Being Looked at Funny

Joan Rivers was a comedian known for her hard-hitting insults and one-liners. Joan was a special kind of comedian, in which she made fun of everybody. Every stereotype, every race, every body type, she made her audiences laugh at each other and then at themselves, making us realize the pain after we had just laughed at someone else’s. There aren’t many female comedians, especially when Rivers was starting out, then filling in on the Johnny Carson show. When Carson was retiring, Rivers claimed she wasn’t on the list of possible successors, they were only men. When Rivers was offered her own talk show spot competing with The Tonight Show, things got ugly and the two never spoke again. She was looked down upon for being a woman, especially an attractive woman, with power and intelligence.

Debra Gimlin discusses the ideas of women creating an identity for themselves through body work, “…women attempt to renegotiate identity by changing their bodies, their perceptions of their bodies, or both” (7). Joan Rivers had many cosmetic surgeries through out her life, and her jokes followed suit. Her jokes became about her old age, her wrinkles, her flab. If you laugh at yourself first, people can only laugh with you not at you. She wanted to create her own identity, have control over how she was looked at by her audience. Her look of “success” became a middle finger to the men in her life that tried to stop her. She wanted to stay looking like the young woman who went through the blatant misogyny, depression and hardships to get onto that stage. Even though Susan Douglas isn’t exactly stating this the same way I mean it, in her work Narcissism as Liberation this quote holds true for Joan, “The ability to spend time and money on one’s appearance was a sign of personal success and breaking away from the old roles and rules that had held women down in the past” (246). Joan’s plastic surgery was a stab in the back to those who had held her back by keeping her a “young attractive woman” with a slicing tongue and bitter chill when she spoke, you don’t expect a woman that looks like her to have a pottymouth like that.

Her start of Fashion Police is in a sense even a branch off of this, insulting women, the way they dress, the way they look, express themselves, she is saying it before anyone else can, she is making herself an example. She wants to be in control of the situation, talk about it first. She is doing to others what was done to her, she is in a strange way almost making fun of herself vicariously through these celebrities. She is creating an escape, an escape of humor. Douglas says, “I don’t ‘read’ Vogue or Glamour…I enter them. I escape into them, into a world where I have nothing more stressful to do than smooth on some skin cream, polish my toenails and lie on the beach” (251). Joan entered the reality of Vogue and Glamour and commented on it firsthand, knowing the layers behind the polished toenails and expensive creams, she charged at it with her nasty jokes and sharp wit. She saw the true emotional pain and suffering along with the true physical pain and suffering that comes with having issues with your body and how it looks. If we get someone to laugh first, they’ll cry harder later.

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One thought on “Being Looked at Funny

  1. I found this concept of taking control of one’s own appearance interesting, especially considering the fact that we cannot control how others are going to perceive us. Though we may be taking control of our own perceptions, others will continue to judge and ridicule. Your post reminded me of a recent New York Times article on Lena Dunham and her upcoming book Not That Kind of Girl. Lena Dunham is famous for the attitude that you also attribute to Joan Rivers, saying that if you laugh at yourself first, then others cannot laugh at you. In the article, as well as in Dunham’s television series Girls, Dunham says, “Any mean thing someone’s going to think of to say about me I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half-hour”. I think that this quote is two-sided. On one hand, taking ownership of your own body before someone else can is important, especially in a society which treats women as objects, as we recently saw in the film Killing Us Softly 4. However, on the other hand, one must question why it is that women feel the constant need to critique themselves. This premeditated criticism is not healthy, and forces one to consider the societal conditions that forces women of all ages to critique themselves as a sort of barrier from external comments and judgement. This propagates a vicious cycle of self-hatred or personal nihilism. Lena Dunham has proven that she tries not to think or care about what others say. In the article, she admitted to filming her nude scenes from unflattering angles, because that is how her character sees herself. People like Joan Rivers and Lena Dunham, who have pushed the envelope and opened up a new way of talking about people’s bodies, are revolutionary indeed. However, the more pressing issue is maybe not one of accepting the hate, and turning it into humor, but to question why there is hate in the first place.

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