On Sunday night at the Golden Globes, I cringed when Margaret Cho appeared, dressed in an oversized North Korean Army uniform, looking stoic and completely silent at the beginning of a comedy bit spoofing The Interview. I’m not the only one: numerous viewers have questioned whether Cho’s bit was a funny critique of the despotic state or just an offensive “empty caricature.” On Monday, Cho herself jumped into the conversation and tweeted that as a person of Korean descent, with family members directly affected by the dictatorial rule, she had a right to poke fun of the regime.
My initial gut reaction saw her performance as a lazy stereotype to entertain the largely white audience at the show and at home.
In an interview with Buzzfeed following the awards show, Cho responded to the criticism, “I feel if there’s negativity, it’s other people’s judgments about what they feel that Asian-Americans are allowed to do, really.” She continued, “I think that we’re being held down by that incredible tide of invisibility that we’re constantly fighting. Whenever there is visibility, it’s shocking.”
The issue of visibility points to a bigger problem with Cho’s character in the context of the awards show: the Golden Globes is attended mostly by white people and hands out awards to mostly white people, celebrating their work in an industry that has historically marginalized people of color. The character might not have felt as awkward if there were numerous Asian American people onstage on Sunday night. Instead, the fake North Korean general was the only Asian person to appear onstage during the ceremony. Her caricature played out against the backdrop to an overwhelming number of white actors and directors who won that night.
In Amy Adam’s acceptance speech for her performance as artist Margaret Keane in Big Eyes, she pointed to all of the inspirational women in the room and how they have “such a strong voice” who spoke to her daughter. When Maggie Gyllenhaal won for her role in the BBC miniseries, The Honorable Woman, she said, “What I think is new is the wealth of roles for actual women in television and in film. That’s what I think is revolutionary and evolutionary and it’s what’s turning me on.” Adams and Gyllenhaal are talking about three-dimensional characters and the strength of the women who play them. They are celebrating the “women in the room,” women who showed up as themselves and have no issues with finding other women who looked just like them onscreen.
While recognizing that Asian Americans aren’t a gigantic generic monolithic group, for a woman like myself, Cho was the only person in that room who looked like me. And there she was onstage, flanked on either side by co-hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who didn’t have to dress up as characters in order to make fun of anyone. The stilted role left little room for nuance in Cho’s criticism of the North Korean government. Margaret Cho would have undoubtedly been funnier just being Margaret Cho at the ceremony.
Gina Rodriguez, whose parents are Puerto Rican, was the only person of color to receive an acting award, for her role as the title character in Jane the Virgin. She gave an emotional speech where she said, in part, “This award is so much bigger than myself. It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.”
It’s not so much that I need to see a hero who is Asian American, I’d just like to see her out of costume and as herself.
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Amy Lam is Bitch’s associate editor. She tweets at @amyadoyzie.