Let's talk about Adam Hills and Joan Rivers

CLEM BASTOW
Last updated 14:04 07/03/2013

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OPINION: So, if you've been anywhere near the internet this week, you will be aware that Adam Hills is the new king of the GIF set jungle after his The Last Leg screed about Joan Rivers went viral. Here, play catch-up if you've not already seen it 10,000 times: 

Tumblr users, in particular, got very excited about Hills' rant, turning it into reaction GIFs and reblogging it so many times it was pushing tens of thousands of notes within a few hours. 

As the video/GIFs gained traction over the course of a few days, I felt myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the unquestioning championing of Hills' rant.

At the outset I should note that I didn't think Rivers' jokes about Adele were funny; Rivers operates on a rapid fire basis and plenty of her gags fall flat or swing closer to just plain old insult than comedy. But surely by now we should be aware that nobody is safe when it comes to Rivers' humour (least of all herself). Also, I'm a fan of Adele. This isn't about thinking she's not worthy of sticking up for; she is, and of course should be. It's the way that Hills went about it - and the way everyone swallowed it whole - that is the problem here. 

Adam, you can't fight internalised misogyny with actual misogyny.

This was a missed opportunity. Hills could have done a witty and heartfelt bit-to-camera about how fat hate and body-policing hurts people everywhere. Instead, he just unloaded more body-policing, with a side of naffness. 

"Adele is one of the very few women in pop music that I want my daughter to look up to": there's plenty of nasty judgment lurking beneath the surface of this warm and fuzzy statement. Lots of people say similar things about Adele, the subtext being "...because she's not a huge slut like those other pop stars". 

Look at the utterly inane criticisms of Beyonce - BEYONCE!! - that we've recently been subjected to in the UK press: chiefly that she's a terrible role model because she posed in her underwear. (The fact that she's a vocal feminist who has employed an all-female band for nearly a decade specifically to provide role models for young girls who want to play music doesn't seem to rate a mention.) Talk about "role models" is, 99% of the time, a value judgment. It's where class and race and image don't so much intersect as collide with force, and more often than not, the artists acclaimed as "role models" aren't the ones who look like Rihanna or Nicki Minaj. 

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(Furthermore you can bet your boots that Adele's image is just as carefully calibrated by her management team as, say, Rihanna's. The idea that she's some sort of DIY indie troubadour who has never had a photo airbrushed is inane to say the least.) 

I would encourage anyone who thinks of Rivers only in the context of her brash Fashion Police persona to watch the exceptional documentary, A Piece Of Work, from 2010: 

Rivers is prepared to play gigs in shithole towns in the middle of nowhere, because she values the hard work of comedy. I fail to see what about that is not worthy of being considered role model material. She has been through the wringer numerous times, and beats anyone who has something to say about her appearance or her shtick to the punch by miles. As Manohla Dargis said in her review of the film at the time: 

"An equal-opportunity offender, she has taken plenty of people down on her way up, including other women. Watching some of her nastier Tonight Show spots (which aren't in the movie), I find it hard to decide if her pokes at Elizabeth Taylor's weight are more painful than her self-lacerating jibes. Picking on Ms. Taylor was unspeakably mean. But Ms. Rivers's contempt for herself lasted longer: a lifetime, or so it seems."

Anyway, back to Adam: "I met Adele, and she was lovely. And hot. You Joan Rivers have become a jaded, bitter old mole" : Oh, Adam says Adele is hot! Well, then, that clears everything up! Joan Rivers is not sexually attractive to men, therefore her perceived value as a person is less than Adele's! Got it! 

"Get a plastic surgeon to manufacture yourself a new soul. Stop being an enormous, hypocritical insensitive dick!" Yes, let's talk about hypocrisy, Adam. In your quest to defend the honour of Adele, you have stooped to the same level as Rivers. In fact, I would say, you tunnelled below it: Rivers' face and body has nothing to do with what she said about Adele (though you could argue that the vagaries of public image have certainly informed much of Rivers' material; remember, she has struggled publicly with her weight). Rivers' internalised misogyny might be bad, but plain old fashioned "men slagging off women" misogyny is far worse. 

Having a go at women who choose to have cosmetic surgery is one of the last forms of socially acceptable sexism; who are the women who are always the punchline in such gags? Rivers, Pamela Anderson, Jocelyn Wildenstein, LaToya Jackson. Lemme just blow your mind for a moment, though: making fun of them or criticising them for it is just another form of body-policing. 

(Additionally, I don't believe that all women who have plastic surgery are slaves to the male gaze, but it's worth thinking a little more deeply about how capitalism and accepted ideals of beauty have influenced trends in plastic surgery over the past fifty or so years. If it wasn't necessary for women in the public eye to subscribe to a particular, preferred "look", I'm not sure so many women would have cosmetic surgery.) 

I'm not going to rank fat-shaming and criticising a woman who has a nose job in some bogus hierarchy of "what's worse?", suffice to say that neither are good. And one doesn't cancel out the other when you use it as a comeback. 

So, Adam, f**k you, too: Joan Rivers' humour sometimes misses the mark, as it did here, but she is a stone cold comedy trailblazer who cut her way through the forest of sexism in the '60s and '70s works harder than most comedians half her age. I don't give a f**k what she looks like, I care what comes out of her mouth; the same thing you claim to feel about Adele. 

You want to be the better man? Next time attack Rivers' comedy, not her appearance. 

-The Vine

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