 60’s at the time that Rivers was just starting her career. Bruce underwent several arrests for using obscenity in his stand-up and caused immense controversy for blatantly using racial slurs in his performances.

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It is very telling that Rivers’ comic icon was a man that used to walk through his audiences and call people ‘niggers, wops, kikes, frogs, and chinks.’

Bruce did this to make the argument that the “suppression of a word gives it power” and if everybody said “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger ’til nigger didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.” Years after Bruce performed that routine; Rivers would become famous for using excessively sexist and misogynistic language and material in her comedy.

Bruce’s stand-up comedy celebrated marginality and counter-culturalism as an alternative to the mainstream perspectives on race-relations, social class, and sexuality. Although he labelled himself a comedian, his act largely consisted of shouting angry and offensive things. Rivers followed Bruce in similar suit, delivering many jokes that could double as verbal abuse and in a loud, aggressive manner. While Rivers may at first glance appear to be a stark advocate of the mainstream by insisting that cultural expectations placed on women be enforced, she also embodies marginality and counter-culturalism reminiscent of Bruce.

You can see semblances of Bruce in Rivers’ shouting out taboos, venting endless aggression, and her seeming attitude of superiority and self-righteousness. The difference between Bruce and Rivers is that while Bruce expressed anger outward toward things that he claimed to be ‘other’ to him such as racism, sexual repression, and inhibitions which he did not observe in himself, Rivers’ anger was inner-directed, self-aware, and autobiographical. While Lenny Bruce was a white man shouting “nigger”, Rivers was a woman shouting “bitch”.

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Rivers was known for hating her own body and weight as well as the bodies of other women:

Elizabeth Taylor is so fat, she puts mayonnaise on aspirin.”
“If Kate Winslet had dropped a few pounds, the Titanic would never have sunk.”
“I met Adele! What’s her song, Rolling in the Deep? She should add ‘fried chicken’.

(Staff, 2016)

It is important to remember that these reportedly offensive jokes, which seem to promote unfair expectations of women’s bodies and the continued objectification of women, were written in the context of a female mind, body, and voice. By repudiating these beautiful and successful women for their weight, Rivers simultaneously places herself within an oppressive value-system that sets impossible expectations for her along with other women to be thin but voluptuous, sexual but demure, innocent but alluring.

In his book Jokes and Their Relations, Eliott Oring provides an image to depict the role of self-hatred, self-deprecation, and masochism in the Gallows Humour historically employed by Jewish comedians.

…One can almost see how a witty Jewish man carefully and cautiously takes a sharp dagger out of his enemy’s hands, sharpens it so that it can split a hair in mid-air, polishes it so that it shines brightly, stabs himself with it, then returns it gallantly to the anti-Semite with the silent reproach: Now see whether you can do half so well…It is as if the Jew tells his enemies: You do not need to attack us. We can do that ourselves—and even better. But we can take it and we will come out alright.

(Oring, 1998, 131)

This passage is relevant for several reasons. Firstly, it portrays the representative Jew as physically weaker than his enemy, and yet mentally stronger which mirrors the relationship between the oppression of intelligent women in the face of patriarchal values. Secondly, it illustrates how powerlessness can be subverted when taken to the extreme. Thirdly, it portrays an element of masochism and self-harm which parallels Rivers’ history with eating disorders and her adamant immersion within the same popular culture that oppressed her as a woman.

When we consider the metaphor of the self-deprecating Jew and his dagger, it is possible that Rivers exaggerated superficial values placed onto women not to promote them but to subvert them so that her powerlessness became her strength. In an interview with the comedy scholar Marlo Thomas, Rivers said that, “Comedy comes out of anger. Comedy comes out of ‘I’ll show you.’ Comedy comes out of ‘You’ll be sorry.’” It is unlikely that the people Rivers hoped to ‘prove wrong’ were large women. It is more likely that the people she hoped to prove wrong were those who believed that women were only useful for their bodies.

Rivers made a career based on love of her own mind and ambition and hatred toward her body. It is unfortunate that Rivers seemed to sacrifice all affections for her own body in order to express the very values that oppressed her. However, in doing so she obtained some control over her own persecution and in a subverted manner she told her aggressors not to bother oppressing her because she could do it better and funnier.