We’ve officially reached the point in the news cycle where things have gotten weird.
At Sunday night’s Golden Globes, Hollywood was in a “Je Suis Charlie,” free-speech-loving tizzy. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler proclaimed their right to defend North Korea-lampooning comedy flick “The Interview,” despite the fact that without the controversy, no one wanted to see it.
And then … there was comedian Margaret Cho.
Cho, who is Korean American, appeared on the awards show decked out in a costume that was something of a reprisal of roles she has played on Fey’s “30 Rock” as late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his son, current Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.
Cho was introduced as a new member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a North Korean army general by the name of Cho Yung Ja who is, the co-hosts said, a contributor to Movies Wow! magazine.
Toting a fake Movies Wow! cover showing Kim Jong Un’s face, Cho posed for a photo with Meryl Streep, which caused a minor ruckus in the audience.
But this was no Ellen DeGeneres Oscar selfie.
Cho, speaking with a thick accent, later reappeared to comment on “Orange Is the New Black” and to tell Kristen Wiig she should have agreed to the “Bridesmaids” sequel. Cho then goose-stepped across the stage. (She made one final appearance, at show’s end.)
It’s unclear exactly what the reaction was throughout the room. But it was decidedly mixed online.
This Margaret Cho bit is minstrelsy.
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) January 12, 2015
That Margaret Cho bit works better when she's making fun of her mother.
— Hank Stuever (@hankstuever) January 12, 2015
— Nancy Cooper (@NancyCooperNYC) January 12, 2015
Don't like these North Korean jokes one bit #goldendglobes
— Katharine Viner (@KathViner) January 12, 2015
I feel like this Margaret Cho stuff is like, still totes racist. #GoldenGlobes
— Akilah Hughes (@AkilahObviously) January 12, 2015
Was it un-funny, racist, or maybe both? Was it just really good satire — fittingly controversial, considering the fact that in recent weeks, the right to make controversial comedy appears to be under siege?
On Monday morning, Cho took to Twitter to defend the bit.
— Margaret Cho (@margaretcho) January 12, 2015
And later, in an interview with BuzzFeed, Cho continued to be unapologetic, insisting that impressions of her own culture aren’t racist.
“I am from this culture. I am from this tribe. And so I’m able to comment on it,” she said.
“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,” she added.
Cho also suggested that the negative feedback is itself a form of racism.
“I feel if there’s negativity, it’s other people’s judgments about what they feel that Asian Americans are allowed to do, really. You’re putting expectations on us that we have to remain Asian American, that we can’t actually play people from Asia,” she said. “When we have British people playing American icons, and there’s no backlash. But for Asian Americans, it’s a very particular set of expectations that we are set to maintain, and that in itself is racist.”
Cho’s supporters have also come to her defense online, suggesting that her act was both funny and risky, like good comedy should be.
margaret cho is KOREAN and she did that sketch to raise awareness of how N Korea continues to oppress HER people
— エマ姉ちゃん (@LatterDayOtaku) January 12, 2015
People offended by Margaret Cho taking the piss out of North Korea? Heaven help them if they ever watch her stand-up routines…
— David Jørgensen (@misterjorgensen) January 12, 2015
— Brian Karpas (@Jew_Majesty) January 12, 2015
— Cameron Van Hoy (@CameronVanHoy) January 12, 2015
The people who think what @margaretcho did last night was racist do know she's Asian right?
— Josh Wolf (@joshwolfcomedy) January 12, 2015
— Dmae Roberts (@dmaeroberts) January 12, 2015
In the past, Cho has been known to do a hilarious impression of her own Korean mother, and she has tackled racism against Asian Americans in her comedy before.
In May 2012, Cho told CBS News that she began appearing on “30 Rock” as Kim Jong Il because she could play him the most convincingly. “I really do look like him — unfortunately exactly like him,” she said. She said at the time that she was excited to do more work as Kim Jong Un.
On Sunday, using an accent similar to the one she has used in mocking her mother, Cho portrayed a North Korean journalist dressed in full military regalia and powder-white face paint. Someone who tuned in without seeing the character’s first segment couldn’t be blamed for being more than a little uncomfortable or confused.
Earlier in the night, Hollywood Foreign Press Association President Theo Kingman got a standing ovation for his powerful remarks on free speech, which provided a sober argument that the Charlie Hebdo massacre and “The Interview’s” foiled opening were about the same principles of a free society.
By comparison, Cho’s stereotype-laden routine seemed to go over like a ton of bricks.
There was one thing that everyone could agree on, however. British heartthrob actor Benedict Cumberbatch managed an impressive photobomb of Cho and Streep’s photo op, which might end up being the more amusing of last night’s performances.
— Jeremy Art (@jeremyart) January 12, 2015
[This post has been updated.]