Introducing a new column – Breaking Out of the Mold. This column focuses on Asian American figures who represent the fundamental qualities we seek in role models like excellence in their fields but in some way or another are distinctive and noteworthy. This could be because they succeeded so tremendously in occupations in which they were “interlopers” or because they mutated the archetype of an Asian American trajectory. The people featured in this column have all lived inspirational lives that might not be the most orthodox and for this very reason deserve mention and visibility.
Asian American success stories are not difficult to come by. Alarmingly quick, upward mobility in certain fields is a hallmark of our ethnic group and regardless of its principle determinants; we can all (Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld included) agree that as a conglomerate of distinct nationalities, we still face all the trappings of being a minority.
Progressive advances are being made, but the tropes and racial characterizations in the media, television, and even in the depths of people’s minds are inescapable. TV shows that don’t feature white, middle-aged, straight men as protagonists are being heralded as monumental depictions that need to be on the air for as long as possible to provide the few gasps of air this intermittent trend will breathe before networks return to the norm.
In spite of this, now and then we see a glimmer of unconventional kookiness that thrives in the spotlight. Margaret Cho has a heterodox sense of humour, which might not seem risqué given how provocative most stand-up comics have to be these days to sell-out shows, but in the context of her heritage and visibility, is a rarity. Her views on social issues range from liberal to very liberal making her part of the majority in celebrity culture, but her status as a Korean American puts her in a unique position. In a letter to a San-Francisco newspaper, a 12-year-old girl wrote, “When I see Margaret Cho on television, I feel deep shame.” Though this was in response to her show All American Girl, it largely echoed how people who expected her to fill an archetype and behave in a manner de rigueur viewed her. In her words, “I wasn’t like any Korean role-model that they had ever seen. I didn’t play violin. I didn’t fuck Woody Allen.”
With lurid humour and uncommon insight, she performs shows that have its detractors, but are always rib-splittingly funny. Even when seen without the background of her heritage, sexuality and appearance, she is undeniably good at what she does. In this world where much is said about our nationalities and where we come from, Cho is not an academician providing commentary on the cultural aspects of being Asian in America but still has a voice that represents the best of us. Without playing an instrument, getting a college degree, or compromising on her opinions, she has achieved marked success in a primarily male-dominated field.
Though she did make mistakes early on, most of these arose from her pandering to discriminatory network executives who in turn were beholden to a Korean American demographic with narrow ideas on what it meant to be ‘Korean.’ One producer is singled out as chiding her “full face,” forcing her to embark on a dangerously unhealthy diet as the network was hiring a coach to help her be more ‘Asian.’ All of these experiences now serve to make her shows stronger and funnier as in retrospect they seem like the demons most people have to eventually exorcize to pursue success.
As a role model, Cho may not seem to be an optimal candidate. There exists a plethora of highly successful Asian Americans who embody the very specific litany of values held dear like filial piety, discipline, academic achievement, and a respect of authority; but by inverting these exact values she represents those aspects of our ethnicity that we keep hidden, behind a veil of dignity and respectability. None of us would want to be caught in a puddle of our urine drugged out and drunk, but Cho expresses the chaos and liberalism that is necessary for any group to evolve. It is precisely because she learnt from these mistakes and now broadcasts her non-conformist views on LGBT culture, body positivity and race that she must be taken seriously as a role model.
There is quite evidently more to life than money and Cho stands for an ideal that eclipses cookie-cutter success stories and parochial ‘Asian values.’ Her life and shows have the potential to create imitable standards that as a group Asian Americans can learn from.