In the Zone: Margaret Cho Stands Up

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IRAQ WAR CULTURE REVIEW. Margaret Cho is a self-identified “heterophobe” who graciously admits that everything she knows about being a woman she learned from African-American drag queens. Her stand-up comedy is one of many emerging cultural sites where left critique and queer-feminist readings converge in the (re)imagining of post-9/11 American patriotism that defies any reductive, nationalist definition.
Dana Heller

“There has to be a revolution…I think we're in the midst of one and what we need is a reminder of the fact that we are The People. This is fact--not a Civil War, but a Revolutionary War--on many fronts. Of course, we have the war in Iraq but we also have this cultural war going on with the limiting of freedom of speech and limiting of human rights and civil rights on a grand scale…” from “Margaret CHO: In a Crisis, Send in the Comedienne,” an interview by Karen Ocamb in Lesbian News (June 2004)

“GOOK CUNT, You fat ass slant eyed WHORE. YOU SUCK LIBERAL COCK” Hate mail sent to Margaret Cho from “Nero”

Margaret Cho is no stranger to humiliation. First there was the cancellation of her short-lived ABC sitcom, “All American Girl” (1994-95), the first American TV comedy to center on an Asian American family. Add to this the steady flow of racist, misogynist, homophobic hate-mail that she’s received over the years in response to her progressive politics, her outspoken contempt for rightwing conservatism, and her gleefully candid discussions of sexual desires and practices across the spectrum of imaginable experience. Additionally, there was the time last spring when her microphone was summarily switched off only ten minutes into a stand-up performance at a corporate convention at an Omni Hotel, a decision likely precipitated as much by her observation that “the real hostages in Iraq are our troops” as by the fact that the President of Omni Hotels is, according to Cho’s blog, a “close personal friend of George W. Bush” (“No They Didn’t, 6/4/04). And finally, to top it off, she was “whoopied” by organizers of the Human Rights Campaign’s “Unity 2004” rally at the Democratic National Convention, who rescinded Cho’s invitation to speak in skittish apprehension of recent public remarks concerning Bush’s dissimilarity to Hitler (“George Bush is not Hitler. I mean, he would be if he fucking applied himself.”), and the abused bodies of Iraqi prisoners forced to play “ass jenga” at Abu Ghraib.

Fans of Cho who have followed her career since before the neocon invasion of Iraq may recall her “Revolution” (2003) tour, in which she described a quite different scene of shock and awe: attending the birth of her best friend’s child. Moved by the spectacle of female creative power at its zenith, Cho recalls looking deeply into her friend’s eyes as, in that precise instant (and in Cho’s own words), her friend’s “pussy exploded.” Cho’s reverence turns instantly to horror as she recalls the pieces of flying flesh and the attending nurse who went about the room collecting the pieces so that the doctor might stitch the woman’s body back together again. Here Cho pauses, letting the image register. “Frankenpussy,” she intones gravely, before leaping into her next routine.

In considering the cultural landscape produced and reflected by the Iraq war, along with the various forms of popular political critique that have emerged in response to the mishandled, Manichean “war on terrorism” and the missionary exportation of “liberty” and “freedom” that the Iraqi campaign represents--let’s begin by saying that Margaret Cho’s stand-up performances continue to assemble out of the scattered pieces of the vulnerable, abject body as it uncomfortably yet unashamedly confronts its monstrous reflection in the media-saturated discourses of gender, sexuality, nationality, race, and ethnicity. These confrontations, painfully puzzling and disturbing at times, enable Cho’s animation of what we might call “teratological citizenship” (following Rosi Braidotti’s elucidation of recent feminist political practice), an outspoken albeit disjointed amalgamation of the comedian’s dissident, Korean, American, feminist, queer, shit-talking, former substance-abusing, and eating disordered self. Moreover, they animate a revolution of bodies deemed defective, enabling some manner of reclamation from stultifying mass cultural images that promulgate social fictions of normality and nation through the construction of such differences as pejorative.

A self-identified “heterophobe” who graciously admits that everything she knows about being a woman she learned from African-American drag queens, Cho’s stand-up is one of many emerging cultural sites where left critique and queer-feminist readings converge in the (re)imagining of post-9/11 American patriotism as that which defies any reductive, nationalist definition. As Allison Fraiberg observes and as the “exploding vagina” sketch pointedly illustrates, Cho’s comedic strategy typically “centers on isolating a moment with the greatest potential for identification. She takes that moment of connection as a starting point and then fragments it based on cultural expectations. And the process continues with each fragment reshaped into a new moment of identification, then shattered once again” [“Between the Laughter: Bridging Feminist Studies through Women’s Stand-Up Comedy,” in Look Whose Laughing: Gender and Comedy (1994), ed. Gail Finney, Gordon and Breach]. This strategy, I would argue, remains central to Cho’s critique of U.S. brutality and hypocrisy in Iraq, the Pentagon-approved strategies of dehumanization that are legitimized through the rhetoric of freedom’s march. For example, when news broke of Donald Rumsfeld’s trip to Baghdad in the wake of the prisoner abuse scandal, Cho commented, “I was glad to see Rumsfeld at Abu Ghraib prison…and then I realized he was not being incarcerated.” Stand-up comedy, in this vein, stages a process of disidentification with U.S. military leadership, the shameful criminality of which is nakedly revealed, thus inviting a realignment of political sympathies with the Iraqi victims of U.S. democratization.

As Cho’s stagecraft has evolved over the years, the site of her humiliation has shifted discernibly from the personal and familial to the national and historical. Promotion for Cho’s 2005 “Assassin” tour defines it as “a raw interpretation of what’s happening daily in our ever-evolving or devolving state of the union,” a performance written, blog-like, by the unfolding of public events. In contrast, her early work frequently incorporates her family into her sketches, recounting the humiliations she faced growing up with a mother who packed squid in her lunchbox and suggested that she use sticky rice instead of glue for school projects. At the same time, she acknowledges the difficulties her tradition-bound Korean parents faced raising a daughter addicted to methamphetamine and given to onstage confessions that she is a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. In one routine, Cho recalls a Korean journalist who asked her, “Do your parents…your Korean parents…feel ashamed of the things you say on stage?” “I don’t think they feel ashamed because they’re Korean,” Cho impassively responds,” I think anyone’s parents would feel ashamed.”

Most memorably, Cho’s early comedy recounts her humiliating experience with her sitcom, “All-American Girl,” in which she played a second-generation Korean-American daughter and professional comedian whose stock and trade is making fun of her family. The show was a failure, rationalized at first by producers’ suspicions that Cho was “not Asian enough.” When that theory failed, they decided that the show was too Asian and began purging Asian actors from the cast. Much of Cho’s comedy has developed out of the ruthless ignorance--and the implicit violence--of this logic, a logic stemming on the one hand from the culture’s blind adherence to ethnic scripts, and on the other hand from cultural anxieties produced by the corporate state compulsion to manage, discipline, and limit the consumable, pre-fab immigrant identities that the film and television industries circumscribe in order to commodify concepts of legible race and citizenship, gender and sexuality. Cho recalls her dismay in discovering the extent to which Asian Americans themselves buy into these conceits, something she learns upon reading a letter from a young girl who condemns Cho’s television character as an insult to all Koreans. Cho acknowledges her failure to remain within the Asian zone, or to follow the proper social script. “I didn’t play the violin,” she admits. “I didn’t fuck Woody Allen” (“I’m the One That I Want”).

Cho’s performances--from her 1999 “I’m the One that I Want” tour (released as a DVD in 2001) to 2004’s “State of Emergency” tour--traffic in the complex tensions of social demands and individual abilities to contest the constraints of proper ethnic embodiment. To wit, she describes the failure of “All American Girl” as the failure of her body to conform to a social imaginary in which no Asian body, no female body, and no queer body is ever appropriate. In an effort to save the sitcom, the producers of “All American Girl” hired an Asian consultant to teach Cho how to walk and behave in a manner more consistent with Asian stereotypes. At the same time, they put her on a grueling program of diet and exercise because of their concern that she was too heavy. [Determined to remake her body according to industry standards, Cho lost thirty pounds in two weeks and had to be hospitalized when her kidneys consequently collapsed.] In many of her stand-up routines, Cho explores the predicament of her defective embodiment in a culture that equates industry non-standards, including racial non-standards, with monstrosity and terror. For example, in response to one producer’s concern that her face appeared to “full” on screen, Cho imagines a scenario from a B horror movie wherein her gigantic disembodied, Korean face assaults television viewers across the nation, causing them to run for cover. “I had no idea I was this giant face that was taking over America. HERE COMES THE FACE!” Such comic revenge fantasies highlight the threats posed by the foreign body, which constitutes a field of disturbing and complex power struggles that crystallize in popular discourses (i.e. Cold War science fiction films) of racial and sexual border transgression. However, Cho’s more recent insistence that no body in the path of post-9/11 America’s march to Iraqi freedom is ever free of such struggles, her trenchant questioning of the idea that cultural and political differences are somehow intrinsic--originating in the body impugned as foreign, perverse, un-American--rehearse some of the knottier, theoretical questions concerning global economies of difference and the post-9/11 border-policing of ethnic identities and political affiliations. Clearly, bodies that matter for Cho are suspect bodies, multiply and incongruously marked by language, sex, color, and shape, nomadic and gleefully exceeding their proper boundaries. Cho’s own contradictory embodiment, an integral element in her history of becoming and overcoming the dualisms of self/other or us/them, transforms her stand-up into a critical rumination on the interconnectedness of endlessly categorized bodies--individual and national--that do not in fact easily separate out.

Thus, following Braidotti’s analysis noted above, we might consider Margaret Cho’s contribution to the re-imagining of post-9/11 citizenship as part of the “new alliance that is currently being negotiated between feminists and Deleuze” (383). [“Becoming Woman: Rethinking the Positivity of Difference,” in Feminist Consequences: Theory for the New Century (2001), eds. Elisabeth Bronfen and Misha Kavka. New York: Columbia University Press]. Cho’s “bad girl” style of stand-up would seem to fit well within the emergent feminist paradigm that Braidotti calls the “teratological imaginary,” an imaginary that revels in deviant bodies positioned on the outskirts of normalcy and convention. Within this paradigm, freaks, aliens, non-whites, immigrants, and queers signify an embodied difference that has historically been coined negatively--by the metaphysical cannibalism of a subject that feeds upon its structurally excluded others. For Cho, such renegade bodies are potentially productive sites of political engagement. Her exploration of the everyday consequences of “pejorative otherness” not only “helps to illuminate the dissymmetrical power relations within Western theories of subjectivity” (386), but also serves to demonstrate the contradictory powers of the stand-alone comedy performance to abase both performer and audience by detaining them within a visceral, social space that enables political accountability, a potential site for the collective renegotiation of the public terrain of conflict and consensus.

Cho recognizes that such spaces are under siege by the Bush administration, a point that she highlights in her blog on the Bush campaign team’s creation of the “Free Speech Zone.” She writes, “Apparently, if the President is going to be fucking up a speech or pretending to be a soldier somewhere, you cannot protest, bring a sign, or talk any or all kind of shit about him, unless you are in a ‘Free Speech Zone,’ as it is called, which can be up to a mile away from where that idiot is talking out of his head…You can say whatever you like about anyone you want, as long as you do it within one of these specially fenced-in areas. What the fuck? I thought AMERICA was a free speech zone” (1/6/2004). The confrontations with political inequity that frame Cho’s performances--as a standup performer, video maker, and as activist/ blogger--unfold as she constructs the various elements of her day-to-day entrapment within spaces regulated by power relations of bodily submission and interrogation. On stage, she achieves this through the creation of multifarious servile characters and situations, an ill-fitting assemblage of variously sexed, classed, gendered and racialized subject positions. From the airhead actress who works part time at a colonic irrigation spa, to Gwen, the over-worked hospital orderly whose sole repetitive purpose is to wash vaginas, Cho’s comedy demystifies, even as it recoils from, the ordinary administration of bodily rituals and absolutions.

In Cho’s early stand-up, revenge against the mass cultural marketers of the disciplined body took the form of the empathetic promotion of fluid, open bodies that continually succumb to acts of messy devouring, fucking, and voiding. More recently, Cho’s response to the state marketers of disciplined patriotism--the false piety expressed by the top military architects of war crimes committed against the disgraced Iraqi body--is the ironic, unapologetic destabilization of identifications with the U.S. nationalist, militarist body. In response to the corporate media’s release of “treated” images from Abu Ghraib, Cho says, “I think the reason they pixilated those pictures is because those Iraqis have monstrous cocks...and the troops' morale is so low already” (“Margaret Cho: A One-Woman Free Speech Zone,” ACLU Open Forum). Here, Cho’s unmasking of U.S. shame, envy, and obsessive desire for the Iraqi body disrupts the structural oppositions that hold nationalist rhetorics in place. Moreover, it returns sexual fear and anxieties about feminization to the sender, or specifically to the Bush administration, whose fundamentalist faith in Orientalist reductions such as Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind (1976), which famously highlights the Arab cultural obsession with sex and debilitating fear of humiliation, is recast as a mirror image of what the nation itself disavows

Of course, Cho has paid a price for this manner of laying bare the nation, as is evident in the hate mail which she routinely receives and openly posts on her website,, along with the names and addresses of the senders. As the epigraph at the beginning of this essay demonstrates, the writers of these malicious invectives often characterize Cho’s politics as less the problem of her body than of the body of difference itself, pronouncing the terrain of her “un-American” Asian, “liberal” female flesh as alien (“gook,” “chink,” “yellow skin,” “slant-eyed”), undisciplined and animalistic (“fat bitch,” “pig face,” “Mongolian dogshit”), and penetrable (“cunt,” “a-hole,” “whore”), which is to say that they construe her anti-Bush, anti-war politics as the contamination of national space by a body who stands up to acknowledge the prostrate others that are always, already part of us, and by doing so holds open a space of possible transformative becoming.

Such contradictory encounters with abjection remain at center of attempts to theorize American stand-up comedy, exemplified most recently in John Limon’s formalist study of the tradition, Standup Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America (2000). However, with the state’s increased authority in defining enemy bodies, managing the national and transnational traffic in them, segregating the spaces of their interrogation, and narrowing the space of public opposition to the afore- listed operations, Cho’s stagecraft highlights the need for a geopolitically and historically informed reading of the abject body in American stand-up. Recognizing the former, Rachel C. Lee takes Cho’s comedic negotiation of various types of social space and their ideological links to the Asian body as reflective of a new methodological approach to theater and dramatic arts that focuses on the geographical dimensions of performance—the migrations, settlements, and confinements that decenter the racialized subject [“’Where’s My Parade?’ Margaret Cho and the Asian American Body in Space,” The Drama Review 48.2 (2004)]. What I am arguing for, in recognition of Cho’s contribution to anti-Iraqi war culture, is an approach that also accounts for the rise of the teratological body on stage, an evolving narrative of the monstrous yet unavoidable need to assimilate other bodies into our national myths, our collective histories of becoming. Such an approach would illuminate Cho’s corporeal connections to Korean, immigrant genealogies, histories of LGBT and African-American cultures, the body of Iraq, and a world of other, variously embodied deviances—all the sticky yet dynamic attachments of the nation and the self, our hooded inmates and their constitutive wardens.

In the meantime, Cho’s standup comedy is one of many emerging narratives that speaks to the productive yet contradictory ways in which the nation and its others are imagined and re-imagined in the feedback exchanges between East and West, Korean and American, blue states and red states, heterosexuality and homosexuality, exposing any body as singularly insufficient while imagining them all as painfully and dynamically capable of bringing about change. A future generation of teratological citizens is eminently imaginable in such terms, a concession Cho makes as part of her revolution. “If I could be certain of having a gay child,” she claims, “I would go ahead and have the pussy explosion and then glue it back together with sticky rice.”

Dana Heller is director of the Humanities Institute and an English professor at Old Dominion University.

Copyright © 2005 by Dana Heller. All rights reserved.

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