PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Film

Rebel 'With' a Cause: Catching Up with Margaret Cho

Margaret Cho opens up about closeted celebrities and politicians, the lack of Asian American presences in film and television, what it means for her to be a feminist and why President Barack Obama was recently winking at her during a speech at the White House.

Margaret Cho is a rock star. No, literally. For years, her singular brand of performance activism has seared many worlds: stand up comedy, film, television, books, blogs, politics and she has now extended her reach into the realm of music. Her first musical comedy CD Cho Dependent (with collaborators such as Fiona Apple, Jon Brion, and Andrew Bird) drops in stores on August 24 and takes on many familiar Choian topics such as sex, gender and queerness in the iconoclastic way that has become her custom. Cho is another powerful, articulate ally for the queer community, women, women of color, and any and all people who just don't generally fit any kind of predisposed mold. This kind of empathy and allegiance to her audience has justifiably gained Cho an army of devoted, diverse fans, President of the United States Barack Obama chief among them.

When compiling this update to PopMatters' first annual 100 Essential Female and Male Acting Performances, I knew I wanted to include Cho's unique blending of performance styles in her second stand-up feature The Notorious C.H.O. because of the sheer fearlessness of it's star. While not a traditional acting performance by the usual, unimaginative definitions, Cho's work in the film is somewhat of an anomaly: a daring, funny, touching, and incisive call to arms for equal rights featuring an Asian American, the daughter of immigrants, overcoming barriers that would destroy most people (and in fact almost destroyed her), to become the woman at the center of the sharply-drawn action. It is a highly evocative image that Cho conveys, a bawdy message of humanism that doesn't discriminate based on size, age, race, gender, sexuality or belief.

When I saw this film in the theaters back in 2002, I sat gobsmacked in the suburban Detroit theater, rendered wordless at the passion for justice and equality I saw onscreen and the comradery Cho's work inspired in such an oddly diverse audience of young, old, black, white, gay straight, and male, female movie goers and everyone in between. The mismatched crowd laughed their asses off as Cho tackled everything from terrorism to fisting to imitating her famously loved, lovingly-lampooned mother being goaded into riding a camel with the promise of a buffet lunch with equally adept comic precision.

It is very hard to make people laugh, educate and politically arouse them simultaneously, so to accomplish such a synergy and capture it on film is a particularly amazing feat. Cho actually uses the film medium to make change, what a novel idea! This is the kind of acting that redefines what film performance is for me and raises the bar for other comedians who think they should film their live act. Cho's odyssey through and smashing of so many cultural stereotypes and various systems of oppression contains all of the elements I believe a truly great performance should: it is radically political in nature, expressively celebrating many diverse points of view with humor, brains, guts and heart.

For my money, Cho is one of the most radical feminist performers working today and one of the only highly visible public figures brave enough to continue to vocally and justly confront hate in a very public, inspirational way, but also in a hysterically funny and kind way. Her performance in The Notorious C.H.O. is acting, is highly charged politicized performance art, and Cho should not be discounted as simply a racy stand up comedienne when such stylistic elements as voice and gesture are expertly utilized by the actress throughout this complicated, earnest role that only she could play. I called up Ms. Cho in late May for a chat about rock 'n' roll dreams, pressing plans to reconnect with her inner 1970s fag hag and her latest run in with Obama.

I saw you were just sitting in the front row for a Presidential speech at the White House for Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month. That's so exciting! Please dish, how did you land the front row?!

(laughing) Well, I'm such an old groupie, I just know how to get the lead singer's attention. It's something that's in my DNA. Like I'm just programmed that way. Evolution granted me those abilities. I got to the front and it was like, really incredible. Fortunately, that was documented by everybody else because it was an Asian American event, so there was a lot of cameras. However, I did not have one myself. Obama came out and during his speech he winked at me and I was like 'I can't believe the President just winked at me.' I was so blown away and its just really exciting. Kal Penn, who's my good friend who works at the White House, was watching the speech going 'who is he winking at?' Then Obama came down off the podium and he was talking to me and he said he was a big fan and he thought that I was really funny and I was just really moved. I worked on his campaign and so it was a real proud moment when he was elected because it was something I had worked on and I had really been passionate about. During that whole period, I had never gotten to meet him because he was out campaigning. Kal and I were campaigning for him separately, so we never actually hooked up or connected, so it was really rewarding to learn that he was a fan, it was a tremendous gift. I was so honored. It was a really special moment for me.

One of the classic parts of your act is the anecdote about how when you were growing up there were no positive images of Asian women in film and pop culture. How has this changed for the better or worse as you've grown up? What performances did inspire you to act when you were younger?

You know, it's interesting, I don't really know where I got inspiration from. I think probably the thing that maybe made the most impact on me were Richard Pryor's films. They're what inspired me to create that sort of niche for myself, making stand-up comedy films of my shows every year. His films were so inspirational to me, he was a major person that I looked up to, also Eddie Murphy, who had stand up films as well. Raw, which I think is a great, great film and of course Delirious, which is phenomenal. They were inspiring. I think things have changed to some extent. You see a lot more people of color in television and in movies, but its not gone to, like, the lead characters yet. There is a gang of supporting actors who are Asian American, African American; different races, different backgrounds. It still hasn't moved completely forward. There's better visibility. To me it's not ideal but it's better.

Your performance in The Notorious C.H.O. is such a joyous celebration of equal rights. What does the term feminist mean to you?

Thank you, I love that film. Feminism to me is really just a state of being, a state of awareness of what society is doing towards women and talking about equality. I think feminism to me extends not just to my gender but into my work in the LGBT community, my work towards marriage equality, work in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. To me my political life is all feminist, its where it's all rooted. I think its something that's still in need of discussion. You know, people want to talk about how we live in a "post-feminist" or "post-racial" world but I don't think that is true at all. I think there is a lot of sexism but its not as easy to identify and not as easily discussed. Its more about invisibility of women or invisibility of people of color that we need to combat, which is a harder thing to define than outright sexual harassment or discrimination against race. Sexism and racism can get very covert in the modern world and harder to identify but it doesn't mean they're any less present.

It seems like so few artists are willing to express a politically radical side anymore. I mean, even Jane Fonda, who I think is awesome, is like totally PC now. What are the pros and cons to being a really outspoken, opinionated woman of color in the public eye today? How do you think your acting career has been affected by your activism?

Well, its interesting, I think people always assume that I'm mad. I'm not. (laughing) I'm, like, cool with everything and people always assume I'm an angry person. Still, I am critical of certain things. I'm critical of certain stances. Now living in the South -- I live in Atlanta where we film Drop Dead Diva -- I'm very aware of the divides of race and divides of culture and homophobia and sexism. Its a reality and I have to comment on it, I need to talk about it. I don't know how its affected my work as an actor, just because I'm mostly in the realm of stand up comedy, where opinion is valued and it's fine. You can talk about things and you can have a career and still be very progressive.

When you look at people like Bill Maher or Jon Stewart, their careers are built on a certain political, progressive outlook. Even though those guys are progressive, I still have issues with their ideas about certain things. I think being progressive hasn't necessarily hurt me, but it makes me more easy of a target. When the country was seeing more right wing in the earlier of the century, I got a lot of hate mail. A lot of that was directed towards my race or towards my own queerness, because I identify as queer. You really see how homophobic and racist the country is when you're a target of those types of people.

Next Page

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Music

'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Music

Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.

Music

MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.