Margaret Cho’s Televisual Trajectory: From All-American Girl to The Cho Show
Jane Park / University of Sydney, Australia


Cho

Margaret Cho.

Margaret Cho’s “semi-scripted” reality series, The Cho Show, which aired on VH1 in the 2008 fall season, opens with the comedian introducing herself against a backdrop of rapidly edited clips from her stand-up routines. In the voiceover Cho positions herself within and across a number of cultural binaries – as “a comedian who yo-yoed between skinny and fat”; as the star of the first Asian-American sitcom who was deemed “too Asian for Hollywood and not Asian enough for Asian audiences”; and as a Korean-American performer caught between listening to the messages of her “traditional parents” and those of the entertainment industry. The opening credits end with Cho on stage declaring, “Now it’s time for me to do it my way. It’s my show now” to the applause of her proud parents. As she takes a bow in characteristically flamboyant dress, Cho invites us to see how far she has come since the cancellation of All-American Girl, her first television show, in 1994.

The new show promises to deliver a campy, diva-esque version of the Asian-American celebrity that more closely mirrors her stage persona as a polymorphously perverse “fag hag” who spits sharp critiques of sexism, racism, homophobia, and fatism using risqué humor and wry, well-timed observations of popular culture. In contrast to the family-friendly sitcom, All-American Girl, the tongue-in-cheek pseudo-reality format of The Cho Show seems to offer a televisual space more conducive to the transgressive jokes and self-reflexive irony that define her stand-up comedy. It also gives Cho a second chance at TV stardom, this time, with more life experience and creative control.

choshow

Cho in control.

The Cho Show, then, can be seen as the pinnacle of Cho’s comeback, beginning with her successful 1999 one-woman show, I’m the One that I Want, in which she brilliantly critiques both the normative ideologies of (thin, white) beauty endorsed by Hollywood and the culturally essentialist notions of authenticity prescribed by the Asian-American community. Deftly mixing pain and humor, Cho recounts the trauma she experienced as an idealistic young rising star forced to undergo dangerous dieting measures to play herself on the small screen and to bear what cultural scholar Kobena Mercer has called the “burden of representation” for a highly critical Korean-American audience. ((“Black Art and the Burden of Representation” in Welcome to the Jungle (New York: Routledge, 1994), 233-258.)) A groundbreaking first for television and the Asian-American community, All-American Girl remains the only U.S. sitcom to focus on an Asian-American family using an all-Asian cast.

That said, it was riddled with flaws. While the show was based on her immigrant family, Cho was the only actor of Korean descent in the cast, and the writing and production team was entirely Anglo-American except for one Chinese-American writer. The producers did not bother to do the research necessary to effectively target its Asian-American audience, and in their effort to garner high ratings, tried to target too many demographics at once. As a result, the show suffered from narrative clichés and underdeveloped characters: the actors often self-orientalized, performing their Asianness as a gimmick, which could have been quite funny except that these performances were almost always played straight. Ideologically, All-American Girl also reinforced the banal binary of assimilation (“American”) versus tradition (“Asian”), tellingly embraced by both politically correct white liberals and culturally conservative people of color. In doing so, it lost the opportunity to explore the provocative and often entertaining experiences that arise from having a culturally hybrid identity – experiences that would have been recognizable to many second-generation Asian Americans and perhaps compelling to viewers of other ethnicities as well.

flag

All-American Girl: pressures of identity and assimilation.

Commercial failure might have been inevitable, however, given the historical and industrial contexts of the show’s airing. All-American Girl was situated awkwardly in a period when television was moving toward but had not yet entered the post-network era. As television scholar Amanda Lotz notes, Horace Newcomb and Paul Hirsch’s concept of television as a “cultural forum” – or a mediated public sphere bringing together multiple, heterogeneous viewers – began to dissolve in the mid-eighties as more Americans subscribed to cable and satellite TV and as new networks Fox, the WB and UPN competed with the original three. ((“Using ‘network’ theory in the post-network era: fictional 9/11 US television discourse as a ‘cultural forum,” Screen 45:4, Winter 2004, 427-428.)) These developments were part of a larger cultural shift in the U.S. toward niche-marketing, which interpellated members of historically marginal groups as consumer-citizens. We see the culmination of this shift in such programs as Showtime’s Queer as Folk and The L Word, which target queer audiences and UPN’s Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris, which target African-American ones.

Like these shows, The Cho Show is pioneering insofar as it renders visible identities and groups that have had little and/or stereotypical presence on television and insofar as it gives members of these groups the power to tell their own stories. At the same time, however, the shows must tell those stories using the neoliberal terms of the media industry and dominant culture that, one could argue, their very presence critiques. As well, the audiences are often self-selected based on the branding and programming strictures of the particular channels on which they air. Given these restrictions, what kind of political or cultural work do such shows perform? For instance, we might ask: how and to what extent does The Cho Show differ, ideologically, from All-American Girl?

I would answer: not much. The eight episodes that comprise the first (and final) season of The Cho Show highlight different aspects of Margaret’s life as a Hollywood celebrity who spends most of her time hanging out with her parents (who live with and seemingly off her), vivacious little person personal assistant and conventionally fab entourage of gay male stylists. Most of the material focuses on issues of beauty, celebrity, consumerism, gender and sexuality. In one episode, Margaret tries to court the paparazzi by making a sex tape and cutting a pop single; in another, she considers undergoing plastic surgery to combat the aging process; and in yet another, she gets a g-shot followed by a colonic, to exorcise the ghost that she is convinced is haunting her vagina and giving her writer’s block (ok, this is kind of funny …). In these episodes, the topic of ethnic identity tends to be relegated to her parents’ anecdotes comparing Korea and the U.S., which provide the show with some of its most hilarious and evocative moments and which, sadly, are reduced to quirky tag lines.

While the role of the ethnic other, then, is projected onto and embodied by her parents in the episodes that are supposed to represent the star’s quotidian life, Margaret’s ambivalence about being Korean-American, strikingly (and literally) frames the series; it is spectacularly showcased in the first episode when she accepts the KoreAm “Korean of the Year” award and in the last, when she is honored with her own day in San Francisco. In both episodes Margaret is forced to recall painful memories of being unable to fit the “model minority” role typically assigned to Asian Americans. Rather unsurprisingly, she makes peace with these bad memories when the communities that once rejected her publicly acknowledge and applaud her success. Much like her character in All-American Girl, the older Margaret of The Cho Show epitomizes the American immigrant dream, in which one gains cultural citizenship by conforming to certain ideological norms. In her first show, that norm was a sitcom version of assimilated “All-American” identity; in the second, it is a reality TV version of “post-racial” Hollywood fame.

Yet there has been a shift. Whereas in All-American Girl racial and ethnic difference was a political burden to be borne, in The Cho Show it has become an affective (and effective) ornament to complement – and celebrate – one’s celebrity. While this shift does not necessarily reflect larger cultural developments in the U.S. around issues of “race,” it certainly seems to speak to them.

Image Credits:

1. Margaret Cho.
2. Cho in control.
3. All-American Girl: pressures of identity and assimilation.

Please feel free to comment.




Orientalized Masculinities in Contemporary Australian Cinema
Jane Park / The University of Sydney


description goes here

Lovers Sandy and Hiromitsu in Japanese Story.

On my final night in the U.S. before moving to Sydney last year, I finally got around to watching Romper Stomper. While Geoffrey Wright’s film about Aussie skinheads didn’t provide the most cheerful picture of my soon-to-be new country, I was struck by its viscerally engaging style and its representation of Asian characters. As many critics noted upon its release in 1992, Romper Stomper sucks viewers in with its active camera and pumping soundtrack, positioning us, albeit ambivalently, alongside the skinhead youth whose story is clearly foregrounded. Unsurprisingly, few critics had much to say about the role of the peripheral Asian figures that frame the movie: the Vietnamese immigrants in the opening who are beaten up by the white supremacist gang and soon avenged by angry members of their own community and the impersonal Japanese tourists in the end who snap pictures of the gang leader as he is being murdered on the beach by his best mate.

These framing scenes provide iconic images of two forms of Asian presence in contemporary Australian cinema. The first is that of the Asian tourist (usually Japanese) who is welcome as long as she or he ultimately returns home. As Asian Australian film scholar Olivia Khoo convincingly argues, this figure must die if she or he stays in Oz, functioning ideologically as a necessary sacrifice used to further the inner development of the white protagonists. ((Khoo, Olivia. “Telling Stories: The Sacrificial Asian in Australian Cinema.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 27 (1-2): 45-63.)) The second image is that of the Asian immigrant (usually Vietnamese, Chinese or Lebanese) who, depending on the context, embodies either an economic and cultural threat to the (implicitly white) Australian nation or reaffirms its tolerant multiculturalism. Much like the dialectical binary of the model minority/gook articulated by Asian American historian Robert Lee, both positions render the racialized immigrant a conditionally white citizen who is expelled or otherwise punished as a foreign contagion as soon as she or he threatens to usurp the privilege of those in power. ((Lee, Robert. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999. 180-204. ))

description goes here

How do Australian screens represent the masculinity of the Asian male?

What really surprised me is the central role that these iconic figures play as love interests to Anglo-Australian women in two fairly recent commercially successful and critically acclaimed Australian films. In Sue Brook’s Japanese Story (2003) Hiromitsu, a Japanese businessman enthralled by the outback has a (literally) short-lived affair with Sandy, an urban professional forced to be his chauffeur who herself is out of place in the harsh and stunning landscape. And in Rowan Wood’s Little Fish (2005) Vietnamese Australian drug dealer Johnny returns to Australia, ostensibly gone straight after a few years in Canada, hoping to resume his relationship with ex-junkie Tracy, who is trying unsuccessfully to start her own business in Cabramatta, the “Little Saigon” of Sydney.

description goes here

Tracy in Cabramatta

As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Asian men rarely appear as romantic partners for anyone, and especially white women, in Hollywood cinema due to still prevalent stereotypes of the feminized, desexualized or otherwise emasculated Asian male in the U.S.–stereotypes rooted in the history of Chinese male immigrants who were systematically ghettoized, forced to take feminized domestic jobs, and prevented from forming families thanks to anti-Asian exclusion laws. ((Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2010.)) For this reason, I was interested to see how a romantic relationship between an Asian man and a white woman would play out on the big screen in Australia, a Western nation in the Pacific that draws culturally on Britain and the U.S. and economically on its Asian neighbors.

Sadly, both films fell short of my perhaps unrealistically high hopes. Outside the radical acknowledgment that Asian men might actually be desirable to white women, Japanese Story and Little Fish use the same tired tropes and techniques to represent sympathetic Asian characters as selfless “caregivers of color” to borrow Cynthia Sau-ling Wong’s phrase and thus unwittingly reveal the power hierarchies that continue to structure white fantasies of the exoticized and eroticized Asian “other.” ((Wong, Cynthia Sau-ling. “Diverted Mothering: Representations of Caregivers of Color in the Age of ‘Multiculturalism” in Glenn, Evelyn Nakano, Grace Chang and Linda Rennie Forcey, eds. Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency. New York: Routledge, 1994. 70.))

The new twist on an old formula is the clever way in which these films successfully masquerade as anti-racist, colorblind narratives. Japanese Story appeals to white liberal audiences by showcasing the development of a taboo interracial relationship between a white woman and an Asian man, which can only happen in the liminal space of the road and the indigenous wilderness. While the film is beautifully shot and there are some funny and poignant moments of connection between the characters, it is difficult, as a Korean American female viewer, not to notice the blatant ways in which Hiro is orientalized, functioning as the compliant male Lotus Blossom for the ambiguously butchy Sandy, who seems to see in his smooth skin, lean physique, and poor English an alternative, more manageable masculinity to that of the big, loud, and dismissive Australian men who ignore her throughout the film. No surprise then that she dominates her submissive Asian lover in bed, literally putting on his pants before she mounts him in their first sexual encounter. Hiro takes the traditional position of the woman in the scene: he remains absolutely still as the camera follows her gaze to look down at him. Tellingly, when he finally takes sexual initiative, kissing her rather than being kissed, he unexpectedly and inexplicably dies after following her playful instructions to jump into a lake.

description goes here

Addictions and contagions.

In contrast Little Fish plays down Johnny’s racial difference even as it consistently plays up his cultural difference as a hybridized Vietnamese Australian. None of the Australian reviews I read of the film discuss the interracial aspect of the romance between Tracy and Johnny, and while most comment on its “authentic” setting, the implicit connections between the Vietnamese immigrant community and its association with drugs and gang violence is not discussed because, as my Australian colleagues informed me, this is already a given for the target audience of the film–most of whom would never venture into Cabramatta except for the occasional food tour. Likewise, the racial and cultural difference that Johnny embodies and that constitute the backdrop of Tracy’s working life is coded implicitly as a contagion, much like the drugs that form the central motif of the film. Tracy is still, it seems, addicted to the dangerous drug that is Johnny. Her family warns her to stay away from him yet she compulsively calls him (and he always comes running) only to flee from him for no discernible reason. On a more positive note, Johnny unlike Hiro, takes a more equal role in lovemaking and amazingly lives to see the end of the movie. I suppose that is something to celebrate. Yet I can’t help but feel a bit sad and perplexed that at a time when so many Asian countries have entered First World status, a mixed-race man is president of the United States, and the Australian prime minister speaks Mandarin, this is what we can claim as progress for representations of Asian people on the big screen.

Image Credits:

1. Lovers Sandy and Hiromitsu in Japanese Story.
2. How do Australian screens represent the masculinity of the Asian male?
3. Tracy in Cabramatta.
4. Addictions and contagions.

Please feel free to comment.