Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Margaret Cho and the Dilemma of Comedy

Let me start by stating that Margaret Cho is a badass. She really, truly is. She's sassy and brilliant. She has no qualms about giving the finger to society. She's a champion for Asian American and LGBTQ rights. She's fantastic! She was on Dancing With the Stars!
Comedy is an iffy arena for Asian Americans. Comedy is iffy for anybody, because you can't "make it" as a comedian unless people find you funny. But. People find Margaret Cho funny! And I can't say I blame them. 

The first 2 minutes and 8 seconds make such a nice summary of the sentiments of this blog - Asian Americans have always strived for acceptance, tried to assimilate, but based on the cultural stereotypes we have seen perpetuated in the media over the years, it's been made pretty difficult. 

These "people who don't understand the concept of being Asian American" are the ones who keep on believing in the "Perpetual Foreigner" stereotype. Cho's standup highlights that marvelously. Those questions/statements are annoying and something that Asians/-Americans must face almost every day, but the fact that they can be turned into comic material and can be accepted by the audience is something in itself.
Then, of course, there's Cho's "Mommy" material that she employs heavily in her standup. It's mostly her squinching up her face and speaking in an exaggerated "Asian/Korean Mommy" accent. In any other non-Asian comedian's hands, that could come off as racist or demeaning. On it's own, it's slightly racist and demeaning. Is it acceptable because it's Margaret Cho, because she's Asian-American? Is it okay to do because that's what her audience wants? Should she just cut that part of her act completely, because it is potentially offensive? Has anyone been offended by it? I often find myself halfheartedly laughing along with her "Mommy" impersonations, wondering whether it's okay for me to laugh or not. 
Is it possible that Margaret Cho would still be as popular if she completely cut the "Mommy" bits from her stand-up routines? I think she would, she's still very funny and witty and sassy enough to be hilarious. But would other people still enjoy her? Obviously, you can't be holding out for universal popularity as a comedian, but.... Would she still be as immensely popular as she is now if she had no "Asian accent" going on? Do people expect that an Asian comedian will employ the "Asian accent" and it'll be so funny and awesome and ohmygod they are my new favorite comedian! 

Comedy is about making people laugh, making your jokes accessible to everyone. But when an Asian-American employs an accent of their people in their routine... is that catering to non-Asian people's taste? Do other Asian-Americans find it funny? We afraid to speak up and say, "The accent is not funny. The accent is the perpetuation of the Foreigner stereotype." Let's dump our Model Minority umbrella, proclaim "The accent is dead!" and have a successful stand up routine with no accents! With no caricaturization of the Asian accent or Asian people! REAL representation is needed! 
More coming soon!


  1. I think you're definitely onto something with the 'Asian Mommy' streotype's appeal to non-Asians. There definitely is a racist factor in laughing at the odd person out. People in any sort of group tend to enjoy picking on people who are new or different. So in that way, it could be considered racist.

    But on the other hand, plenty of white comedians have made jokes about their more 'ethic' parents. Such as the old Italian grandmother, Jewish mom, or the old eastern European grandma with a babushka. Quite a few white comedians will make fun of other white ethnic groups (the French, the Irish). Would these backwards portrayals of white people be racist if preformed by a white comedian, or a non white comedian? In some ways, maybe yes. In others, not really. But then one must also consider that unfortunately comparing race issues is a little trickier than just swapping race. And there are a lot of factors to consider.

  2. I guess my big question is why is it okay to make fun of Asians in comedy? The fill-in search result on YouTube when you type in "Making Fun Of" is "Asians." So why is it okay? Is Margaret Cho's "Asian Mommy" act fueling the fire of this "Make Fun of Asians" trend? Maybe what bothers me most is the accent that she puts on. It's so exaggerated to the point of becoming a caricature - is that acceptable? What if it wasn't even a "Mommy" act, and Cho was just squinching up her face and putting on an accent to be an "Asian Person?" And Cho uses her comedy acts to spread awareness about the Asian-American experience (kinda). For this I give her props. But she seems to cancel that progress out by doing the accent. It's weird.

    However, you do have a point - there's a crapload of "Mommy" standup comedy acts out there, regardless of race. I'm not targeting the "Mommy" act specifically - it's just an example of a popular act that an Asian-American standup comedian does. If it was a white comedian doing an "Asian Mommy" act, I'd definitely consider that racist, even if the racism is unintentional.