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“I want to explore the nature of beauty. What is funny and scary about it, why we often don’t feel beautiful because our society’s standards are so rigid and unattainable.” | photo: Austin Young

“I want to explore the nature of beauty. What is funny and scary about it, why we often don’t feel beautiful because our society’s standards are so rigid and unattainable.” | photo: Austin Young


Beautiful Margaret Cho biting comedy stands up on new tour

by May Lui | April 16, 2008

Margaret Cho is a Korean-American actor, filmmaker, performer and stand up comedian. In 1994, she starred in the first situation comedy in the United States that featured an all-Asian family. The series was called All-American Girl.

It was cancelled after one season.

In 1999, Margaret re-emerged with her one-woman show, I’m the One that I Want. This was a personal and cathartic act. She talked a great deal about her difficult and unhappy time during the run of the sitcom, and how there were discussions by various producers and directors that she looked “too Asian,” and other times, that she looked “not Asian enough.” A remedy for this was to have her put chopsticks in her hair. She was told her face was too round, she was told she had to lose weight. After the show was cancelled, she spiraled into substance abuse and promiscuity (not the empowered kind). Her honesty and vulnerability in sharing so much of herself and her life struggles, as an imperfect Asian woman who swears and talks about sex, throws many stereotypes on their heads, and makes you laugh while she does it.

Her shows since then have been less personal and more political. She speaks frankly about what matters to her – politics that are shared by many progressive thinkers in Canada – the war in Iraq, Bush-era Republicans, racism, sexism, same-sex marriage and more.

Margaret has an incredible knack of finding humour and making the audience laugh with her, in solidarity.

In her latest show, Beautiful, she shares a conversation with someone at the National Civil Rights Museum (irony is not lost on Ms. Cho), who asks her, “What was it like to be in Charlie’s Angels?” (The Asian actress in the Charlie’s Angels movies is Lucy Liu.)

Margaret rolls her eyes before delivering the punch line: “That’s not me. I’m the one in Grey’s Anatomy.”

(For those who have sworn off television, the character Cristina Yang on the popular show Grey’s Anatomy is played by the Canadian actress Sandra Oh.)

The one part of Cho’s performance that I had a problem with was her recurring “bit” in which she mimics her Korean-born mother.

I have seen all of Margaret’s shows since the first one, in which the audience was overwhelmingly Korean/Asian. As someone of Asian heritage, I felt like I was surrounded by family or community at that first show, and we were laughing in empathy at her jokes about her mother.

However, with each show, she has become more and more known. Her jokes are now delivered, in Toronto, to a majority white audience. (This was clear to me when there was silence as Margaret talked about how wonderful it is to see so many Asian people when she visits Toronto. I think four of us clapped.)

Ever since her first show, the laughter has felt different. It’s been impossible for me to laugh at the jokes about her mother – delivered in an accent – since then; not because of the jokes, but because of the audience.

To me, it felt like laughter during one particular bit in Beautiful – a warm, funny and loving piece about first- versus second-generation struggles, language differences, and growing up in an immigrant Asian household – was uninformed by anti-racist solidarity and understanding.

Margaret has fierce opinions of right-wing anti-feminist, anti-queer politicians in the United States, such as Larry Craig, the closeted senator who was recently arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer in an airport washroom. She describes this now-classic story – the rampant homophobe/closeted elected official who gets outed in some sex scandal – as like an Aesop’s fable.

The comedian talks about how such closeted homphobes should go to “gay rehab,” where they would have to put on an all-transgendered production of the Vagina Monologues. Her queer-positive stance has landed her the honour of being considered a “fag hag” – something that she values a great deal.

This is how she describes her recent True Colors Tour, with Olivia Newton-John, Deborah Harry, Cyndi Lauper and other women artists and musicians: “basically it was a Fag Hag Summit.” She then explains how women who are fag hags will often go to bars with gay men to hang out as “girlfriends.” Then, when a certain time of the night happens (Margaret calls this “dick o’clock”), the gay men are no longer interested in them, they are just interested in men. She suggests that the gay bars provide shuttle buses home for all the fag hags when that time comes.

For me as an Asian-Canadian feminist, Margaret Cho is a significant personality in both Canada and the United States. She is a strong, brash, sometimes shocking, very funny voice, in a world where Asian women are rarely seen taking up space, loudly and proudly. She talks unashamedly about sex and sexuality, bringing the audiences to laugh until we cry. Racism crosses borders, and experiences of Asian Canadians are very similar to the experiences of Asian Americans.

In her own words, Margaret describes why she is focusing this comedy tour on what is beautiful:

I want to explore the nature of beauty. What is funny and scary about it, why we often don’t feel beautiful because our society’s standards are so rigid and unattainable. A DJ once asked me, “If you woke up tomorrow and you were beautiful, what would you do? If you were, blonde, blue-eyed, 5 foot 11, and weighed 100 pounds, what would you do?!?” Well, I probably wouldn’t get up in that case, because I’d be too weak to stand. If that is his only idea of beauty then I feel really sorry for him. I want everyone to feel beautiful and I want to do it with laughter. Why not feel good about ourselves?


  • Seasonal Feature

  • April 1994: the night raid at Kingston’s Prison for Women

    by Sierra Bacquie

    There was supposed to be a new approach to the Correctional Service of Canada’s relationship to female offenders, who were promised responsible choices, respect, dignity, supportive environments, and shared responsibility. But on the night of April 26, eight women experienced humiliation, degradation, raw fear and trauma at the hands of an all-male emergency team. How did this happen? What has changed since?  read more