Joan Rivers: Feminist Icon or Pioneering Woman?

They’re not the same. Early this week various feminist news outlets broke the news of Joan Rivers’ death. Many celebrated her life, and the gains she made as a female comedian in a traditionally male dominated field. The comments sections of these articles were … conflicted, to say the least.

I don’t mean to understate Rivers’ accomplishments. Her early stand-up work is funny and self-deprecating, and she did break through the male-dominated lineup. But the Joan Rivers I knew growing up was the Joan Rivers of Fashion Police: cruel and biting. Fashion Police is hardly a feminist project.

Femenist author “bell hooks” defines feminism as a movement to end sexist oppression, and stresses that it’s not enough to simply call oneself  a feminist. There must be action to justify the label. I don’t think Joan Rivers ever called herself a feminist, and to bestow her the title of “feminist icon” upon her death seems wrong.

This isn’t to say Joan Rivers doesn’t deserve to be remembered for her contributions to the field of comedy. She does. It is to say that we should have a higher standard for our ‘feminist icons.’ Being a successful woman does not magically help other women be successful.

There are a lot of comedians right now using feminism to make comedy and the world more equitable. Sasheer Zamata of Saturday Night Live and Sarah Silverman both perform in benefits for abortion access. Amy Poehler runs an empowering site for girls called Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls. Jessica Williams regularly tackles issues of race and gender on The Daily Show. These are comedians who are explicitly and purposely integrating feminism and comedy.

Before someone is designated a feminist icon, there should be some sort of litmus test. How has this person advocated feminism in their life and career? How will designating this person a feminist icon inspire future feminists? When I think of Joan Rivers I think of someone who made a lot of money tearing other women down. Yes, she was successful. Yes, she was a pioneering woman in comedy. But she was not a feminist icon.