Stand-up comedian Margaret Cho made a visit to Swarthmore this past Saturday. As a queer Asian-American woman, Cho is known for her edgy and controversial comedy and for her activism in the queer community. Cho came to campus as part of the efforts of alumni Harris Kornstein ’06, and was funded by the Cooper Grant. Before her show in LPAC, which sold out of tickets within days of being made available, Cho sat down for a Q&A session with students from English Professor Bakirathi Mani’s Nations and Migrations & Introduction to Asian American class.
Cho began the Q&A session by giving a background of her work. “I’m a stand up comedian, I’m an author, I’m an activist, I’m a director…I do so many things because I don’t limit myself.” As an Asian-American, it was especially difficult to become an established comedian because she “had to do it without having any role models, without someone to look to for inspiration.”
The floor was subsequently opened up to questions from students. The first question was about the writing process from thought to the act. Cho answered the question by discussing her experiences with blogging and how it was essential in giving her “permission to explore [her] ideas, to get them out.” As a blogger for major online news outlets like the Huffington Post, CNN.com and her own website, Cho reflected what it meant to be queer, female, and Asian in these spaces: “Most of the voices being heard are straight, white men, so people always seek me out because then they can think ‘Well, if we get her, we don’t have to hire any more Asians, women, or gays!’” she said, laughing.
Politics was another arena in which Cho struggled as a minority. She gained political consciousness at a very young age, when openly gay Supervisor of San Francisco Harvey Milk was murdered in 1978 as a a result of what might have been a hate crime. As Cho later came out as queer, she became more involved in political activism. Yet even now, Cho describes feeling the “sting of non-inclusion” when she was dis-invited from the 2004 Democratic National Convention because her “voice would invite controversy.”
“I’m a stand up comedian, I’m an author, I’m an activist, I’m a director…I do so many things because I don’t limit myself.”
Instead of accepting defeat from these experiences, they have fueled her raise her voice even louder. “If you’re a minority, or a woman, or a person of color, or gay you can feel as if your voice doesn’t matter. But we have to empower our political voices,” she explained.
This principle is important to Cho as a comedian who is unabashed about using her politics to inform her comedy. One student noted that comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert simultaneously commented on politics while distancing their comedic routines from their politics. Cho said she believed that this distance was a luxury afforded to those in places of privilege.
Although she admitted she loved both Steward and Colbert, she said, “They are straight white men, they have the luxury to not get involved. I believe if you are a minority, you have a responsibility to yourself and to the future to be an activist…you can’t just be an observer. If we want to go forward and truly experience what it meant to be American, we have to get involved.”
From politics, the discussion turned to the 2008 elections, in which Cho has chosen to endorse Barack Obama, after much agonizing. In addition to liking both Democratic candidates, Cho was excited how the election “forced us to talk about race and gender in a way we have not before.” One of the things that made her decision difficult was because she believed Hillary Clinton had a much more difficult time overcoming barriers because of her gender, although she ultimately chose Obama because of his voice for immigrants and the LGBT community. “I believe that America is more sexist than racist,” she said. When further pressed about her meaning, Cho said, “There is a fear among white people about being openly racist, it has become a taboo.” She pointed to the attacks on Barack Obama that have danced around his race. “They talk about his being Muslim, and that if we elect someone named ‘Hussein’, somehow the terrorists will have won — but they are afraid to go into the fact that he is an African-American,” she said.
Cho further discussed the ways in which minorities are co-opted by the white mainstream culture to send out their message. “Straight, white, males can’t be racist or sexist, so let’s get someone who can,” she said, explaining the mentality behind that idea. She pointed to comedian Sarah Silverman, known for her controversial takes on racism, sexism, and religion, as an example of this. Cho explained that she was a fan and old friend of Silverman, but that some of the things Silverman used in her comedic routines were deeply misogynistic and racist. “But I know her, and she is not a racist or a sexist — it’s that her image and her voice has been co-opted by a white male agenda,” she explained. “She is popular among this Maxim crowd because she is their voice, she acts out their sexism, racism, and homophobia without them being attacked.”
“I’m just appalled by the sexism and racism and homophobia I see on stage, I cannot believe what people are allowed to say in the name of humor. I like to see myself as an antidote to that kind of comedy.”
According to Cho, racism against Asian Americans is more subtle then racism against other minorities. “It’s about non-inclusion rather than racist slurs and hate crimes, which do happen too.” Cho pointed to the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, in which the press “made a big deal out of the fact that the shooter was Korean…as if his race of his Asianess was somehow a contributing factor to his craziness.” Cho said that a week later, one of her comedy specials aired on television, and received complaints because people felt it was in “bad taste to show any more Chos on television.” Cho explained that the subtlety of this kind of racism made it difficult to identify. “But if I have such a hard time identifying and discussing it, how am I ever going to get over it’?”
Cho explained that she was still trying to figure out how to deal with racism in queer communities, especially as it related to the idea of “rice queens” – white males who exclusively prefer to date East and Southeast Asian males. “It comes from this weird situation of thinking ‘Oh, we’re so discriminated against, we can do it to someone else.’ It’s very convoluted, and I don’t know how to address it yet,” she explained.
Comedy clubs are one of the most uncomfortable spaces for minorities, according to Cho. “I’m just appalled by the sexism and racism and homophobia I see on stage, I cannot believe what people are allowed to say in the name of humor,” she said. “I like to see myself as an antidote to that kind of comedy.” Some of her critics disparage her reliance on stereotypes of Asian accents when she mimics the way her Korean mother speaks. “They tell me that I’m perpetuating stereotypes by using the Asian accent. But my mother is Asian, and that’s how she talks!” she said with a laugh. “Why do we have to accept this whitewashed, P.C. representations of ourselves?” she asked.
Along with her identity as an Asian-America, Cho has struggled with her identity as a woman, particularly her personal struggles with eating disorders. As a young woman growing up in her family, Cho was susceptible to sexist messages that told her she had to be “small, petite, and skinny” to be beautiful. As a result, Cho developed a devastating eating disorder, and went through dramatic periods of anorexia and bulimia. After being told to lose weight while working on her television show All-American Girl, Cho starved herself for several weeks, eventually becoming hospitalized for kidney failure.
A breakthrough for Cho came when she saw burlesque being performed for the first time. “I was so amazed when I saw the performance. There were women with all different body types, ages, races, and you could tell they were so happy and comfortable with their bodies,” she said. “I was crying when I saw it, it really cured me.” For Cho, who performed burlesque on her tour “The Sensuous Woman,” burlesque was not about sexualizing herself as much as it was about emancipating her from the idea that her body is a prison. “We are so conditioned to a certain look that models have, and people think that’s the only kind of body that can be beautiful and sexual, and that’s not true, everybody has that ability.” Cho believed that performing burlesque allowed her to see that ability.
Cho ended the Q&A session by discussing her comedic act and whether she adhered to any boundaries. Hinting at what her performance later that night in LPAC would entail, Cho said “I give myself permission to be a little darker, or raunchy or graphic because it’s in the spirit of fun.” But Cho believed intentions are important. “It’s about what’s in you, what’s in your heart. I want people to feel good about themselves when they leave.”