She’s funny, brilliant and controversial.
But Margaret Cho’s Golden Globes skit as “Cho Young Ja,” a North Korean general and journalist, created an Olivia Pope-worthy scandal. Some people found it hilarious — classic Margaret Cho and a remix of her former “30 Rock” role as late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.
But a lot of people couldn’t shake the broken English, the angry tone. The skit created a collective cringe on social media. Watching her play out an old Asian stereotype brought up questions of racism and comedic license.
My problem? It wasn’t exactly the skit. It was the fact that Cho was the only Asian to take the stage at the 72nd Golden Globes Sunday night. And she wasn’t herself. She was a caricature steeped in half-baked satire. In 2015, doesn’t anyone find that strange? Maybe the lack of people of color on screens big and small is seen as the norm.
Next month, prime-time television will see its first Asian family in 20 years thanks to ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” based on Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name. Ironically, the last time we saw such a family on TV was Cho’s “All-American Girl.”
It’s hard to name a leading Asian actor who isn’t an action star, says David Lloyd, 32, president of the Asian American Bar Association of Kansas City. And Asian actresses often play up to stereotypes of innocent Hello Kitty or hardened overachievers. He hopes “Fresh Off the Boat” will bring a new dynamic to Asians on television.
“Asians have a lack of media representation across the board,” he says. “It’s time for a change. If our only representation is Margaret Cho doing simple stereotypes, we are never going to get anywhere.”
Michelle Dreher of Kansas City is Korean and white and says she’s so used to not seeing anyone like her on television that she’s shocked when it happens. She, too, is excited about ABC’s new comedy. The last time she connected to characters was when she was changing channels and came across a scene featuring Jin and Sun on “Lost,” which went off the air five years ago.
“They were speaking Korean,” says Michelle, 35, an artist and owner of Two Tone Press. “It made me want to watch. It was awesome and it was so unusual to see.”
She says Cho’s skit wasn’t racist but disappointing. She wonders if audiences knew why they were laughing. Think about it. Was it funny because it tackled any of the actual issues in North Korea or was it just the Asian stereotype?
Cho, who co-wrote the skit with hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, says haters are going to hate.
“I’m of North and South Korean descent, and I do impressions of my family and my work all the time, and this is just another example of that,” the 46-year-old comedian told Buzzfeed. “I am from this culture. I am from this tribe. And so I’m able to comment on it.
“I can do whatever I want when it comes to Koreans — North Koreans, South Korean. I’m not playing the race card, I’m playing the rice card. I’m the only person in the world, probably, that can make these jokes and not be placed in a labor camp.”
Kansas Citian PaKou Her is a fan. As a young Asian-American, she vividly remembers looking up to the comedian as cutting-edge and groundbreaking, unafraid to have hard conversations about race in America. But she didn’t like the Golden Globes skit.
“It’s not about vilifying Margaret Cho,” says the 37-year-old campaign director of 18millionRising.org, a movement to empower the Asian-American and Pacific Islander political voice. “It’s about the impact of racist tropes.”
Much as Dave Chappelle had to question whether people were laughing at him or with him over his racial comedic commentary, it comes down to audience and context. PaKou says that skit gave implicit permission to mock an entire group of people. There was no global context; it was lazy, sophomoric comedy.
“These are the kind of jokes that are seemingly innocuous that can have incredible impact in shaping biases and prejudices,” she says. “You have to consider your audience. How many people in that audience even know Margaret Cho’s body of work, her internalized issues with racism that led to depression and eating disorders? How many people know what is actually happening in North Korea? We are not in a post-racial world. There are people who see that and think if Margaret Cho makes fun of it, I can make fun of it.”
That said, PaKou believes with shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” and more Asian characters on television, (“The Walking Dead,” “Elementary,” “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D”) a cultural shift in entertainment could create change.
“I am thrilled about the diversity on TV this season,” she says. “With ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ and shows like ‘Blackish,’ (ABC’s comedy about a suburban black family), there are a lot of critical conversations happening. People are thrilled to watch, and I know ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ is going to really ruffle people and tackle some really hard issues like identity, immigration and racism.
“The real challenge will not just be where are people of color represented and can people watch them. The real challenge will be if these shows can impact power. Can these shows put people of color in positions to produce, direct and write these kind of roles?”
Because when people tune into television shows, they don’t just escape into another world. They use their remote controls to connect to communities they may not otherwise know. We’re not just laughing at a skit here and a joke there — we’re co-signing how we view the world.