Ok, I admit it. I’m developing an unhealthy obsession with Kathy Griffin and Joan Rivers.
I’m blaming it on age. No longer able to be a sweet young thing, I wonder how it might feel to be a tart-tongued, not-so-polite, uppity woman of a certain age.
And God knows, Joan & Kathy have paved the way. Armed with nothing but their acid-dipped tongues, these two have slashed through the male-dominated frontiers of our culture, dropping F-bombs and leaving only scorched earth behind them.
It looks like fun. I want to play. Unfortunately, I can’t stand to hurt anybody’s feelings. So that’s why I love Kathy and Joan — they will do it for me.
But this blog is supposed to be about beauty and style. Well, as luck would have it, Kathy and Joan actually provide a fair amount of beauty-related fodder on which I can chew. I’m not just talking about all the plastic surgeries, but I certainly could start there. They’ve had a lot of procedures. Procedures numbering in the double-digits. Not between them — individually.
Joan even wrote a plastic surgery guidebook for women (Title: Men are Stupid…. and They Like Big Boobs). Kathy has had at least ten procedures — or so she admitted to Oprah — and perhaps more. And although she warns others away from liposuction, from which she had life-threatening complications, everything else seems to be fair game.
Both comedians make no attempt to hide their appearance-based insecurities.
“I have no sex appeal and it has screwed me for life,” said Joan onstage.
“I was a dork with Bozo hair,” wrote Kathy in her autobiography.
Joan said she was so fat, “I was my own buddy at camp.”
Kathy wrote that she was so ugly that the boys barked at her.
It’s not surprising that Kathy and Joan poke fun at their own looks. They are comedians, after all, and the classic stance of the comedian is that of the outsider. Comedians were not the cool kids in high school. Comedians were the misfits, the oddballs, the awkward kids who could never be the cool kids and, therefore, made a niche out of poking fun at the cool kids. But they also have to poke fun at themselves. The comedian’s outsider status is part of the joke. That’s why Joan often talks about being the only Jewish kid in her Catholic neighborhood, and why Kathy told Bonnie Hunt Show viewers, “My whole life is just a middle finger to Oak Park High.”
For a female comedian, personal appearance is a goldmine for self-deprecating, outsider material. A girl’s beauty is one of the very first things for which she is evaluated. From a very young age, her self-esteem is inextricably linked to how the world responds to her looks. It sucks — at least for many of us — but it’s true. The lucky ones learn how to deal with this. The really lucky ones are nurtured and supported so that they develop all their skills, growing into well-rounded young women for whom beauty is no longer the be-all-and-end-all….. even when society tries to tell them that it should be.
But when a female comedian takes the stage, of course her own perceived beauty, or lack thereof, will be a key component of her outsider status. That’s why you’ll see very attractive female comics behaving as though they’re the ugly girls who stayed home on prom night. And when you factor in the live performance aspect of comedy — the fact that female comedians appear on stage and on TV, auditioning for male entertainment executives and audiences alike — of course beauty baggage becomes part of the deal.
Joan was told by an agent that she was too ugly to appear in front of the camera. Kathy was told at a young age that she wasn’t thin enough for TV, and that she’d get more work if she had a different nose.
Watch any of their comedy clips online, and look at the viewer comments that follow. In addition to the usual — the genuine critiques, the breathless fan adoration, the random craziness — you will usually see several references to how attractive or unattractive they are. (Not to mention the occasional post — from a 13-year-old boy, one assumes — indicating whether or not he would “tap that.”)
I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that the male comedians who look a little rough around the edges — the Patton Oswalts, Andy Dicks, Lewis Blacks and Andy Kindlers — don’t get this.
So we get some weirdly conflicted behavior from Kathy and Joan. On the one hand, these two are happy to push any and all boundaries for what constitutes appropriate female behavior. They are ruthlessly ambitious and self-promoting, and they don’t hide it. They love to swear. They are willing to be offensive. Witness Kathy’s famous Emmy speech, featuring the line, “Suck it, Jesus!” Or how about Joan’s appearance at her own roast with a group of small children, of many races, wearing price tags? “Angelina and Brad are having a garage sale,” she crowed, adding “Yuck, I hate children,” as an afterthought.
Even if you’re joking, it takes some serious chutzpah to say that when you’re a woman.
Both ladies have even taken on various taboos of womanhood. In her early stand-up years, Joan endeared herself to female listeners by boldly joking about visits to the gynecologist, stirrups and all. Even abortion wasn’t off-limits in her act. Meanwhile, we will apparently see Kathy’s latest Pap Smear, on camera, during this season of her reality show, My Life on the D-List.
So it just seems a little inconsistent that both Joan and Kathy are attempting to conform — to literally mold themselves into acceptable female forms — via plastic surgery.
I’ve seen footage of both Kathy and Joan, pre-surgery. (Or, at the very least, after only one surgery). They looked perfectly attractive to me. But they are employed by the entertainment industry, where the standards of beauty are not exactly realistic, and where women over 40 tend to disappear entirely. For better or worse, cosmetic surgery may help them to stick around a little longer.
Both women speak convincingly about the pressures they are under. Kathy told Time magazine, “The reason why I got any work done was because I’m on television. I have to. The next time you turn on your TV, think about the fact that 90% of the women have had some form of what I call ‘dental work.'”
Similarly, Joan has often pointed out that looks matter in show business, and everywhere else, and that there’s no point in fighting it. Plus, it’s hard to argue with her when, in her surgery book, she criticizes the arbitrary division of women into one of two categories — smart or beautiful. “I think women shouldn’t settle for less than being both smart and beautiful,” says Joan.
Hey, I get it. I’m writing a beauty blog, after all. As somebody who was also barked at by boys, I can say with some authority that you may learn to joke about it, but you never, ever forget. Maybe my interest in beauty matters stems, in part, from this past. Kathy has said she enjoys her current heavy-makeup look, in part, because she has painful memories of being mistaken for a boy. In any event, like Joan says in her book, when you look better, you feel more confident, and that can help you be more successful.
But still….. I can’t help wishing that these two ladies would fight The Man a little harder on this one.
At times, they do. Kathy recently judged a toddler pageant on her show, tossing off delicious one-liners in the process. She described the girls as “tiny strippers” wearing “whorish makeup.” When her mother questioned the value of a beauty crown for young girls, Kathy deadpanned, “It defines them.”
“The whole point of being a pretty lady is to be seen as a whore-like object,” she said.
“These girls should have a goal. And it’s not to grow up and be loved. It’s to win awards.” Wink.
And, when the winner to the swimsuit competition was named: “As usual, the stripper takes the crown.”
Joan also understands that, when it comes to standards of female beauty, we are all swimming in treacherous seas. Even back in 1967 on the Ed Sullivan show — dressed in her prim bouffant hairdo and cocktail dress — she railed about the double standard. On a date, women have to do the hair, the makeup, the clothes, while men just have to show up and be clean, she pointed out. “A girl, you’re 30 years old, you’re not married, you’re an Old Maid. A man, he’s 90 years old, he’s not married, he’s a catch!”
Yet both Kathy and Joan can shift gears quickly. Joan sees the unfairness of what women face, but that hasn’t stopped her from ruthlessly targeting unattractive women (she calls them “bow wows”) and making fat jokes about Elizabeth Taylor.
Meanwhile, Kathy’s toddler pageant episode ended with her getting spray tanned and appearing on stage in a bikini. It was a joke, of course — she was supposedly living out her lifelong dream to be in a pageant. But I just couldn’t help noticing that her figure looked great. If it didn’t, I’m guessing she wouldn’t have done it.
I suppose some might accuse Bikini Kathy of becoming the very thing that she was criticizing in the episode — but of course that’s the whole point! Her whole show lampoons our culture’s obsession with fame by, well, documenting her own obsession with fame. Her parody of shameless self promotion is itself the vehicle for her own shameless self-promotion. It’s brilliant! And she knows exactly what she is doing.
I think Joan does, too. Even though she, herself, is always impeccably dressed in head-to-toe couture, I can’t help thinking that there was something just a little bit subversive about all those red carpet reports she did, interviewing celebrities and also savaging those who made poor fashion choices. As with My Life on the D-List, you wondered if maybe her ultimate goal was to ridicule the whole scene. So what if she was also trying mightily to be a part of it?
I guess that’s what happens when you choose to swim with the sharks in Hollywood.
But Joan and Kathy soldier on. They have managed to not become invisible as they’ve grown older. Maybe the surgeries are part of that. I’d like to think, though, that part of their longevity is due to their being funny, outrageous, smart as hell, and tremendously hard-working.
They are both probably feeling the pressure, though. In the trailer to Joan’s new movie, “A Piece of Work,” we see her fretting about her empty appointment calendar. She even comments that the good bookings are being taken by a younger performer. Guess who? Kathy Griffin.
And so continues the great circle of life.