Margaret Cho’s Shtick At The Golden Globes: Not Racist, Just Tired

Last night at the Golden Globe Awards, Margaret Cho played a character named Cho Yun Ja, a movie reporter from North Korea, in a misguided attempt to coast off fumes generated by the publicity machine that surrounded “The Interview”‘s weird half-success. The bit was a little clunky and mostly unfunny. Margaret Cho, a woman of North/South Korean descent, stepped onstage and did what she has been doing for the majority of her career: speaking in a thick Korean accent and poking gentle fun at where she comes from. As Cho Yun Ja she was stoic, stern and weird, dressed in an unflattering military suit and never cracking a smile. It was uncomfortable to watch, it was squirmy. but it was not racist. It was just kind of tired.

When the internet outrage machine woke up this morning and rubbed the sleep from its eyes, a lot of people didn’t know what to make of Cho’s routine. Salon found it “squeamish,” while Slate gently pointed out that Cho and Tina Fey have a long and storied history of talking shit about North Korea. Twitter found it all pretty racist. In a brief interview with Buzzfeed, Cho defended herself:

“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…“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.”

Here’s the thing to understand about Margaret Cho’s comedy, from someone who is of Asian descent: it’s nice to see familiar experiences represented by someone who looks a little bit like me. Her hammy, over-the-top imitation of her mom’s accent clearly comes from a place of love, and at first it was subversive because there were absolutely no representation of that anywhere, ever. It felt nice for someone to acknowledge and recognize that yes, it is weird when your school lunch is full of dried squid and sushi made from dried pork floss and pickled radishes, and it’s okay to acknowledge it. For me, it was comforting to hear someone else who shares the same experiences talking about it in a comedy special.  It’s nice to be represented. The only complaint I have now is that the act is tired. Don’t be mad about it being racist, be mad about the lack of representation of Asian voices in entertainment and comedy. Be mad that the only representation is a tired act from over a decade ago, leaning on the same old shtick. Be mad because it’s old, but I wouldn’t call it racist.