(Dis)respecting The Dead

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joan_riversWhen comedy legend Joan Rivers passed yesterday afternoon after being removed from life support, people from all over mourned her passing in the form of tweets, Instagram messages, and Facebook posts. It’s a normal reaction to mourn such a prominent pop culture icon who has doubtlessly touched many, many people with her work. And what complicated work it was. A woman known for her caustic wit, Rivers enjoyed a position most female comedians could only dream of. But instead of challenging the status quo, she kinda sorta . . . reinforced it.

When famous people die, we like to remember all the good things. All the kind things. All the folksy interviews. All the photo opps with sick children and puppies. But humans are complex, multilayered beings. Even Joan Rivers. And while it is perfectly fine to mourn the loss of such laudable talent, it’s also totally okay to examine how that laudable talent contributed to so many awful things. Like this, for example:

Joan Rivers has been recorded making a slew of racial and homophobic slurs while expressing her disappointment in the controversy over Alec Baldwin’s alleged use of anti-gay language against a reporter.

The 80-year-old uttered highly offensive terms including “n*****”, “c**nk” and “fairy” as she argued to TMZ that people are being oversensitive about the incident during the trial of Baldwin’s stalker, which ultimately resulted in his MSNBC talk show being canceled.

And, this:
On this occasion, Rivers weighed in on a photograph of the 20-year-old Bieber wearing an Alexander McQueen sweater and baggy black leather pants (with matching leather skirt), black hat, oversized gold chain and gleaming white shoes for a trip, apparently, to the supermarket.

Said Rivers: “That little [expletive] just gets on my nerves.” Rivers then turned toward the camera and, presumably addressing Bieber himself, threw in, “You are not a big black thug, you are just like your shoes – ordinary and completely white.”

And, don’t forget her views on Palestinians:

“Good. Good. When you declare war, you declare war. They started it. We now don’t count who’s dead. You’re dead, you deserve to be dead. Don’t you dare make me feel bad about that.”

“They were told to get out. They didn’t get out. You don’t get out, you are an idiot. At least the ones that were killed were the ones with low IQs.”

. . . yeah.

Look, I’m sure the late Ms. Rivers was a delight to be around one on one. I’m sure she was a loving mother, grandmother, and friend. I’m sure that, if she’d seen me naked on the street, she’d wrap me in her mink and serve me bourbon-spiked tea before handing me over to the authorities for resembling the maid who stole her silverware in 1972. But her public persona is the side of her that the rest of us will remember, and–I gotta say–it was a pretty lousy one. She used her public platform to hurt people, some of whom were already  damaged. She may have helped and inspired many people behind the scenes, but she definitely spent a considerable amount of airtime committing obscene amounts of Kung Fu Treachery. She specialized in the type of humor that punched down, not up. Snarking on poorly dressed starlets walking down the red carpet is one thing; calling for the mass genocide of a disenfranchised group is quite another.

Nonetheless, these bits are part of her legacy, the good and the bad. And it is, again, perfectly fine to remember all of the things she was, in context. Glossing over them serves little justice to her, or the people she insulted and belittled in the span of her 50-year career. Those wounds won’t magically heal because she’s gone. If Joan Rivers barely respected the humanity of others when she was alive, you can’t blame people for having difficulty respecting hers in death.

Rest in peace, Joan.

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