In Memory of a True Barnard Woman

by Laura K. Garrison

RIP Joan Rivers, an inspiration to women in comedy.

On September 4, 2014, the world lost a star. More specifically, the Barnard community lost one of its
great alumnae, comedienne, actress, and all-around pop culture icon Joan Rivers (BC ’54). In memory of her passing, Barnard tweeted, “Rest in peace Joan Rivers ’54, a true Barnard woman.” I, and over one hundred other Twitter users, have retweeted this message. And while I’ve always taken a special pride in attending the same institution as Joan Rivers, it’s only now that I’ve truly grasped how much she encompasses what a Barnard woman should be.

Whether you loved or hated her (and there are plenty of reasons to do both), Joan Rivers was a pioneer for women in comedy, on television, and in Hollywood. She was the first female comedian to host a late night show (and now that Chelsea Handler has left Chelsea Lately, there’s still a female vacuum in late night television). She often filled in for the one and only Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Always brash, never apologetic, and happiest in controversy, Joan Rivers was a force to be reckoned with. Some of her jokes may have fallen flat, but she never let that stop her from getting back up on stage or in front of the camera. We should all be so bold, even if her biting wit was not our forte. She was always unapologetically Joan Rivers, and if you couldn’t handle her, that was your problem.
I can appreciate why some may not be a fan of Rivers’ style. Comedy is perhaps the most polarizing form of entertainment; what may cause one person to fall out of their chair laughing hysterically may be distasteful to another. But the opinions of some should never negate the comedy of others. There’s no doubt that Joan Rivers was often offensive, and she took shots at everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion. The beauty of comedy, however, is the principle that one must never take it seriously. A comedian is, quite literally, joking. And as a woman who got her start on television in the era in which Mad Men is set, Joan Rivers was very aware of the struggles of women to not only get ahead in Hollywood, but in society as a whole. While some women might protest in other more conventional ways, Joan Rivers found her strength in comedy. She coped with her position by making fun of it, and dealt with her personal pain (of which there was much) by laughing through it.

At the very least, I think we all have to appreciate and respect her tenacity to never stop working in an industry that very often holds women to an expiration date. Comedy has never been an easy path for women in entertainment to pursue, much less maintain a career spanning over 50 years as Rivers did, when the prevailing notion is “women aren’t funny.” Joan Rivers never let this sort of mindset stop her from pursuing her career, and she never apologized for stepping on more than a few toes.

In many ways, Joan Rivers was the antithesis of what we believe a “good” woman should be. She was catty and superficial, spending her time talking smack about celebrities, fashion, and popular culture. As a comedian, you can’t take Joan Rivers at face value, nor can you possibly believe that she truly meant any of her offensive humor. One must place her often cringe-worthy jokes in the context of broader society and realize that she is parodying the very attitudes she seems to embody. If this translation is lost, that’s not on Joan.

Of course, you don’t have to like Joan Rivers. I’ve made it clear that comedy, like any other form of art, is very subjective to the tastes of the viewer. I find it dangerous, however, when we try to silence her, and other comedians, for the sake of political correctness. Though we may not traditionally consider comedy to be a form of creative expression, there’s no doubt that it is. And if we try to silence the individuals who challenge societal norms through use of comedy, we have effectively engaged in creative censorship. While some may be unable to comprehend Rivers’ comedy on a deeper level, we cannot possibly expect artists, including comedians, to dumb down their message to the lowest common denominator.

I’ll never forget the first time I learned Joan Rivers had attended Barnard College. As a senior in high school, I was on a tour of Barnard and was perusing the brochures in the visitor’s center. At the top of a list of famous Barnard alumnae was Joan Rivers. I teasingly asked my mother, “Would you advertise that Joan Rivers had graduated from your school?” In reality, there’s no doubt in my mind that I would. Between her outspoken, fearless, and frankly badass attitude and her determination to work and succeed despite the obstacles before her, Joan Rivers was a strong, talented Barnard woman, through and through.

Laura K. Garrison is a senior at Barnard and Senior Editor of The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Image courtesy of Vogue.

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