The incident occurred during an on-the-street interview with a photographer who asked the comedian whether she thought the United States would see its first gay president. “We already have it with Obama, so let’s just calm down,” she responded, adding:
“You know Michelle is a [expletive].”
“I’m sorry, what?” the photog asked.
“A transgender,” Rivers said, seemingly exasperated.
Days later, Rivers has refused to apologize for her remarks, saying in a statement to CNN:
“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 ... and if you want to talk about ‘politically correct,’ I think this is a ‘politically incorrect’ attack on me because I’m old, Jewish, a woman and a 'hetty’ -- a heterosexual (sic) ... ”
Rivers is certainly no stranger to hot-button topics. In the documentary “A Piece of Work” about her career, the audience got a behind-the-scenes look at the constant hustle to stay in the conversation and employed. Sometimes she crosses the line, but that’s the cost of doing business in Rivers’ playbook.
But there are some lines you don’t cross. And with our cultural understanding and knowledge of transgender issues expanding, it seems odd that the comedian, despite her advanced age, would make such an out-of-touch and disrespectful comment, especially when it’s been so important to her to remain relevant and in the game.
Did she miss transgender activist Janet Mock schooling Piers Morgan on CNN? Or transgender actresses Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox changing the line of conversation on Katie Couric’s talk show? Or Cox on the cover of Time magazine, where she discussed the transgender movement? Or the fallout from Grantland’s story about Dr. V and its “troubling display of disrespect for transgender people”?
In a recent interview with Kurt Andersen on “Studio 360,” comedian Hari Kondabolu, who also has a master’s in human rights from the London School of Economics, talked about navigating controversial topics. “I usually go to Seattle when I’m working on new material. I’ll rent out a 40-seat theater,” he told Andersen. “[Recently] I did a lot of this material [about] transgender issues, and it was painful. I felt so uncomfortable, I’m just worried I’m going to say the wrong thing.”
His guiding principle: “I’m fine with offending, but hurting people is never my goal.”
Joan Rivers — and, frankly, anyone with a public platform — may want to take note.
Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier