From Joan Rivers to Lauren Bacall, Feminists Aren't Always Labeled

Joan Rivers with Miss Piggy, another unofficial feminist.
Joan Rivers with Miss Piggy, another unofficial feminist.

Feminism, like most radical ideas, doesn't have to be labeled in order to be effective. In 2014, the debate over who is a feminist and if what they do is feminist in nature is the topic for discussion. Which pop stars consider themselves feminists and which ones run as fast as they can away from the term (Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus are in the the former category, while Katy Perry is in the latter) is the random red carpet query of the decade. Then there's Beyonce, light years ahead of any pop star to be considered her equal, and she still gets questioned over whether or not she should be standing in front of a one-hundred foot LED screen that reads "feminist." (The answer: Beyonce can actually do whatever in the hell she wants.)

No longer is feminism banished to its little corner for conversation and discussion; now, feminist voices are finding their way to the virtual pages, vying for readers alongside sports and political coverage. But before feminism was treated as the latest trend, there were trailblazers doing it justice, even if popular culture wasn't embracing the ideals. And alongside those big voices labeled "feminist," there were and always have been the other women -- the ones who don't come out and say "I'm a feminist," but rather just choose to live their lives that way.

See also: How not to talk to a woman at a music festival (or anywhere else)

Throughout modern history, women have been committing feminist acts without the label. With Joan Rivers passing last week and Lauren Bacall's death in August (a passing that definitely didn't get the coverage it might have during a less busy news cycle) I started to think about what it means to be a feminist who isn't self-identified. I myself pushed the term away until about six years ago, when I had what I call my late-blooming "feminist awakening." But I didn't just start being a feminist right at that moment -- for the previous 28 years before that, I was speaking out about it, writing about it and working to create places for women to be seen and heard. I was being a feminist without choosing to be a feminist publicly.

The longtime refusal of the feminist label is different than those who have just not claimed it; I mean, the word itself isn't even that old. When Lauren Bacall and Joan Rivers began their careers, "Women's Rights" was a public phenomenon, even if they themselves never came out and said they were part of the movement.

Bacall represents one of the more strange curiosities of the modern woman: the ability to be smart while being conventionally attractive. Feminism today still suffers from this notion that if you're pretty, you're probably too pretty to be a feminist and no one is going to listen to you anyway. But if you're not pretty enough, that's probably why you're a feminist -- and still, no one wants to listen to you. At least this is the information I gather from the commentary and comments of detractors of feminism.

For Bacall, her feminism shone through her performances on-screen, for sure. I was just watching 1953's How to Marry a Millionaire and up against Marilyn's tarty idiot role (though if you read anything about her, you will know that Marilyn was also just a great actress and her performances were not a reflection of her reality,) Bacall exuded that boss attitude. Even when she was loving up next to her real-life beau Humphrey Bogart, she commanded respect from the camera.

But it was also Bacall's ability to stand up during the McCarthy-era witch hunts, joining the Committee for the First Amendment during a time when she herself was at risk of being blacklisted. She was known for her vocally liberal stance, campaigning for politicians throughout her life (and even swung Bogie's vote in the blue direction.) She was the kind of unexpected hard-nose Hollywood bombshell who stood up for what she believed in and refused to be shaped to fit the mold of a beautiful woman who was only good for her looks.

 

Joan Rivers was also never a self-identified feminist, but the work she did definitely said otherwise. In the world of late night television (which is still controlled by white dudes,) Rivers worked tirelessly to be seen. She was given the permanent fill-in host position for Johnny Carson after she had been a successful and prominent guest of his for many years. He eventually pulled the plug on their relationship after Rivers was given her own show (I still can't believe this happened, and I don't accept that Carson would have acted so immaturely if a male friend had been given the same opportunity.)

Though the show didn't last, it was hardly the pinnacle of Rivers' career. Like Phyllis Diller and others before her, Rivers deconstructed the societal implications of what it meant to be a woman by talking about untouchable subjects in her act. From abortion to working mothers, Rivers was a voice that spoke loudly and out-of-turn -- the ability to be crass and be a woman with a microphone may seem fairly ordinary now. But fifty years ago when Rivers' career began, it was not.

This week, Alamo Drafthouse is paying tribute to both of these trailblazing women with showings of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and Spaceballs on Saturday, September 13 and Bacall's To Have and Have Not on Sunday, September 14. If you're not familiar with either of their work, these movies are great introductions. And if you don't consider yourself a feminist (and yes, all genders can be feminists,) it is worth a second thought. Feminism doesn't have to be a dirty word.

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies



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