When Comedy and Activism Violently Collide: Margaret Cho Sounds Off
Margaret Cho is angry, and she's not going to take it anymore.
Interview with Margaret Cho
November 11, 2005
Interviewed by Ada Tseng
Transcribed by Ana La O'
Video Edit by Charlotte Wu
Margaret Cho interview, Part I: On Racism, Memoirs of a Geisha, Sarah Silverman, and more...
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In 2000, when Margaret Cho's first concert film I'm the One That I Want came out, the New York Times described her as "hilarious," "uproariously raunchy," and a "dynamo whose outrage is tempered by an empathetic sweetness." Five years and three concert films later, Margaret Cho is still hilarious, still raunchy, still outrageous. But sweet? Not as much.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. 2004 marked the year of her politically charged State of Emergency tour, which evolved into her fourth national show and concert film Assassin, which premiered this year in select theatres and on Here! TV, the gay and lesbian channel. It has recently been released on CD and DVD (http://www.margaretcho.com/), and Cho has recently finished her second book, I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight, an acerbic, passionate collection of essays about everything from the disastrous state of our government to gay marriage to feminism to hip hop.
Margaret Cho has always been an activist. As an Asian-American in the public eye, it kind of comes with the territory. There has still yet to be anyone else out there quite like her, even though it's been ten years since her TV show All American Girl was cancelled. She's broken down stereotypes, simply by existing in the media, defying everything that people expect an Asian woman to be, and refusing to be apologetic about it. She's outspoken, she's raw, she's crass, she's blunt, she bounces up and down onstage imitating pity sex. She's an underground icon. She represents the minority, whether it be gender, racial, or sexual. In return, she has won the support of the collective outcasts, who find it refreshing to have a voice that bellows out against the literal and metaphorical oppressors, and yet also have that special camaraderie that allows them to turn inward and poke fun at themselves as well. Because of this safe haven -- created for people who might not otherwise have any allies or representation in the media -- her fans are fiercely loyal.
But lately, there has been a definite shift in her comedy. In person, she's very serious. She doesn't seem as amused. But perhaps, there is less for her to be amused about. We're still at war. Gay people are still not seen as equal citizens who deserve the right to marry. And with a few notable exceptions, Asian-Americans are still relatively absent in the media. Which begs the question: How much progress have we made? Have we become complacent?
Last year, after making a joke comparing Bush to Hitler ("George Bush is not Hitler. He would be, if he applied himself.") at a MoveOn.org awards gala, she was flooded with hate mail. It would have at least been understandable if the hate mail consisted of conservatives arguing over their political differences, but instead, the majority of the emails involved people calling her a "chink whore," telling her to go back to North Korea, making fun of her "slanty eyes," and mounds of other unrepeatable instances of racism and homophobia. And this was back in the year 2004.
By putting herself out there and courageously voicing her opinion, she's more prone to being attacked and receiving vicious negative attention than the average person. Her response was to post the hate mail on her website and let her fans flood these hate emailers with a piece of their minds. Although she did manage to make it into something funny, it's no wonder that deep inside, she's not laughing. It's a bit alarming to see the serious side of Margaret Cho, seeing the woman who has made us laugh over the years imitating her mother and celebrating gay prom dates, being so angry -- as if the sense of humor had been beaten out of her. But I'm glad she's fighting. It's important.
My friend recently sent me an email with her current favorite bumper sticker: "If you're not outraged, then you haven't been paying attention."
As Margaret Cho denounces America as racist and bashes, um, basically everyone, her hands flaring up in the air, her facial expressions hyperbolically expressive, part of me wonders if she's taking it too far. "Overcompensating," as she says. Because really, as a fellow Asian-American, I don't relate to her hatred of Pride and Prejudice remakes. I think Sarah Silverman is kind of amusing. And, to be perfectly honest, I didn't even think the Details "Gay or Asian?" controversy was that big of a deal. But I don't know. Maybe we should be outraged. Maybe we just haven't been paying attention. --Ada Tseng
On Racial Ignorance...
It’s incredible the ignorance that’s out there in terms of race and racial dialogue. What happened at the beginning of my book tour is so shocking to me because I went on a talk show, and they were like “Oh, we loved your books, but what was it like to make Charlie’s Angels?” And it was so horrible. But it wasn’t like they really meant to say that I was like Lucy Liu. What they were trying to do was joke with me, like “Ha ha, there’s only one or two Asian people out there.” And "Isn’t that funny? Ha ha.” And that’s not funny to me! That makes me really mad, but I can’t go after them exactly or get angry because that would be completely out of context because I’m completely supposed to be this comedian, and I have to have a sense of humor about these things. And yet, it’s very demeaning.
On Asian-American Identity...
There’s this permission that people have to make fun of Asian-Americans that exists that is very strange. There’s something about our identity that is not taken seriously, which is why people like Jay Leno can make jokes about Koreans eating dogs, which is why this continues over and over, and I don’t understand how’s that’s okay. And I don’t know how to draw attention to it other than to do it very plainly. So this whole time, this has been my crusade to talk about this very plainly with people, and I’ve gotten these reactions from white guys who just don’t know what to say. They’re like, “You know, maybe Asian people don’t want to be in entertainment at all. Maybe they just don’t feel like it.” How can you say that about a whole race of people?! What if I say, "Maybe white people don’t want to be educated." Is that the same thing? "Maybe white people don’t want to be smart about racism because why would they want to know?" To me that’s the exact same thing, but they don’t get that at all.
And then you have the people who think they’re talking about race when they say, “I think Asian girls are really hot.” That’s the extent of the conversation about race to them. We’re really hot, that’s our contribution to society: that some girls are really hot. It’s just so upsetting.
On Combating a Racist America...
I found that America is so racist and it’s racist toward everybody. Everybody experiences it on some level, but the kind that Asian-Americans deal with is very hard to explain because it’s on a very casual level. It’s a kind of displacement. People say, “Where are you from?” And then you say “I’m from Burbank” and they say, “Noooo, I mean where are you really from?” That makes me so furious now. I’ve built up so much of that now because it's happened so many times over so many years. I just don’t want to accept it anymore, and I want to sort of try to start some sort of movement among other Asian-Americans. I just want to scream at it because I don’t think that this kind of stuff is going to end, and I'm afraid that this perception of Asians being foreign is going to keep going on forever. We have to really find a way to end it right now. And if that means being uncomfortable because we’re overcompensating and being really angry about stuff, I think that’s okay.
I’m trying to do that right now. I’m really trying not to let those casual little things go by because [if] you do it with one person, they’re going to remember and they’re not going to do it again because it’s so shocking to somebody when you accuse them of racism. And if they really didn’t know before, they check themselves. So I think it’s a good thing. It’s really important.
On Sarah Silverman...
APA: As a comedian, I’m sure you understand how there’s a fine line between being humorous and being offensive. How would you respond to someone like Sarah Silverman, who had gotten all that press about offending Asian Americans by making a joke about "chinks"?
MC: She’s so stupid. She’s just stupid. And you know what, I feel sorry for her because she’s a really nice girl, and she’s really funny, and she’s just dumb. And she doesn’t know it, and that’s just the way it is with some people. They’re just dumb, and you cannot explain it to them, and it’s hilarious because she tries to argue with Guy Aoki, [president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA)], who’s so smart. She’s trying to argue with him about how her opinion is okay. [When] she says “chink,” it’s okay because it “opens a discussion.” We can “start a dialogue about this.” And it’s really not a dialogue.
I think that people take her really seriously, and they are directing all of the rage that they have felt over the years of how many times this has happened and the general insensitivity of the mainstream world toward Asian-Americans, and they’re directing it all at her. So it’s unfair because she’s not the only racist one; everyone is. She, as a person, I know her very well, and she herself is not a racist. She herself is not. She’s just sort of going for shock value, and it’s irresponsible. But she’s white. She doesn’t have to be responsible, you know, according to, I guess, the rules of where everyone is. There’s so many racist things that happen all the time against Asians. She just happened to get caught in it somehow and really got the brunt of anger from Asian-Americans, but really it happens so much, so much in our society. And she’s not the worst offender. But she should know better, and she doesn’t. It’s just stupid.
On Arnold Schwarzenegger...
It’s just sad. The whole Arnold Schwarzenegger thing is just sad. I don’t think he knew what he was getting into. I think that he thought that being a politician was about being popular, being a star. I think he thought it was like another V.I.P thing to do, like it was just another form of stardom. It’s not. I wouldn’t want to go into politics. It’s a horrible job. It’s really hard. Of course, you can have all these opinions about things, and you can try to change things as a politician, but people will hate you and you’re going to fuck up. I get really mad because he’s really used his vanity and altered the situation by going into government, and he didn’t know what he was doing, and he’s really fucked so many things up. So his decline is really funny to watch.
On Religion and Government...
APA: When you talk about the people who frustrate you -- for example, hard-core Christian groups who want to ban gay marriage -- do you think their beliefs come from true hatred, or do you think it comes from fear/ignorance and not knowing any better?
MC: I think it’s fear. I think it’s not knowing any better. I think it’s a kind of conditioning. Sometimes what some religions do is that they really narrow people’s thinking of the world and it’s like they can’t accept the idea of other people having a free will and not having to do what other people say they have to do. They feel like they have to control all these people. It’s really sad. For example, the whole thing about intelligent design. Intelligent design is the stupidest thing. I can’t believe how dumb it is. It’s just taking the creation myth and forcing it to be taught as science, as biology in school, and we don’t need any more things to stunt our kids’ mental growth. If you took any other religion and did that, it would be ludicrous, you know? It goes against what our government is supposed to be because we’re supposed to have a separation of church and state. And so, to me, it's really sick. It’s very dangerous when the church becomes involved in politics because the way that people think is so narrow. It’s very confusing. It ruins the state of equality and freedom. And this is a huge problem right now.
On Memoirs of a Geisha...
APA: You poke fun of Ziyi Zhang in your comedy act, and in your book, you talk about Memoirs of a Geisha being a story by an old white man that glorifies Asian prostitutes. Do you think, in spite of its flaws, that having a big movie like this in the theaters with a full Asian cast is ultimately beneficial for Hollywood? Or do you think that it puts us in a box?
MC: I think it’s great. I think it’s always great whenever I see Asian people. I don’t even have any standards anymore. I’m so happy to see them. I don’t care what they’re doing. I’m just so glad because it’s like a moment of not being invisible. And even though it’s going to reinforce this idea of, like, exoticism and Asian foreignness, it’s still great. I love it. I mean I loved The Last Samurai. Loved it, not because it’s a good movie, but it’s beautiful and Ken Watanabe is so great, and it allows him to be this really regal, really beautiful king and samurai, and that’s really exciting. So, you know, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if it perpetuates this kind of idea of who we are, this stereotypical idea.
I love historical films and I’m so sick of all these kinds of Jane Austen movies where they have these fucking period movies. How many times do we have to remake fucking Pride and Prejudice? How many times do white people need their history told to them over and over and over again? It’s so fucking boring. It’s always the same. There are enough movies like that. There are enough examinations of white people history. There’s enough of all these novels, all the Bronte sisters, all the fucking Jane Austen bullshit -- I don’t care anymore. I’m sick of it. Why can’t we go into other people’s history? Why can’t we go into more Asian history? Why can’t we go into more Asian-American history? Why can’t we go into more Latin-American history? Why can’t we do any of these things? But they don’t. We have to keep regurgitating Old England. It’s so racist, and nobody actually comes out and says this is fucking stupid.
It really shows that the racism is inherent in our entertainment, because it is really about non-inclusion. It’s so frustrating to me now having been in this business for like 20 years. I’ve just gotten so furious about it that I just want it to change and I don’t feel like being polite about it anymore or saying that it’s okay anymore. But I’m excited about Memoirs of A Geisha because even if it has all these flaws I think, whatever, at least you still get to see great Asian actors.
Margaret Cho, Part II: Gay Boys and Our Favorite Korean Mother.