Margaret Cho's life is no laughing matter. As the star of All-American Girl, the first sitcom to depict an Asian American family, Margaret was advised by the network to lose weight. She became obsessed with her body image, landing herself in the hospital with an addiction to diet pills. Soon thereafter, the show was cancelled, leading Margaret down a spiral of depression, alcoholism, anorexia, and drug addiction. In her new film, I'm The One that I Want, she manages to shed light on the sitcom experience, recasting her traumatic past into a comedic stand-up routine. The result is a hysterical film that shows the comedian's even funnier the second time around.
I thought the film was really funny and really therapeutic. Do you find that your act is a form of therapy?
I think so. I know that for me when something unpleasant happens the best thing to do is to go and write something about it and alleviate the pain of the situation that way. So it's almost as if negative things never are really that negative because I can always find a way to diffuse it. I'm very lucky that way. You know when things are horrible the best form of therapy for me is to write and good things always come of it.
I'm the One That I Want was very empowering not only for you to come to terms with your own body image, but also for the audience. If someone else can do it, then maybe they can too.
Absolutely. I think that the way women view their bodies in our culture is so negative and when we can find a way out of that trap it is so liberating. And for women it is the last form of real sexism, that subtle way that we undermine ourselves and how we feel about what we look like. If we're attractive to men, that really covers every aspect of what we do in the world. It really hinders achievement because we can't seem to get over our physical insecurities. Those physical insecurities go way deeper than what people realize. There are so many magazines devoted to just that. And women's culture is all about looking a certain way.
Why do you think weight in particular is such an important form of this social control over women?
I think weight really relates directly to opinion and passion, aggressiveness, desire, and these are elements of women's personalities that men are constantly trying to control. When you can use a symbol like weight, it becomes an all-purpose target. So when we can get over that it's so amazing. Anything is possible. And it's weird because once you really start to accept the body and accept the physical characteristics of the body and accept the weight, it's amazing how that usually manifests in a smaller size. When you stop focusing on dieting you turn the focus to a different part of your life and for some reason the emphasis on food kind of goes away. Since my real transition into this type of way of living, it's amazing how much weight I've lost, which is really weird, since I'm not focused on it, I can't believe I lost weight. Before it was an obsession; I was so terrified of my appetite and I lived in fear of it so to not fear it anymore and to actually embrace it was really profound. So things are really good.
How did you manage to do that? What steps did you take? How did you wake up and look in the mirror and say "I'm happy with who I am"?
It was really a conscious decision. It was a lot of different things. I read a lot of books. One in particular called Revolution from Within by Gloria Steinem was really important and really helped a lot. There are a lot of books that are out there that are just about this subject. Mostly it's just a decision to do it. Thinking out logically what it means. The alternative for me is death. I am an anorexic. I will die if I practice my disease. That's basically it. It's not a social thing for me; for me it's life or death. I think for a lot of women it is. It's very important; it's not a frivolous issue. The media and men would like to have us think that it is frivolous and this thing that can be solved if you reduce your calories. It's way more than that. It's a very intense political issue.
Can we talk about your show? I know that in your film you talk about how at first they said you were "too Asian" and then they said that you weren't "Asian enough" and they hired an Asian consultant.
I think that it was the way the show was started because they paid so much attention to race and that was the primary focus of the show and that we were supposed to represent Asian America and that this was the purpose for our being. And because of that incredible focus on race, we never really had the chance to find out who we were as characters. We weren't allowed to develop as a real show would have because it was an exercise in race relations. It wasn't about comedy, which is where I come from. My comedy isn't necessarily always politically correct. It isn't necessarily always delivering a positive message. It's not any of those things because it's allowed to be entertainment. It's allowed to be whatever it wants to be but because we were carrying the burden of this racial identity, we weren't allowed to be who we were. We were supposed to be something else. So there was this intense paranoia that was carried along with that racial identity which was-- "Are they Asian enough? Are they the right kind of Asian? Are they authentically Asian?" The idea of something having to display it's own authenticity is racist in itself because you are asked to prove that you are in fact different from everyone else. That we are in fact, needing to display that difference in this cultural comedy so it was very unfortunate how it played itself out. There were people hired from UCLA, Asian and Korean studies majors. Then there were some practical purposes for the Asian consultants, like to help the other actors with their accents, to help them obtain accents. Which actually, there was no problem with their accents. Also, the Asian consultant was a real overreaction to the Asian American criticism directed at the show.
I think the Asian American backlash towards the show was because of the fact that the network had touted this as being the first Asian American family on television and there was so much hype surrounding the show about racial identity that I think it really pissed off Asian Americans. It was again this kind of things like, "We are the definitive Asian American family. We are the definitive experience. Look at how great we are as a network that we are embracing this multiculturalism. Finally, television has come so far." There were a lot of things about that that were true, but at the same time they were trying to sell advertising time. I mean it's all a big business to sell dishwashing liquid. It really is not a high-minded institution. The Asian American community reacted negatively because they had to, there was no other way to go with all that hype. So the Asian community was angry and the network felt that was because we weren't Asian enough. That we weren't capturing the experience. And where I get caught was that it almost had nothing to do with me. This whole time when all of this was going on I was just trying not to eat, trying not to go crazy, trying to make it through all of the publicity and all of the duties. When you're a star of a sitcom, it's kind of like being Miss America. You have to go and do all these things that no one else wants to do like cut ribbons and be the first person on a roller coaster. I would just go and do all these really weird things that I was set off to do. So I was completely distracted and starving.
Did you have any artistic control?
No, none at all. I wouldn't have known what to do with it if I had had it. I was so far gone at that point with the work I was doing and the pressure they were putting on me to lose weight, all of this stuff. I really didn't understand where I was. I was 23. I didn't know who I was and I was so insecure because I had no role models. There were no other Asian Americans on television that I could point to and say I want to be like that. I didn't have a real sense of my own power because I felt I could be fired at any second. So I really had to watch my steps. I don't know why I felt this because I was the star of the show and I could have had complete control over everything if I had really sought after it. But I had no idea that that was a possibility and it was never put to me that any of that was possible.
Why do you think it's taking so long for Asian Americans to be accepted in mainstream media? There are still very few Asian Americans on television.
I don't know what it is. I think there are underlying cultural reasons for it. We feel that there are so few of us that we don't inspire more of us to carry on and do more work. My job, I think, is to inspire other people. Not just Asian Americans, but anyone who sees themselves as a minority. And that they can't do it because they can't see themselves. My whole point is to just go forth and do it because you can. Anything is possible.
I don't know exactly the reason, but it's a problem. It leads to more of a feeling of invisibility. Growing up I loved television so much, and I really was such a culture hound and grew up feeling incredibly invisible because I was never seeing myself in the media and never acknowledged. And wondering what I could dream about. I didn't have dreams about what to be because I didn't know what I could be. Or all of my dreams were very limited, like, I could be a guest star on MASH. That's so limiting, and yet I didn't know I could do anything else. For me it was just a matter of going out and doing it and discovering that it was possible. Not that it's been easy by any means, but I just kept going.
Were you always funny as a child?
I don't think so. I don't think I'm a particularly funny person in life. I'm pretty serious and shy. For me all of this is very political. Entertainment is politics and what I do is so important because I'm an Asian American woman and a gay and lesbian activist and all of these different minority groups wrapped into one person. I have to represent a lot of people. And even though I am not trying to create the definitive Asian American fag hag, I'm trying to really represent my life as it is and to inspire other people to do the same.
I know you have been doing a lot of gay and lesbian activism lately. Why is that an important issue for you?
It just always has been to me. It's very natural to who I am. I have a wonderful community of people who are very important to me. It's my upbringing. That's where my heart is and so it's very natural for me to go and do that work. I have been affected by AIDS a lot of my life. I have been affected by different tragedies. There have been people in my life who have been gay-bashed and there are things that I need to deal with to maintain my own status quo. When I work with the gay community, it's just like working with my family. It's very close and very important. And I see there's a possibility for very positive change and for me that's very fulfilling.
Speaking of family, how did your mother react to the show?
She really loved it. My family is so supportive and so excited about my success. It means a lot to them because they never knew that my success could be possible. They really discouraged me when I was growing up. They saw within me a very strong performance instinct and did everything they could to try and get it out. They didn't want me to do that. They didn't want me to lead that kind of life because they just knew that it meant misery and that it would be so unfortunate that the world was against me. That there would never be Koreans in entertainment. It just wasn't possible. Now that they see that it is and they see my success and how it has grown and how I've grown, they just admire it so much and are really proud of what's happened. For Asian Americans, [making fun of our parents] is kind of an oral history. We don't see ourselves in the media so we create our own oral traditions in the form of story telling. For Asian American kids it's about making fun of our parents because it's always a fish out of water situation we're always a different culture than our parents. To be able to share that experience of not understanding where your parents are coming from and laugh at them, it's very tribal. Taking that out into the media is really exciting.
If you could do it all over again, would you do it differently?
I think that I wouldn't just because I learned so much from the experience. I grew so much from it. It was an incredibly painful time and it affected me for many years and of course now my work is still about it. It gave me so much to work with as an artist and I've just come to a place of real happiness and joy around my work and around my life because of it. So I don't think that I would change a thing.
What advice would you give to someone else starting out?
I think the most important thing and the thing that I have thrived by is that when you listen to your own inner voice and make that the largest voice that guides you. All criticism and all nay-saying falls away and if you can just honor your desire. To me that is the most important thing. Honor your desire. And make that what drives you then anything is possible. When you honor your desire, anything is possible. Those are my words for everybody. I think that our desires to do certain things are divinely inspired and that if we follow them out and follow them through they will take us to much better places in our lives. We can do anything.
Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell of Asia Society.