Conventional wisdom says that as women in our society age, they disappear from the public sphere and effectively become invisible. As comediennes age, however, they gain, as Kathleen Rowe Karlyn says, “not only the perspective to laugh but also the freedom to do so,” and in this laughter is the potential for transgressive cultural criticism. This paper examines this dynamic in the careers of Joan Rivers and Betty White. Both comediennes had exceptionally long careers, and both changed their comic personae as they aged. Rivers, whose early comedy was self-deprecating, turned her anger outward in later years, challenging societal expectations about women's comedy. White's later comedy has frequently parodied the innocent, domestic characters she played in her youth while asking audiences to accept older women as sexual beings. Both women use their outsider status to challenge what it means to be an older woman.
In April 1986, Joan Rivers made a guest appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (NBC, 1962–92) to promote her new book, Enter Talking, an autobiographical account of her early years in show business (video clip 1). Decked out in the same dress, jewelry, and hairstyle that she had worn in her first Tonight Show appearance twenty-one years earlier, Rivers provided the audience with a glimpse of both the past and the future of her comedy. She continued to make self-deprecating jokes about her appearance, which had formed the basis of much of her early comedy, but by this time much of the fifty-two-year-old's routine revolved around the flaws and failures of her aging body—at one point she jokes that “when the body is falling and you're wearing a bikini, you go wading and the top gets wet first.” Also in this clip is evidence of what would become the core of Rivers's later comedy: caustic barbs aimed at celebrities. In this ten-minute interview alone she took aim at Liberace, Christie Brinkley, Audrey Hepburn, Sarah Ferguson, Madonna, and the Queen of England. It's telling that this shift in Rivers's focus, from comedy directed inward to comedy directed outward, occurred as she reached middle age: she started telling these types of jokes when she was in her forties, and they became an integral part of her routines by the time she reached fifty. The key to understanding this shift lies in a line she repeats throughout this interview, like a mantra: “With age comes wisdom.” Although it comes across as a throwaway laugh line, Rivers's declaration begs some questions. Exactly what wisdom comes with age? And how does this “wisdom” inform the work of aging comediennes?
These questions can be addressed through the careers of two comediennes who, at a glance, couldn't appear more different: Joan Rivers and Betty White (fig. 1). Rivers was often described as “acerbic,” “mean-spirited,” and “crude,” while White has most commonly been referred to as “wholesome.” Rivers's performance style was manic, defined by rapid-fire delivery and marked with sharp (and sometimes obscene) gestures; White is soft-spoken, punctuating her lines with sweet smiles and “dimples as deep as the Grand Canyon.”1 Rivers was a polarizing figure; White is America's beloved grandmother.
And yet the two share a surprising number of similarities. Both are considered pioneers in their respective fields: White made her first television appearance in 1939, and Rivers was one of the very few women performing stand-up professionally in the 1950s.2 Both are self-described workaholics who spent many years carefully honing their comic delivery and public personae, and who were known for keeping extremely packed schedules. Both were widowed within a few years of each other, and their newly single status at midlife impacted their later comedy. Both have had exceptionally long careers: Rivers worked up until her death in 2014 at age eighty-one, and White continues to work in her mid-nineties. And both Rivers and White changed their images and their modes of performance in significant ways as they aged, using comedy as well as their position as elderly women to disregard social norms, straddle cultural categories, and deflate power structures. While aging can be limiting in our society, especially for women, who are often rendered invisible as they get older, Rivers and White have remained highly visible, making use of the wisdom that comes with age to enjoy, as Kathleen Rowe Karlyn puts it, “not only the perspective to laugh but also the freedom to do so.”3
Of course, Rivers and White weren't the first women to perform comedy, nor are they the only comediennes with long careers. Female comics were a staple of theater and film in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the introduction of radio, and later television, brought even more opportunities for women performing comedy. White was just one of many very talented comediennes, including Lucille Ball, Gracie Allen, Eve Arden, and Gertrude Berg, who appeared on television in the 1950s. While there were relatively few women performing stand-up when Rivers began working in the late 1950s, she was hardly the first—Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Jean Carroll, Phyllis Diller, Pearl Williams, and Belle Barth were just a few of the comediennes performing in nightclubs and cabarets in the 1950s and before.
But while Rivers and White had plenty of comedic company, they differed from their predecessors and contemporaries in significant ways. Unlike Lucille Ball, Gracie Allen, Eve Arden, Gertrude Berg, and other television comediennes who began their careers in radio, film, or vaudeville and were established stars before moving to television, White was a relative neophyte, having done only a few commercials and bit parts on the radio before making her television debut as cohost of the daily live variety show Hollywood on Television (KLAC, 1949–53) (fig. 2).4 At its peak Hollywood on Television was on the air for five and a half hours a day, six days a week. White essentially played a sanitized version of herself on the show, a charming girl next door who sang sweetly, smiled broadly, and loved children and animals, and her direct address to the camera and conversational tone furthered her image as friendly, approachable, and relatable. As I will discuss below, this persona, forged through years of ad-libbing her way through her live, unscripted show, would inform characters she would play for the rest of her career, in both scripted and unscripted formats.
Rivers, too, differed from many other stand-up comediennes in the 1950s and 1960s. Female comics such as Diller and Mabley wore unflattering, over-the-top costumes in order to downplay their attractiveness and render themselves unthreatening to male spectators. As Rivers said, “audiences knew instantly they were funny because they looked funny.”5 Rivers, however, performed in stylish dresses with her hair and makeup tastefully done, challenging the notion that funny women couldn't be attractive, and attractive women couldn't be funny (fig. 3).
She further differentiated herself from her contemporaries by eschewing rapid-fire one-liners and a setup-payoff structure. Rivers was heavily influenced by Lenny Bruce, whose comedy was conversational, personal, and confrontational:
I was talking about things that were really true. I was talking about having an affair with a married professor and that wasn't a thing a nice Jewish girl talked about. And I was talking about my mother, desperate to get my sister and me married… . It sounds so tame and silly now but my act spoke to women who weren't able to talk about things. How nice it was to have a girl that's fairly attractive stand up and say, “My mother wants me to get married but I don't want to,” or “I hated this date.” And when I heard Lenny Bruce I suddenly realized, I'm absolutely on the right track here. I had seen Lenny Bruce very early on when I was on a date. He just was talking about the truth: he wasn't doing mother-in-law jokes because he didn't have a mother-in-law. He was talking from his life experiences. I thought to myself, “My god, he's doing what I'm doing.”6
Rivers, along with a group of young comedians that included Woody Allen and Bill Cosby, embraced this confessional mode of comedy at a time when it seemed remarkably frank and modern compared to the fast-paced setup-and-punch-line style favored by Bob Hope and Jack Benny.
Rivers and White were also not the only comediennes to have long, successful careers. Phyllis Diller performed stand-up for close to fifty years, and Moms Mabley performed from the 1910s until her death in 1975 at the age of eighty-one.7 Sophie Tucker, Mae West, Lucille Ball, Bea Arthur, and numerous other comediennes had careers that spanned multiple decades and performed well into their later years. Although it can be incredibly difficult for aging women to find work in film or television, there are certainly many examples of comediennes who have continued to work as they age, partly because, as I'll discuss below, comediennes, especially those working on stage, are not always held to the same beauty imperatives as other actresses.
What sets Rivers and White apart, then, is not the fact that they were comedy pioneers, or the fact that they had remarkably long careers. Instead, what distinguishes them from other comediennes is the way they adapted their comic performances and personae as they aged, and the seeming freedom they found in old age. Most of the comediennes mentioned here—Diller, Mabley, Ball, West, Arthur, Tucker—maintained fairly consistent characters and modes of performance over the years. Diller continued to wear fright wigs and short, boxy dresses throughout her career, and consistently told rapid-fire self-deprecating one-liners. Ball, Mabley, Arthur, West, Carol Burnett, and others may have changed their jokes as they grew older, but they never really changed the substance of their routines or personae to account for their advancing age. The same is true of more recent comediennes such as Wanda Sykes, Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone, Roseanne Barr, and Kathy Griffin, who have maintained relatively consistent performance styles into middle age. A notable exception is Margaret Cho, whose comedy in her early stand-up routines and on her sitcom All-American Girl (ABC, 1994–95) consisted largely of mildly self-deprecating jokes about her ethnicity, her dating life, and her family. Following the cancellation of her sitcom and her subsequent battles with alcohol and drugs, Cho's more recent performances have been much more personal and candid, showcasing her anger and bitterness over her treatment in Hollywood, and frankly discussing her sexuality and her struggles with addiction and body image. Cho, like Rivers and White, has reinvented herself, transforming from the cutely sexy twenty-something talking about celebrities, diet, and boyfriends to a middle-aged woman sharing her frank and often uncomfortable experiences with sex, race, addiction, and other highly personal topics.
AGE AND (IN)VISIBILITY
A number of theorists have argued that older women tend to be overlooked or ignored in our society. As the feminist artist Martha Wilson puts it: “As you become an older woman in society, you become invisible… . They look right through you and don't see you anymore.”8 Women over the age of thirty-five are notoriously scarce in film and television. A 1997 study that examined films from the 1940s through the 1980s found that only 19 percent of movie characters over the age of thirty-five are women. These findings were echoed by a recent USC Annenberg study showing that in all major studio releases in 2014, just 35 percent of all characters were over the age of forty, and only 21 percent of those were women, evidence that Hollywood's obsession with youth disproportionately affects older women.9 Furthermore, studies have shown that social research that informs public policy tends to focus on women under the age of fifty.10 These studies, which overwhelmingly focus on women in the childbearing range of fifteen to forty-nine, shape policies on issues from health care to domestic violence without examining the needs of women over fifty, who make up nearly a quarter of the global population. In the worlds of entertainment and public policy, then, women are largely ignored or rendered irrelevant as they age.
This issue can be complex for aging actresses. As Kathleen Woodward puts it, “In our mass-mediated society, age and gender structure each other in a complex set of reverberating feedback loops, conspiring to render the older female body paradoxically both hypervisible and invisible. It would seem that the wish of our visual culture is to erase the older female body from view. The logic of the disappearing female body would seem to be this: first we see it, then we don't.”11 This paradox of simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility is especially pronounced in Hollywood, where success is often linked to beauty and beauty is equated with youth. Actresses are expected to conform to mainstream beauty standards for as long as they possibly can, and they are often harshly criticized in the tabloids and social media when telltale signs of aging such as gray hair, wrinkles, or cellulite are spotted.
The proscription here isn't against aging, necessarily, but rather against the appearance of aging. According to Lois Banner, “Appearance, more than any other factor, has occasioned the objectification of aging. We define someone as old because he or she looks old. Initially we overlook the subjectivity of their own reality. It is in this context that aging women especially become doubly ‘the other.’ Trivialized because they are not young, they are also derided because they stand outside of standard conventions of beauty.”12 As long as an actress looks properly feminine (beautiful, young), she retains at least some of the visibility afforded her younger counterparts, although even the most beautiful and accomplished older actresses have difficulty finding work, and often find themselves relegated to supporting roles as one-dimensional mothers or heartless shrews. Or, as Meryl Streep put it, “You could work up to 40 and then you'd start playing hags and witches.”13 These roles, like older women more generally in American society, are nonthreatening: harmless and powerless. As smaller supporting roles, they reflect the decreased visibility that aging women experience in public life, and they are typically the types of characters who hold very little power or authority, either narratively or socially. Even the bold and assertive witches and shrews generally get their comeuppance by the end of the film, or their threat is neutralized by the audience's derisive laughter.
This dynamic, however, is complicated when the older women are telling jokes, an activity that's inherently disruptive and often transgressive. This is true even of the self-deprecating jokes of Joan Rivers's early years, or the sometimes bland and middlebrow humor found on White's sitcoms, because comedy is assertive and even aggressive in a way that other forms and genres are not, and performing comedy has traditionally been considered antithetical to traditional femininity.14 Whether attacking social structures or performing pratfalls, comedians put themselves on display and demand viewers' attention. But unlike Hollywood actresses who are typically put on display as sexualized objects, female comics are often exempt from mainstream beauty standards, due to long-standing stereotypes that hold that women can be pretty or funny, but seldom both.15
This pretty/funny dichotomy can be both limiting and liberating for comediennes. Limiting, because comediennes have long been expected to make their physical shortcomings central to their acts, and the cumulative effect of this is to reinforce the idea that only women who are not “properly” feminine can be funny. This dynamic can be seen in the work of comics such as Rivers, Diller, Mabley, Barr, and Totie Fields, who made a point of emphasizing, through costume and makeup as well as through their jokes, all the ways in which they didn't measure up to mainstream standards of beauty and femininity. And yet this pretty/funny binary can be liberating for comediennes as well, because, as Linda Mizejewski argues, it “enable[s] them to engage in a transgressive comedy grounded in the female body—its looks, its race and sexuality, and its relationships to ideal versions of femininity. In this strand of comedy, ‘pretty’ is the topic and target, the ideal that is exposed as funny.”16 For comediennes, visibility is complex terrain. As performing women they are on display, but in a way that's qualitatively different from actresses whose visibility is predicated on their youth and beauty. And while they are, on one level, challenging patriarchal notions of youth, beauty, and femininity, on another level they're often confirming these notions by making the implicit—and sometimes explicit—assertion that nonnormative femininity is laughable.
Older comediennes like Joan Rivers and Betty White are simultaneously invisible as aging women, and hypervisible as comics and celebrities. In this way they are positioned between categories of powerful versus powerless and visible versus invisible, and they use this liminal position, what Henry Jenkins describes as the comic performer's “freedom that comes from straddling cultural categories,” to critique and disrupt social structures.17 Rather than fading into the background, aging comediennes demand to be seen. In fact, the anthropologist Mahadev Apte has found that in most societies, older women have more freedom than younger women to participate in humor: “As their sexual freedom ceases to be a threat to the social order, they are allowed to engage publicly in humor that may be considered ribald or even obscene.”18 This is, of course, a double-edged sword: women are able to participate in humor, but only because the threat posed by their sexuality has been neutralized by their age. Still, both Rivers and White understood this key bit of wisdom: in order to maintain their careers over several decades, they needed to demand visibility on their own terms.
Rivers navigated these contradictions by putting both her age and her gender front and center in her act. This can be seen in the opening images of the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which features a series of extreme close-ups of her face, scrubbed free of makeup. As foundation is applied, still in close-up, to her forehead, cheeks, and chin, brief clips from her career are superimposed over her image—Johnny Carson telling Joan in 1965, “You know, you're gonna be a big star”; Rivers on the red carpet, accepting an Emmy, telling jokes onstage. These clips fade away and the screen fills with Rivers's face, now fully made up, gazing directly into the camera (video clip 2). This introduction invites viewers to reflect on her extraordinary career; but more than that, it forces us to look beyond her public facade and consider the seventy-five-year-old woman who plays the character we know as “Joan Rivers.” Her makeup becomes a mask that distances Joan Rivers, an elderly woman with wrinkles, age spots, and uneven skin tone, from the world.
In her act, too, Rivers directed her audience's attention to her age and gender by packing her routines with candid jokes about her experiences as a woman and as an aging woman. For example: “Don't tell your kids you had an easy birth or they won't respect you. For years I used to wake up my daughter and say, ‘Melissa, you ripped me to shreds. Now go back to sleep’”; or, “Vaginas drop—I did not know this. Six years ago I woke up and said why am I wearing a bunny slipper and why is it gray?”; or, “My vagina farts are so loud, my gynecologist wears earplugs.” These are not garden-variety self-deprecating jokes, like the ones found in her early routines, which often focused on her weight, the size of her breasts, and her skinny legs. Unlike lines about these and other visible features, these later jokes draw attention to body parts and bodily processes that are typically invisible. Like the image of Rivers's bare face, these jokes strip away the glamour and mystery of performed femininity and make defiantly visible what is usually hidden, the lived reality of the female body. Furthermore, as Roberta Mock points out, “If Rivers' stand-up can now be considered a resistant practice, it is to a large extent because her body now generates meaning differently.”19 Rather than shying away from this fact, Rivers embraced it and made it a central element in her comedy. As an older woman, she used her outsider position to “lay bare the device” of femininity, forcing her audiences to see the reality beneath the artifice.
White, too, uses humor to remain visible as she ages. In recent years her public persona in films, television, and interviews has been a lovable old lady who is at heart a foul-mouthed and man-hungry diva. This character can be seen in the film Lake Placid (1999), when White's Mrs. Bickerman calls the local Sheriff “officer fuck-meat,” and tells him, “If I had a dick, this is where I'd tell you to suck it!” The success of this film led to a recurring role on the television series The Practice (ABC, 1997–2004) and its spin-off series Boston Legal (ABC, 2004–8) as Catherine Piper, a secretary in the show's law firm who is, at once, a sweet grandmotherly type and an unbalanced criminal. In one episode Catherine passes out cookies to the firm's lawyers during a meeting, announcing that “nourishment is most important in the morning,” and then snarkily telling a young female lawyer, “Take two, Tara, you're a rail.”20 In other appearances on the series, Catherine commits armed robbery and kills a man by hitting him on the head with a frying pan.21 Even when appearing on talk shows, interviews, or awards shows, White often plays a fictionalized version of herself inspired by these roles. In a Funny or Die video purporting to show behind-the-scenes footage from The Proposal (2009), White tells costar Ryan Reynolds to fetch her some coffee, and when he balks she lets him know that “when Betty White says she wants a cup of coffee, you get her a [bleeping] cup of coffee, you ab-crunching jackass.”22 In a 2015 appearance on The Late Late Show with James Corden (CBS, 2015–ongoing), guest Kyle MacLachlan relates an incident when he had to ad-lib song lyrics, mentioning that “for some reason I felt William Shatner come over me,” to which White immediately responds, “Oh, I wish I could say the same!”23 And when accepting the 2009 Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild, White says of presenter Sandra Bullock, “Isn't it heartening to see how far a girl as plain as she is can go?” and later marvels that “I look out at this audience and see so many famous faces. But what really boggles the mind is that I actually know many of you, and I've worked with quite a few, maybe had a couple. And you know who you are.”
When White jokes about sex, she's also forcing audiences to consider her aging body as a sexual body, a prospect that might be unsettling to some. It's not a coincidence that women become increasingly excluded from the public imagination, whether in the media or in public policy, around the time they hit menopause. While younger women are overwhelmingly objectified and sexualized in the media, older women are largely presented as asexual, as if women's sexual desire ends when their ability to have children does. In joking about various fantasies and affairs, White is both pointing out that older women can have sexual appetites and maintaining her persona. As she says, “it's great to have an ongoing fantasy person in your life, and it's especially handy when responding to silly questions on talk shows.”24 But more than that, she is mining comedy from the apparent incongruity of older women who are also sexual, and especially from the audience's discomfort at the thought of aging bodies doing more than knitting and baking cookies for their grandchildren.
There is, of course, a certain preciousness in the public's embrace of White's character—watching Betty White curse and lust after men is tantamount to dressing your baby as Walter White for Halloween, equal parts adorable and utterly inappropriate. Although White has expressed some reservations about some of the saltier language in her scripts, she's a shrewd entertainer who's been in show business for more than seventy-five years, and certainly appreciates that this character has caused her popularity to skyrocket recently, especially among younger audiences.25 She isn't just in on the joke, she is driving the joke. Although White largely performs characters and routines written by others, as opposed to Rivers, who wrote almost all of her own material, it would be a mistake to assume that White isn't a coauthor of her characters and performances, or that Rivers's performances were somehow more authentic than White's.
White's wholesome persona was originally formed through her largely unscripted performance on live television in the 1950s. This persona would then go on to shape the characters she played on her early sitcoms, and it was a desire to push back against this wholesome character that led to the creation of Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970–77), which in turn has served as the basis of many of her roles since. In their performances, both scripted and unscripted, Rivers and White are playing characters that have taken shape over many years, and they are perpetuating these characters through their performances as well as through their writing.26 When Rivers performed stand-up she was playing a character just as much as White is playing a character on her sitcoms; both characters—“Joan Rivers” and “Betty White”—are further reinforced through interviews and talk shows, reality show stints, guest appearances on scripted series, and live performances. So while Rivers was certainly more directly responsible for what her comic persona said and did, White is also complicit in creating and maintaining her character, despite the fact that she doesn't always write her own dialogue. And while White's boundary pushing may seem mild compared to Rivers's, her ubiquity has meant not just visibility but hypervisibility for White as well as for the nonconforming older woman that she plays.
TRANSFORMATION AND REINVENTION
Over the years, both White and Rivers made substantial changes to their acts and personae. Some of this, of course, can be attributed to shifting mores and relaxing censorship, as well as differences in audience expectations across time and venues. Rivers simply wouldn't have been able to talk about her vagina on 1960s television, and when she did make jokes about taboo subjects, such as abortion, she would use coded language. Rivers pointed out that in her early career, “I couldn't even say the word ‘abortion.’ I had to say she had fourteen appendectomies,” but decades later she could openly joke about the topic on the air: “My parents just didn't like me. You know, until I was nine years old, my mother was trying to get an abortion, and that sticks with you. That hurts. What she'd say to the doctor: Is there any way possible to get rid of this thing?”27 White similarly pointed out that in the 1950s and 1960s comics had to carefully self-censor, especially on live television: “If a person happened to have a bawdy sense of humor, a person had to keep a death grip on a person's aforementioned mental editor.”28
Some of the variations in their performances can be attributed to when, where, and for whom they were performing. Both comediennes performed in every conceivable medium, including scripted movies and television, daytime and late-night talk shows, reality television, game shows, commercials, and live theater. The content of their performances would vary somewhat depending on the venue, as would audience expectations. White was certainly more bawdy on Saturday Night Live (NBC, 1975–ongoing) than in the made-for-TV movie Stealing Christmas (2003), and Rivers had much more latitude to say what she wanted in her stand-up act than on a network sitcom. Some of the changes in their acts, however, were attributable to their advancing age. Victoria Bazin and Rosie White have argued that “age seems to be the last difference, the unspoken but inevitable site of a difference not only between subjects but also a difference within subjects as they are exiled from their younger selves.”29 This difference within subjects is simultaneously erased and highlighted for celebrities, as images of their younger selves circulate endlessly online and in television reruns. So while older celebrities may feel “exiled from their younger selves,” the ubiquitousness of TV Land reruns and YouTube clips means that they must coexist and constantly engage with younger iterations of themselves.
Rivers and White made no attempt to erase this difference between younger and older selves. On the contrary, they took advantage of this separation between their younger and older selves, using it to reinvent themselves in a way that ensured that they would remain relevant and appealing to younger audiences. For Rivers, this meant shifting the focus of her comedy outward. Rivers's early material is full of self-deprecatory jokes about her inadequate body, her lack of sex appeal, or her inability to land a husband. An example of this can be found in a routine she performed on The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS, 1948–71) in 1967:
I'm from a little town called Larchmont where if you're not married, if you're a girl, and you're over twenty-one, you're better off dead. It's that simple, you know? And I was the last girl in Larchmont! You know how that feels? Sitting around my mother's house, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-four… . Having a good time! Living, eating candy bars, enjoying myself. But single! And the neighbors would come over and say to my mother, “How's Joan? Still not married? Ha ha ha!” And my mother would say, “If she were alive!” You know how that hurts? When you're sitting right there? When I was twenty-one my mother said, “Only a doctor for you.” When I was twenty-two she said, “All right, a lawyer, CPA.” Twenty-four, she said, “We'll grab a dentist.” Twenty-six she said, “Anything!” If he could make it to the door he was mine, you know? “What do you mean you don't like him? He's intelligent, he found the bell himself, what do you want?” Anybody who came to my house was it. “Oh, Joan, there's the most attractive young man down here with a mask and a gun!” Anything that showed up!30
In a 1972 Tonight Show interview Rivers similarly turned her barbs inward, using caustic one-liners that would characterize her later routines, such as, “I was very dumb [as a child]… . I used to sit in the sandbox and wait for high tide,” and “In college I wasn't even smart… . I once stayed up all night studying for a blood test.” When joking about other people in her life she was careful to make herself the butt of the joke, as she explained to the CBC's Peter Gzowski in 1978:
I am always the fool. Not Edgar. On my wedding night he wanted to make love with the lights on and I said to him, “You shut that car door.” I am always the idiot, never Edgar. “If you don't the bus driver will” is the end of that joke. Never Edgar. If I married an idiot I'd be an idiot. I am always the idiot. Nobody listens.31
When Rivers joked about other people early in her career they were often fictional or at least fictionalized characters, such as her trampy friend Heidi Abromowitz (“Things have not been good for Heidi. I said ‘What are you up to?’ and she said ‘fifty bucks’”) or her gay hairdresser, Mr. Phyllis (“His mother wanted a girl, you know. And got her. In spades”).
But by the 1980s, when Rivers was in her fifties, her act largely consisted of derisive jokes about real celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor (“Elizabeth Taylor is so fat, she puts mayonnaise on aspirin”), Christie Brinkley (“She's the living testament that peroxide causes brain damage”), and Cindy Crawford (“You want to get Cindy Crawford confused? Ask her to spell mom backwards”). Rivers has said that her comedy—indeed, all comedy—is based in anger:
The conventional diagnosis of comics holds that they are hypersensitive, angry, paranoid people who feel somehow cheated of life's goodies and are laughing to keep from crying. I agree, but think comedy is more aggressive than that. It is a medium for revenge. We can deflate and punish the pomposity and the rejection which hurt us. Comedy is power. We can be in control, can get the love and admiration and attention we bottomlessly crave—and get it from two directions. People want to be around somebody who entertains them—but simultaneously they fear us. The only weapon more formidable than humor is a gun.32
In shifting from comedy directed at herself to comedy directed at others, she was focusing her anger on a society that increasingly rendered her obsolete and invisible as she aged, and allowing her audiences to vicariously do the same. Philip Auslander argues that “Rivers's notoriety derives in large part from material in which she ridicules other women celebrities for not meeting the patriarchal standards of beauty and decorum her own persona also does not meet.”33 But I would argue that Rivers perceived her own “beauty and decorum” differently from that of other celebrities, that she positioned herself as an outsider who was not expected or even able to live by their higher standards. The fact that her barbs were aimed at celebrities rather than non-celebrities was intentional. As she frequently insisted, “I do not pick on someone who can't defend himself. That's mean-spiritedness.”34 Her celebrity jokes, of course, played into the public's appetite for seeing their celebrity idols humbled, a desire that fuels both celebrity roasts and TMZ. Rivers capitalized on her status as an outsider—as an older woman and as a comedienne—and placed herself firmly on the side of the audience rather than the celebrities. By specifically targeting subjects who were rich, powerful, beautiful, and famous, she undermined the perceived importance of people who seem to have been handed advantages—such as wealth and beauty—that people like Rivers had to work for.
Indeed, Rivers openly spoke (and joked) about the fact that in her later years she spent a great deal of effort to alter her appearance to conform to mainstream beauty standards. In her 2009 book Men Are Stupid … And They Like Big Boobs, Rivers candidly discusses her own experiences with plastic surgery, while also giving practical information about everything from nose jobs to vaginal rejuvenation. In her book, as well as in interviews and her stand-up routines, she criticizes celebrities who deny that they've had work done, despite all evidence to the contrary: “It truly annoys me when celebrities, models, and movie stars take advantage of what's available, and then deny having done it, as if it's their great shame to have been born with flaws. As if only ‘natural’ beauty is valid.”35 Rivers's frankness about her extensive history with plastic surgery opened her up to criticism and ridicule from audiences, the press, and other comedians. She didn't shy away from these criticisms, instead making jokes about her surgeries (“I've had so much plastic surgery, when I die they'll donate my body to Tupperware”), and describing herself as “the public (lifted) face of cosmetic enhancement since the Stone Age.”36 Her candid jokes about the various procedures she had, including face-lifts, liposuction, Botox, and a breast reduction, drew attention to the physicality of her aging body and spoke to both a fear of dying and a fear of living into old age. The indignities of old age, the wrinkles, graying hair, and drooping breasts serve as a constant reminder of our approaching mortality. Rivers's jokes, as well as her cosmetic surgeries, indicated a refusal on her part to “age gracefully” or to sit quietly and wait for death. The fact that she died from complications related to a cosmetic procedure is both tragic and somehow fitting in this context.
Her physical reinvention largely coincided with the outward shift in her comedy; she started having work done regularly in her forties, around the time caustic jokes about celebrities starting working their way into her act. By the time she was in her fifties her public persona was defined by plastic surgery and abrasive humor, both of which were derived from anger. Rivers spoke bluntly about the repressive beauty standards that lead women to plastic surgery: “In our society, looks matter more than anyone would like to believe, and it's senseless to go through life angry about it when you can just embrace it… . You can get mad about society's demands, you can say, ‘I'm proud of the way God made me,’ or you can get beautiful.”37 Rivers's jabs at young, rich, beautiful celebrities, her jokes about a celebrity's weight gain or criticisms about their red-carpet looks on Fashion Police (E!, 2010–ongoing), revealed an anger about privileged people who feel they can opt out of societal standards that Rivers tried desperately, and by her own estimation failed, to achieve.
Like Rivers, White also changed her act as she aged, increasingly playing characters who mocked the sugary-sweet persona upon which she built her early career. Indeed, her persona now is an amalgamation of several characters she's played over the years.38 On Life with Elizabeth (syndicated, 1953–55) and A Date With the Angels (ABC, 1957–58), as well as on the various talk shows and variety shows she hosted throughout the 1950s, White played a string of blandly wholesome characters—so wholesome, in fact, that TV critic John Crosby wrote in 1954, “I suspect if you took a bite out of Miss White you'd absorb enough Vitamin B to last all winter.”39 By the 1960s she seemed irredeemably old-fashioned and had a difficult time finding regular work apart from appearances on game-show panels and an annual gig hosting the Rose Parade on NBC. Then in 1973 she was cast as Sue Ann Nivens, the Happy Homemaker, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a role that was conceived of as “a sickeningly sweet Betty White type.”40 Self-referentiality, then, was a key component of this character, who White has described as “the neighborhood nymphomaniac who could be all sweetness and light.”41 She was fifty-one when she first appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the show marked a definite turning point in her career. Sue Ann was snide, catty, and man-hungry, a far cry from the wholesome characters White played in her youth and that she was anxious to distance herself from: “I've always wanted to get away from my image as a ‘goody-two shoes’ that's been following me around since my career began. So I was delighted at the chance to do a character like Sue Ann so people could see how sicky-bitchy I could be.”42
As the Happy Homemaker, Sue Ann exuded traditional femininity, hosting a television show where she gave cooking demonstrations and dispensed advice about cleaning and crafts, all while wearing a prim white apron and a charming smile. While on the surface she was sweetness and light, she was, at heart, a self-described “vain, selfish, egotistical, middle-aged shrew.”43 In one 1974 episode (video clip 3), Sue Ann explains to Mary why her smile doesn't reflect her true personality:
Sue Ann, why do you want to be on our show? You're the Happy Homemaker!
Yes. And the Happy Homemaker is very unhappy.
I have done that show every day since July 1963. You know what that means, Mary? It means I've been smiling for eleven years.
I never thought of it that way.
I want a job where I don't have to smile. I don't like smiling all the time. It's against my nature.
Sue Ann, you're smiling.
I am? Right now?
Uh huh. [Sue Ann presses her hands to her cheeks, trying to forcibly remove her smile.]
I can't tell anymore! I'm in a rut, Mary. Everything I do is mechanical. I just go through the motions.
Ah, well, Sue Ann, come on, everyone feels that way about their job sometimes.
But I can't pretend anymore. I've cooked it all! I've eaten it all! I've cleaned it, trimmed it, and stuffed it—twice!
Well, gee, I can sympathize—
Monotony has turned me into a bitter, spiteful person. Oh, I know you haven't noticed, but it has.44
In other episodes Sue Ann is shown to be selfish, conniving, and oversexed—she aggressively pursues men, especially Lou Grant (Ed Asner), and in one memorable scene, Mary visits Sue Ann's home to discover her bedroom is outfitted with a mirrored ceiling, remote-controlled lights and music, and a vibrating bed.45 The disjuncture between Sue Ann's syrupy on-screen persona and her catty and calculating offscreen personality invites viewers to ponder whether White herself was ever quite as wholesome as she seemed on her early television shows, and playing this role certainly helped White break away from the charming but outdated image that had caused her career to languish in the 1960s.
Many of the characters White has played since The Mary Tyler Moore Show are modeled after Sue Ann in their rejection of her early image, including a recurring role as the social-climbing snob Ellen Harper Jackson on Mama's Family (NBC, 1983–84; syndicated, 1986–90), and as television action star Joyce Whitman on The Betty White Show (CBS, 1977–78). The notable exception to this trend is Rose Nylund from The Golden Girls (NBC, 1985–92), whose childlike naïveté was as much a comment on White's earlier persona as Sue Ann Nivens was.46 In White's more recent roles, including her work on Boston Legal and Lake Placid, she has combined traits from both Sue Ann and Rose to play sweetly wholesome little old ladies who curse, drink, and lust after men. While Joan Rivers's self-reinvention enabled her to turn her anger outward and openly critique the rich and powerful, White's reinvented persona is edgy in a much more subtle way: disguised as a sweet old lady, the sort who would typically be overlooked in society, her characters take advantage of elderly women's invisibility and use it to mask potentially disruptive behaviors.
“I DON'T GIVE A DAMN ANYMORE”
Perhaps the greatest piece of wisdom that age brought to Rivers and White is understanding the freedom that comes from being an outsider, the fact that growing old means never having to say you're sorry. Lois Banner writes of “the appeal of aging women who have gained wisdom and self-awareness. Developmental psychologists tell us that many women become more confident and poised as they age, that they lose the shyness and lack of self-esteem often characteristic of young women in Western culture.”47 In Joan Rivers's case, she came to understand that her age afforded her the liberty to opt out of social niceties: “I'm seventy-nine years old and about four years ago I said I don't give a damn anymore. I'm going to say what I want on stage. I'm going to just do what I want to do on stage. And I'm so happy to be on stage and I love what I'm doing, and I think I'm doing the best ever and I've never felt this way before.”48
Here Rivers describes a candor that older women can enjoy, one that comes from both the wisdom of age and their position on the margins. Certainly her audiences appreciated hearing her say whatever she wanted; as one young fan said, “In a dishonest society, Joan says what everyone else is thinking but would not dare utter. She's not P.C., and that's beautiful.”49 Rivers reveled in her political incorrectness, making jokes about everyone, from children to the handicapped to old people.50 Much of the freedom to tell these jokes came from a realization that the benefits of speaking her mind would outweigh the consequences. In a 2010 exchange on NPR's Fresh Air, host Terry Gross asked Rivers if her act had changed with age. Rivers responded:
It changed tremendously with my age because I am so much freer now because I always say: What are you going to do? Are you going to fire me? Been fired. Going to be bankrupt? Been bankrupt. Some people aren't going to talk to me? Happened. Banned from networks? Happened. So I can say anything I want, and it has freed me totally, totally. And I talk much more freely now than I ever dared to talk before.51
This freedom is on display in Joan Rivers: Don't Start With Me (Showtime, 2012), a live recording of her stand-up act:
I have a few rules. What's happened is, I just turned seventy-eight years old. [cheers and applause] Wonderful, wonderful! Oh, you sound like my relatives! “Pretty soon, we get the house, pretty soon!” If you're lucky I could die any— I'm on golden time. I could die any moment now. You know how lucky you guys would be? You would get, for the price of a ticket, you would get a show and a death! You understand? Oh, come on! You'd be invited for months to dinners all over. Are you kidding? “You were there?” “Yeah! From nowhere, she was talking about some, I don't know, whales, and what the fuck, we don't know, animals, and suddenly she just went over! She was lying there, the face didn't move, we thought, well, Botox.” But anyhow, I just turned seventy-eight and I made a decision which is, I am only gonna perform to people I want to perform to. Because all my life I have worked for everybody. I have done Vegas, and this and that… . And people treat you terribly when you're old, you know, they treat you like a, like a little disdain. I was on The Today Show, Al Roker, “Here's Joan Rivers, and she's seventy-eight years young!” And you wanna go, “And here's Al Roker, and he's 320 pounds thin!” … I'm gonna change a few things. I wanna do the show for you, I am anxious to do the show for you, but I only will work now for people I want, so some of you are going to be asked to leave. I'm sorry. Please go fucking quietly, I don't wanna make a scene.
She then lists groups that have to leave—old people (“Old people, let's start with you: get the fuck out! I hate old people, do you understand? And you know who you are, you're sitting there damp!”), people who like children, Chinese women, thin people, and handicapped people—and people she wants to stay—gays (“The best audiences in the world! 'Cause they laugh at anything, they're so fucking stupid”), lesbians (“I love lesbians, but I want you in the back, because lesbians don't fucking laugh”), and fat people. Rivers made boundary pushing central to her act from the start of her career, but for many years her targets were limited: first herself, and then celebrities. By the time she reached her sixties and seventies, everyone was fair game. The freedom to tell these jokes was partly grounded in the career security that came from fifty years in the business. Although Rivers worried that her popularity could decline at any time—in A Piece of Work she expresses dismay over empty dates in her calendar and bookings that went to other comics—she was unlikely to lose fans and bookings over controversial jokes.
Similarly, White has discussed the freedoms that come with old age: “I think the secret that allowed us to get away with everything we did get away with [on The Golden Girls] was the fact that we were four old ladies. Had we been four young women we wouldn't have gotten away with anything.”52 Or, as a New York Times writer put it: “Wrinkles and randy remarks pair well.”53 White uses her sweet-old-lady persona to comment on cultural issues and disrupt popular conceptions about appropriate behavior for older women. Some of this can be seen in her much-publicized 2010 appearance on Saturday Night Live:
I can't believe I am hosting Saturday Night Live! I'm not sure— Many of you know that I'm eighty-eight and a half years old, so it's, well, it's great to be here for a number of reasons… . You know, I have so many people to thank for being here, but I really have to thank Facebook. When I first heard about the campaign to get me to host Saturday Night Live, I didn't know what Facebook was. And now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time. I would never say that people on it are losers, but that's only because I'm polite. People say, “But Betty, Facebook is a great way to connect with old friends.” Well, at my age, if I want to connect with old friends, I need a Ouija board. Needless to say, we didn't have Facebook when I was growing up… . Facebook just sounds like a drag. In my day, seeing pictures of people's vacations was considered a punishment… . Yes, we had poking, but it wasn't something you did on a computer. It was something you did on a hayride. Under a blanket. [gazes wistfully off] Oh, sorry! … And now I'm here tonight because you wanted me to be. I just want to say, I feel so loved. Thank you. If I could I would take you all on a big hayride. [looking into audience] Starting with you, sir. No, not you. You.54
White makes fun of Facebook users—the people who campaigned to have her host Saturday Night Live—and propositions men in the audience, all while smiling the same sweet smile that has defined her career. Like Rivers, White found that age can bring opportunities for expression not easily available to younger women.
In the pilot episode of the TV Land series Hot in Cleveland (2010–15), three middle-aged women from Los Angeles are stranded in Cleveland for a few days and discover, to their surprise, that the local men find them attractive rather than dismissing them as too old.55 After realizing that all the men in the bar they've wandered into are eyeing them appreciatively, Melanie, played by Valerie Bertinelli, remarks incredulously, “They're looking at us. In L.A. they look past us!” By the end of the pilot, Melanie and her friends (played by Wendie Malick and Jane Leeves) have decided to stay in Cleveland, moving into a spacious house inhabited by an eccentric caretaker with a racy past and a taste for vodka, played by Betty White. White's character, Elka, has an active sex life, drinks heavily, and says what she thinks without fear of reprisal. In a season 3 episode, Elka is visited by her twin sister, Anka, played by Joan Rivers.56 Anka has had extensive plastic surgery and makes caustic quips about herself and others. In short, White and Rivers are essentially playing the same characters they honed over the last few decades of their careers. What's especially intriguing is that they're playing these characters on a show where the three principal characters, played by three comic actresses, are confronting the same issues of aging, visibility, transformation, and freedom that White and Rivers navigated over the course of their careers.
Joan Rivers and Betty White, although two very different performers, both used the wisdom that comes with age to great advantage. As older women and as comediennes they occupy an outsider position, separated from younger, more appropriately feminine women, and they used their position in the margins to say and do things that were uncomfortable or controversial, to critique social norms and conventions, and to demand power and visibility from a traditionally powerless and invisible position. By remaining resolutely visible, by reinventing their comic personae as they aged, and by reveling in the freedom that comes from being an outsider, Joan Rivers and Betty White each, in her own way, complicated conventional notions about what it means to be an aging woman.