Margaret Cho, purveyor of funny and (mildly) offensive jokes, caused quite a ruckus at the Golden Globes when she appeared on stage as Cho Young Ja, a North Korean military general and journalist with a distinctly exaggerated accent. The gag – even if it wasn’t your cup of tea – was a nod to Cho’s previous turn on 30 Rock as former North Korean “supreme leader” Kim Jung-Il as well as a reference to The Interview-Sony hack drama that has been unfolding in real time right before our eyes.
But, as should have been (and probably was) expected, the flak flooded in, with journalists comparing the bit to a minstrel show and wondering how it could ever be understood as anything but “broadly racist.” Twitter feeds exploded and the metaphorical pot was stirred. All of the backlash becoming even more complicated and interesting when put into context with how heavy of an emphasis was placed on free speech, and Je Suis Charlie, during the broadcast. As a Korean American viewer, my ears were perked.
Cho really has no time for any of the controversy she’s stirred up. No really. The comedian made it abundantly clear she doesn’t care if people think she crossed the (murky) line between comedy and cultural sensitivity. As she told Buzzfeed, she “can do whatever [she] want[s] when it comes to Koreans.”
“I’m not playing the race card, I’m playing the rice card,” she went onto say, referring to her North and South Korean heritage. “I’m the only person in the world, probably, that can make these jokes and not be placed in a labor camp.” She also expressed this position on Twitter letting loose the following tweets (she also retweeted a TON of people defending her appearance):
Cho has become somewhat infamous for her impressions of family members – in particular her mother – and openly mocking her own cultural and racial background. It makes her controversial among many Asian Americans, so when she tells Buzzfeed, “I am from this culture. I am from this tribe. And so I’m able to comment on it,” it does make us wonder, when it’s ok to use racial stereotypes for a laugh?
If you ask Cho, she can use these stereotypes however she wants, whenever she wants because she’s part of the community. Ask others, however, and they might disagree saying she’s only perpetuating racist ideas that many Asians find hurtful – not just Koreans. As someone who is mixed-race and who was raised in a Korean-American home, I can say I’m not distinctly perturbed by most of what Cho says or mocks. Actually, it was only a few days ago I was talking to my father (a Korean American) about the hilariously accurate way she once addressed out-dated cultural ideals of masculinity and homosexuality. It was an old bit and yeah, it played into some cultural stereotypes we wouldn’t want to flaunt, but to us – because we have seen and experienced the things she’s mocking – it was a good laugh and a bit of a relief.
So is that the real difference here — the platform and the audience? Is it because the jokes she’s telling are portraying a caricature to a pre-dominantly non-Asian group and somewhere along the line the meaning changes? Or is it because, for all the progression we like to believe our society is making, Asian Americans are still judged by and subjected to damaging, archaic, racist ideas?
Cho makes an interesting point, calling out the hypocrisy that white people can get away with mocking other white people but that there seems to be a backlash when Asian Americans poke fun of Asians. She told Buzzfeed, “If it’s Asian-Americans making fun of Asians, we’re claiming our own voice, we’re claiming our heritage. We’re claiming all of the aspects of our own culture, and we’re allowed to. Even though it may get us put in a labor camp.” Over at Deadline, writer Jen Yamato also pointed out that Cho was the only “Asian or Asian-American performer to appear in the Golden Globes telecast all night.” That’s a problem we should really be addressing as well (though we will mention that Chrissy Teigen is Thai.)
For Cho, making fun of an indistinct Asian icon isn’t about targeting a community that’s separate from her but, rather, about mocking something that is closely related to her life as a hyphenated-American.
Comedy is supposed to, at its best, be a commentary on our society and hold a mirror up to us so we can examine our faults. The ludicrous is supposed to point out just how very silly our ways are. I’m still not sure Cho’s bit did that.
But I am sure of two things: 1) This is an ongoing conversation, and one we’re probably going to keep having – and not just about Cho, but about other comedians who use race to get a few laughs and make a point. And 2) Margaret Cho isn’t sorry for what she did, so if you’re waiting for an apology, you can stop holding your breath.
What do you think of the bit?