Loud and Proud: Shameless meets Margaret Cho.
“George Bush is not Hitler. He would be if he fucking applied himself,” comedian Margaret Cho said to an applauding audience in January. Cho was defending the grassroots political organization MoveOn and its Bush in 30 Seconds competition, which asked Americans to submit their own anti-Bush advertisements. The winner’s piece was to air during the Super Bowl (until CBS blocked it). Two of the thousands of entries compared President George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler, enraging Republicans and making headlines across the country.
The day after the MoveOn event, the Free Republic website, a “gathering place for grassroots conservatism on the web,” posted a link to a partial transcript of Cho’s performance. It didn’t take long for the ultra-conservative American right to react. Cho received numerous hateful e-mails attacking her physical appearance with comments such as: “Take your fat slant-eyed head and go back to China.” Little of the criticism was actually related to her political views. Cho, whose family is from Korea, stood strong. It wasn’t the first time she had encountered this kind of ignorance.
Most people know Cho for her vulgar humour and impersonations of her mother. But she’s also developing a following online through her weblog, which gets 10,000 hits a day. Although she makes her readers laugh—she won this year’s Bloggie award for Most Humorous Blog—it’s politics and social issues that she writes about most often.
Cho responded to the e-mails she received after the MoveOn event in a blog entry. “Some are trying to get to me by using their unrelated, unimpressive insults. What they don’t realize is that I am untouchable, because I have been hurt so much in my life, nothing hurts me anymore,” she wrote. “I have been so rejected that I have come to expect it. I have learned to love that which is meant to harm me, so that I can stand in the way of those who are less strong.”
Onstage, in her writing and in interviews, Cho often talks about growing up in San Francisco, never feeling accepted by anyone. Although she was born in the city, Caucasian- Americans saw her as Korean. Yet, some members of the Korean community didn’t welcome her either. Conservative Koreans expressed their embarrassment early in Cho’s career because she wasn’t their idea of what a young Korean- American girl should be. Cho never finished high school, whereas “good” Korean girls obey their parents and go to university to become doctors, lawyers and business women. While the “good” girls learned to play violin or piano, Cho learned to tell jokes at comedy clubs.
“The hard part of growing up in an immigrant family is that you have a lot of expectations coming from the older generation trying to suppress the younger generation,” Cho says on the phone from a hotel room in Boston. “It can work to your disadvantage in dealing with the larger role of the dominant culture. It’s hard trying to battle two things when you’re going out there and making strides to do something different.”
Cho began her comedy career at 16. She was soon travelling across the country and became the most sought-after college campus comedian in America. By 1994, she was offered her own television sitcom, a notable accomplishment for a 26-year-old. Titled All-American Girl, the show was based on Cho’s stand-up material and was the first series featuring an Asian-American in the lead role. Though critics lauded the sitcom as a major achievement for minorities as a whole, it would not be an easy ride to fame for Cho.
Despite the fact that Cho was playing herself, the producers of All-American Girl decided her physical appearance was not up to par. They told her to lose weight. Before the show began, they put her on a strict diet and exercise routine. It worked. She lost 30 pounds in two weeks, but the stress on her body caused her kidneys to collapse and put her in the hospital.
Haunted by tabloids, producers and her own fear of rejection, Cho became addicted to diet pills. But her efforts to be the person she thought she should be in order to succeed weren’t enough to keep the show on television. All-American Girl was “too Asian,” Cho was told by her producers, even though they’d hired Asian consultants to make Cho “more Asian” only weeks earlier. After six months on-air, the sitcom was cancelled.
Cho became depressed. She contemplated suicide, but ultimately turned to alcoholism, drug abuse, anorexia and promiscuous sex instead. As she describes in her debut film and subsequent U.S. tour, I’m the One I Want, one day, after a night of excessive drinking and drug use, Cho woke up next to her alcoholic boyfriend without any recollection of the evening before. One of them had wet the bed but they didn’t know who. At that point, Cho decided it was enough. Her life had spun out of control and she wanted it back.
“Comedy is tragedy plus time,” comedian Carol Burnett once said, and although the performers’ styles are different, Cho’s success echoes Burnett’s sentiments. Her career has been a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, but her past fuels her comedy.
In I’m the One I Want, Cho talks about her show’s cancellation: “I didn’t know who I was, all I knew was that I failed and I failed as someone else. It was painful and I did what’s really hard for Asian people to do,” she says. Her tone is slow and serious. And then the punch line: “I became an alcoholic—and that’s not easy because we can’t drink.”
Cho’s ability to deliver humour based on her own tragedies has built her a loyal and diverse fan base of various sexual identities and ethnicities. Her followers cite Cho as not only an incredibly funny woman, but an inspiration to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.
Robert Lidstone, a 22-year-old gay student in Vancouver, explains why he is attracted to Cho. “She seems to bring people together across various lines of difference precisely because she is very critical of the mainstream through her comedy,” he says. “I think I relate more to her comedy because it’s not just funny, it’s political. She purposely weaves together a critique of mainstream society through her bits so I find it empowering as well as entertaining.”
Offstage, Cho practices what she preaches. She has been honoured by organizations such as the National Organization for Women, PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) for her activism.
In February, San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The Bush administration threatened to amend the constitution to effectively ban these marriages across the country. So Cho decided it was time to raise her voice for equal marriage rights. Since she was already writing about social equality online, it made sense for her to create a website supporting same-sex marriage. Loveisloveislove.com was born.
“It was just a natural reaction to wanting to make a site that was a place for people to come and get all the latest news and information about this issue which is so vitally important, not just to the gay and lesbian community, but to a world that is humane, looking towards a future of equality for everyone,” Cho says. “It’s about really honouring the aspects of the heart. We can’t deny love in all of its forms. When we put limits on who can get married and who can’t, and when we put biases in terms of what is legislatable in terms of love, then it’s a really bad, bad thing.”
Webmistress Keri Smith updates the site daily with the latest news and resources. She says, “It started as a way to point Margaret’s fans in the direction of petitions like the one she did with the Democratic National Committee, where they could make their voices heard against a Federal Marriage Amendment.” The site features a “Bible Verse of the Day” that Smith says is a funny, yet astute way of discrediting religion as an excuse for homophobia.
Unlike other celebrities whose idea of supporting a cause is simply donating money or face time at gala dinners, Cho takes her values further. She gets down and dirty with fellow activists, often protesting and speaking at events such as rallies for equal marriage and the March for Women’s Lives (a historical march for women’s reproductive rights that took place this past April in Washington, D.C.).
This year has been busy for Cho. She released her third film, Revolution, and is working on her own clothing line, High Class Cho, with designer Ava Stander.
But she’s focusing most of her energy on her comedy. In this U.S. election year, Cho has her work cut out for her. Her tour, titled State of Emergency, is blatantly political. She is currently working her way through swing states (the ones with no obvious winner on the horizon), where she hopes to open the eyes and minds of her fellow Americans to the negative actions of the Bush administration.
“There’s a war in Iraq and there’s an awful cultural war happening in America over things like civil rights and the idea of religious freedom and gay marriage, and all of these wars are just the direct result of the current administration,” she explains.
“We have all these channels of free speech being shut down. I don’t understand why it’s going this way, so I feel there’s a real need for a strong movement and taking as much action as possible. I’m going to try to stir up as much energy and force as possible.”
A younger, more naïve Cho may not have said these things with such conviction. But now, at 35, she views the hate mail she receives for her opinions as a sign of victory rather than a setback. “It’s just a good indication that I was making progress where I had not been on the radar before,” Cho says of the mail she received after the MoveOn event. “When you get people to really hate you, you must be doing something kind of great.”