Can we talk?
Gay men have always loved our outsized female heroes, and Joan Rivers was right up there with the best of them. It’s no coincidence that a disproportionate number of these divas are Jewish (Rivers, Barbra Streisand) even though many (Judy Garland, Madonna) are not. In fact, gay men love strong women for very Jewish reasons.
First, gay icons (divas, glamour queens) and Jewish women both tend to be strong, outspoken, and assertive – models for drag queens like Bianca Del Rio and RuPaul. Once again, of course, Rivers was among the best. Her humor was almost always blunt, occasionally offensively so. (In a good way – people who get offended by humor are usually taking themselves too seriously.)
This strength of spirit is, itself, a rebuke to patriarchy – or, if that’s too lofty, to macho chauvinist jerks who subjugate women and persecute gays.
But Rivers was not merely a strong person; she was a strong woman. Here, again, gay men cheer on the sidelines as powerful women stand up to institutions of sexism and the individuals who uphold them.
Rivers, like Streisand, broke barriers – ethno-religious ones as well as gendered ones. The night-time talk show circuit was an old boys’ club until River broke that glass ceiling. And while Jews were omnipresent in the television world of the 1950s and 1960s, they often stayed behind the scenes as writers, or closeted their Jewishness, or were limited to comic relief. Rivers was brash, in your face, female but not ‘feminine,’ and also aggressively Jewish.
And, of course, Rivers skewered sexual double-standards in her comedy routines even before feminism itself caught on – as in this famous bit from the Ed Sullivan show in 1967.
Rivers’ critique of sexism extended even to her own body. Like Phyllis Diller (not Jewish, but surely an honorary M.O.T.), Rivers famously derided herself as ugly, as if to say, I am not going to be a pretty girl who makes it on my looks. I’m going to make it on my wits.
Later, as multiple plastic surgeries turned Rivers into, in her words, “a piece of work,” this aspect of her self-presentation grew almost into self-parody. Yet Rivers never claimed she was trying to be beautiful – she said she was trying to be young, and taking control of her body, dammit, no matter what other people thought. Once again, a strong, feminist critique, like Streisand’s un-jobbed nose (the polar opposite of Rivers’ body modifications) or Madonna’s ownership of her own sexualized images.
Once again, the qualities gay men love about women like Joan Rivers are qualities that are also quintessentially Jewish: the outsider position, the standing up from that position to critique the strong, the powerful femininity, the feminism.
And, of course, the suffering. “Life is very tough,” Rivers once said. “And if you can tell a joke to make something easier and funny, do it.” Rivers knew about suffering: the difficulty of making it in the entertainment business as a non-beautiful woman, the suicide of her husband, the ordinary hard knocks that all of us experience. And she turned it, time and again, into material for comedy.
Jewish humor, gay men’s camp humor, Rivers’ distinct brand of humor – all of these take the suffering of the underdog and mine it for jokes. It’s not that suffering is a laughing matter, exactly; it’s that laughter is often the only way not to cry.
Finally, there is a very specific reason why gay men loved Joan Rivers: because Joan Rivers loved gay men.
“My gay fans have been wonderful from day one,” Rivers recently told the gay newspaper The Advocate. “I remember when I was working at the Duplex in Greenwich Village in New York at the beginning of my career and the only ones who would laugh at my jokes were the gay guys… Maybe it’s just me and I know they’re going to laugh at what I’d laugh at, but when my gays are in the audience it’s always a good time.”
Decades before LGBT people were accepted into the mainstream, they were accepted in Rivers’ routines, on her talk shoes, and in her world. Rivers was an early advocate for equality, and a stalwart supporter until the end.
Sure, she wasn’t always politically correct – Rivers not only used the word “tranny,” which many transgender people find offensive, but she used it (in 2014) to describe Michelle Obama, and then doubled down, defending herself with her usual gusto and attacking political correctness itself. Some in the LGBT community grumbled, but many more resonated with her brash feminine bravado.
Interestingly, Rivers’ political advocacy took a sudden Jewish turn earlier this summer, when Rivers defended Israel’s actions in Gaza (at an airport curbside) with as much outrage as when attacking an ugly dress. Rivers made the case more effectively than anyone on Fox News, and American Jews cheered – just as gay people had cheered when she attacked homophobia before the word existed.
Joan Rivers was a gay icon for the same reasons she was a Jewish female icon. For fifty years, she spoke truth to power, and managed to end with a punchline. Thank you, Joan Rivers. Rest in Chutzpah.