Joan Rivers lobs transphobic slurs at Michelle Obama, but, like, totally as a compliment

[Trigger warning for transphobia]

Unfunny comedian and walking Halloween decoration [update: See in comments where I regret writing that part] Joan Rivers took a completely random opportunity this week to throw transphobic slurs at Michelle Obama.

In an on-the-street interview, a reporter asked her about her recent book signing, at which she officiated an impromptu gay wedding. When he then asked, for some reason, whether we’ll ever see a gay president, she replied, “We already have it with Obama, so let’s calm down.” This was, she elaborated without prompting, because “You know Michelle is a [transphobic slur redacted]. A transgender. We all know.” (The Huffington Post links to a 2012 Advocate piece detailing why calling a cis woman trans furthers the marginalization of women and of trans people.)

In a later statement to CNN, Rivers clarified through a representative that of course she meant the slur as a compliment.

I think it’s a compliment. She’s so attractive, tall, with a beautiful body, great face, does great makeup. Take a look and go back to La Cage Au Follies (sic). The most gorgeous women are transgender. Stop it already.

Rivers went on to assert that people are only attacking her for being “politically incorrect” because she’s “old, Jewish, a woman, and a ‘hetty’ — a heterosexual.”

There are currently nearly 9.5 million people unemployed in the U.S., and Joan Rivers is not one of them.

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34 comments for “Joan Rivers lobs transphobic slurs at Michelle Obama, but, like, totally as a compliment

  1. lisaw
    July 8, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    walking Halloween decoration Joan Rivers

    I’m sorry, but by going after her appearance in the first line of the article, you surrendered a lot of the moral high ground. I think Joan Rivers is detestable (for this and many other reasons), but you have to be able to make that point without calling her ugly– a non-sequitor that only gets hauled out against women.

    • July 8, 2014 at 4:06 pm

      You’re absolutely right. That was more emotion than thought, and I was wrong to go there.

      • lisaw
        July 9, 2014 at 1:49 pm

        Happens to the best of us. Thanks for being so quick to respond.

        And really, I thought it was a spot-on article.

  2. July 8, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    (I’m commenting as Ally from now on because I’m tired of that other username.)

    [CN: transmisogyny]

    Honestly, every single time I hear a cis person say that “The most gorgeous women are transgender,” I can’t help but be incredulous. Most people find us repulsive. It doesn’t matter how beautiful a trans woman is. It doesn’t matter how conventionally attractive or how “normal” her appearance is.

    I have known about cis-passing, conventionally attractive trans women who are insulted, degraded, harassed, and even assaulted once cis people perceive them to be trans. On the flip-side, there are cis people who are sympathetic towards us and try to be supportive, but maintain their deepest transmisogynstic attitudes.

    They look at me with a purposefully conspicuous smile, call me “sweetie” or “darling” or “honey” in an uncomfortably saccharine tone, and then – in response to me making my appearance more femme and trying to pass as a woman – shower me with excessive praise about how “gorgeous” I supposedly look. That mentality is based on, at the very least, an ingrained hesitation to see me as who I really am. They don’t want to reveal the fact that their perception of me is still influenced by bigoted attitudes about trans women in general. And so they lie and tell us that they think that all trans women are beautiful.

    Considering that Rivers also implicitly misgendered all trans women by referring to the relationship as “gay”, I find it difficult to not say that she is simply another one of those pseudo-supportive cis people I described above.

    And of course the fact that she literally used the t-word completely unmasks her hostility towards trans women, in spite of any elaborate non-apology from her. The t-word is inherently violent. It (along with similar slurs) is regularly used to justify violence against trans women. Once a cis-passing trans woman is coded as a “t*****”, she is robbed of her humanity and instead seen as a repulsive fetish object, a non-human creature. And such an understanding encourages rape, murder, torture, and various forms of humiliation and abuse. Even its casual usage serves to mark someone as an acceptable target of violence.

    So yeah, Rivers is full of shit and a raging transmisogynist. In case none of that was obvious already.

    • July 8, 2014 at 4:46 pm

      Also, even if I were extremely charitable, she’s still cis, and therefore has no right to reclaim that slur. And that means that any attempt to use it positively, as a “compliment”, is also appropriative.

    • July 9, 2014 at 11:57 pm

      I hope I’ve never inadvertently gone into that territory – the faux-compliment zone – Ally. If I have, I’m really, really sorry. Compliments that just come out sounding condescending or worse are the pits.

      And yeah, Joan Rivers’s behaviour – I don’t even. So few words, so much worse-than-fail.

      • July 10, 2014 at 12:23 am

        No, you haven’t. :)

      • July 14, 2014 at 3:05 am

        Thank you, Ally, that’s a relief!

      • July 18, 2014 at 6:31 pm

        If I’ve made you feel that way, I also apologize.

  3. July 8, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    A “hetty”?

    The first thing I thought of was Hetty King from Road to Avonlea.

    • lisaw
      July 9, 2014 at 1:51 pm

      It didn’t get as much attention but, after the transphobia, this was the most obnoxious part of her comments for me- that old “reverse discrimination” canard, i.e. because Joan Rivers is straight she’s being silenced/discriminated against/oppressed. It’s not the most in your face of her various reprehensible comments, but it’s so fucking tiring.

      • July 9, 2014 at 9:24 pm

        Yes, yes. “Poor, poor white, rich, cis, hetero me.

        I’m sooooo oppressed because I can’t make a simple joke about trans people! Boo Hoo!”


      • July 9, 2014 at 11:58 pm

        Yeah, that got me, too.

    • DouglasG
      July 12, 2014 at 4:26 pm

      After hearing “hetty” used that way in a few British films (it’s definitely in Bedrooms and Hallways), I sometimes (where I know I’ll be understood) use the term Wainthropp (from the excellent Patricia Routledge’s series Hetty Wainthropp Investigates to emphasize that the context of what I’m saying is (other-than-hetero)normative.

  4. Donna L
    July 8, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    I know she enjoys being offensive, but some things are over the line. This is one of them, and not just a little bit. It’s not only transphobic but both misogynistic and racist as well, given the historic tendency to accuse women (and particularly black women) of being “unfeminine” — and effectively call them men — if they’re perceived as having a certain kind of strength, in either appearance or conduct.

    And I agree with what Ally said, with the single exception that I strongly dislike the word “passing” for a number of reasons. But that’s something to explain elsewhere, perhaps.

    • July 8, 2014 at 9:59 pm

      My mistake. I understand why passing is not a good term and I shouldn’t have used it to convey what I was trying to say.

      • Donna L
        July 8, 2014 at 10:01 pm

        No problem.

    • July 9, 2014 at 10:50 am

      Exactly. The whole “gay president” thing is a clear tip-off: Barack Obama wouldn’t be the “first gay president” if Michelle Obama were as lovely as a trans woman — he’d be a gay president if she were a man. Joan Rivers wasn’t calling Michelle Obama beautiful, she was calling her manly. And in doing so, she was also intimating that trans women are, in reality, men.

      Such transphobic, misogynistic, racist bullshit, but Joan Rivers is just being victimized because she’s old and straight.

    • lisaw
      July 9, 2014 at 1:59 pm

      Would anyone mind pointing me towards a good source on trans* friendly language online? It’s something I know I get wrong sometimes (aside from the basics like not misgendering people), and I’ve gotten contradictory messages about what is the right way to conceptualize/speak about trans* issues from different pro-trans* resources (please understand that’s not a sneaky anti-politically-correct language comment, just a reflection of my own confusion).

      I don’t want to exhaust the trans* commentators here with a lot of questions- if there’s a resource that’s generally agreeable I’d really appreciate being able to read up.

      • LilyR
        July 9, 2014 at 2:47 pm

        Speaking only for myself, I found this one pretty helpful as a bare introduction: Not You Mom’s Trans 101 by Asher Bauer.

        If you’re interested in a more in-depth look at transmisogyny, I’ve found Julia Serano’s books (Whipping Girl and Excluded) very informative and readable.

      • lisaw
        July 9, 2014 at 3:41 pm

        Thank you so much! I thought that was really useful; the education I got was a lot like what that author described as ‘Trans 101.’ I particularly liked the way it tackled the problematic phrasing ‘John identifies as a man;’ it always felt kind of… presumptious?… to me, but I couldn’t articulate why. I’ll take a look at those books too, though to be totally honest I’ve heard really negative things about Serano, specifically that she collapses transphobia into sexism and generally erases trans* men’s oppression.

      • Yonah
        July 10, 2014 at 8:12 am

        Not to overstate things, but gross name though, it could have been titled better.

      • Donna L
        July 10, 2014 at 1:44 pm

        Yes, Serano calls out some trans men for their collaboration with TERFs by taking advantage of the fact that TERFs still view them as women (and, therefore, are OK with their being in “women-only” spaces that exclude trans women). But she doesn’t, I think, “erase trans men’s oppression” simply because her writing is mostly about trans women. To me, that’s the trans version of a “what about the menz” argument.

      • lisaw
        July 11, 2014 at 10:54 am

        But she doesn’t, I think, “erase trans men’s oppression” simply because her writing is mostly about trans women. To me, that’s the trans version of a “what about the menz” argument.


        OK! I haven’t read the books and I’m cis, so I’m not trying to make any pronouncements of ideological impurity or anything; that’s just what I heard from a couple genderqueer and trans* people whose opinions I trust. What I’ve been told- and again, I am completely cognizant that I’m the farthest thing from an expert here- is that she sometimes positions transphobia as a consequence or outgrowth of misogyny, which is alienating to a lot of people. But I also might just not have understood the context for the conversation!

      • Alison
        July 11, 2014 at 12:27 pm

        I’ve only read Whipping Girl, but it’s an excellent book. She speaks about transphobia, and then also (I think it’s “also” not, “instead”) explores transmisogyny (“When a trans person is ridiculed or dismissed not merely for failing to live up to gender norms, but for their expressions of femaleness or femininity, they become victims of a specific form of discrimination: trans-misogyny”). I read Whipping Girl as including an analysis of the specific type of tranphobia that targets feminine trans people (including within queer communities), and as explicitly noting that it operates in addition to transphobia generally. Just my take. I highly recommend it.

      • Donna L
        July 11, 2014 at 4:00 pm

        There is no doubt in my mind that transmisogyny — hatred of trans women — is strongly related to misogyny; determining whether it’s “caused” by it is pointless, since there’s clearly more than one cause. Are these people suggesting that transphobia against trans men is unrelated to misogyny? If so, I’m dubious.

      • lisaw
        July 11, 2014 at 5:45 pm

        To be blunt, I’m not really well educated enough on this to hold up my end of the conversation, though I’ll do my best to relay a critique second-hand.

        Basically the idea I got was that transphobia, like homophobia, is a form of oppression that is intersectional with but not caused by or a subset of sexism. Some feminist writers, some of whom are trans women, argue that homophobia/transphobia/other oppressions are outgrowths of, and therefore less central, than sexism. Just speaking for myself, I know I’ve read some feminist writing about how all kinds of forms of oppression really all come back to misogyny, which is the most important/critical/meaningful/’original’ oppression. I get why that type of argument is offensive to a lot of people, and I’ve been told Serano is one such writer.

        Like I said though I haven’t read the books and I don’t think I can really do a good job representing a third party’s critique, especially not since you also are more knowledgeable about them than I am.

      • July 11, 2014 at 6:35 pm

        lisaw, I replied to you in spillover #18.

  5. TomSims
    July 9, 2014 at 4:55 am

    Joan Rivers, along with Don Rickles have proven that one can make a good living in America by being obnoxious and rude.

    • July 9, 2014 at 5:11 am

      Yes, the “insult comedian” seems to be a peculiarly American genre (or at least seems to have only survived there (along with “roast” events) after dying out with vaudeville elsewhere). It’s just that the “joke” insults are no longer given an automatic free “comedy” pass, which ties in with the general critique that comedy should punch-up rather than punch-down (and insults about looks are the exemplar of meanspirited punching-down).

  6. Raja
    July 9, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    Yeah what she said was pretty gross no doubt. But than again this is the woman who said the last time Germans were hot was when they were burning Jews in ovens but I suppose because she is Jewish herself she thinks she gets a free pass.

  7. Codi
    July 10, 2014 at 9:31 am

    I know comedians are generally given license to say stuff before thinking it through, but really? Ten seconds of consideration before opening her mouth and this is a non issue.

  8. Letty
    July 10, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    Joan R. has always been a squalid, bilious, cheap, ostentatious scrofula. Why are her opinions even solicited?

  9. Anna
    July 11, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    Ugh I can’t stand Joan.

Comments are closed.