Philament 2: Blue (2004)

Redefining “Queer” through Blue Humor: Margaret Cho’s Performances of Queer Sexualities

Brian Lewis

Early in her concert film I’m the One that I Want, Korean-American comedienne Margaret Cho asks her audience: “Do you know anybody who’s straight, anyway? It’s so weird, it’s so subversive to be straight… If I’m talking to a guy who’s straight and cute and single, I’m like, ‘Are you a unicorn?’” [1] Through this remark, Cho ironically turns the tables on heteronormative sexuality, that which American society sees performed in our culture each day: in Cho’s world, the queer becomes normalised, and the straight becomes “subversive.” Through this and other remarks on queer sexualities in her concert films, Margaret Cho demonstrates that performative utterances may be used to subvert the ideologies of the world in which we live. Through her blue humor in her comedic performances, Cho encourages her queer audience to think about their world in more positive ways, such that “queer” becomes a source of pride rather than shame.

The roots of performative theory may be located in J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. Here Austin notes that most of the world perceives speech utterances as either true or false; these are called “constative” utterances. However, he proposes a second category of utterances that are not subject to such truth/false conditions. Rather, these utterances are acts in themselves; Austin calls them performatives. The performative utterance, in contrast to the constative, is the reality it describes. Examples of performative utterances include the acts of naming, marrying, bequeathing and betting.[2] Richard VanOort explains:

when I utter, “I name this ship HMS Hermes,” I do not describe a state of affairs in the real world. Rather I bring a state of affairs into existence by virtue of my utterance. The act of naming is simultaneously the reference of my statement. The performative is therefore, in the most rigorous sense, an act and not a representation of something else. [3]

In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler builds upon this idea by relating it to gender identity. She states that “[t]here is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender … identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.”[4] Thus Butler reveals that gender is a performance; it comes into being when we act it out in our society. This theory often analyses the cultural construction of “queer.” David Halperin defines “queer” as “whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence.”[5] Performative theory works well with queer analysis because the “queer” comes into being through performative utterances and gestures. If the dominant culture names something as “queer,” it becomes queer. Katherine Liepe-Levinson uses performative theory to analyse the cultural and political significance of strip shows;[6] Sedgwick employs it “to explore techniques for non-dualistic thought and pedagogy”;[7] and Butler has recently used it to examine pornographic speech acts and the censorship of homosexual issues in the military.[8] Such pornographic, non-dualistic, and homosexual concerns are all considered “queer” in Western culture. Thus, we can see how performative theory provides us with a useful lens through which to examine the work of Margaret Cho. Through her frank discussions of gay and lesbian sex, bondage, and S&M practices, Cho establishes herself as a comedienne who embraces queer culture whole-heartedly. By embracing queer culture in her performances, she helps to redefine the notion of “queer.”

We first see this in her 2000 concert film I’m the One that I Want. Even before the performance begins, we are introduced to the “Ass-Master Fanclub,” one of whom proudly proclaims: “We only love three things: ass, Judy Garland, and Margaret Cho.” This quote restates a line from Cho’s routine, in which Cho quotes her Korean mother as saying that Paul, a “gay” with whom she is familiar, only likes “two things: ass and Judy Garland.” Therefore, right from the start, we can see the effects of redefining queer through performance: these men proclaim their queer desires as a source of pride partly because Cho has inspired them to do so. Through Cho’s imitation of her mother, the mens’ desires are acknowledged as queer, yet “queer” comes into being in the film through the innocent expressions of Cho performing her loving (yet naïve) mother. Cho’s mother harbors no ill will against the gay community about which she speaks; she is merely “curious” about its sexual expressions. In Cho’s work, “queer” is not performed as a nexus of hatred or sin; it is a core of free expression. To emphasise this theme, her comedy in this film reveals how heterosexual people negotiate their way through the queer world. Straight women may become “fag hags,” but the term “fag” is used lovingly to demonstrate how straight women have provided guidance and for their queer friends.

Cho thus redefines the term “fag” to show how it can be a source of pride for the queer community when queer people refuse to let the pejorative connotation of the term scar them. She also explains how, on a lesbian cruise ship, a “prim and proper” British woman reads the names (with pursed lips) that the lesbians bestowed upon horses they bet upon: “Galloping Clitoris” and “No Dick for Me.” While keeping a straight face through her performance of this British woman, Cho declares: “That’s quite a rude name, don’t you think? No Dick for Me? It should be, ‘No Dick for Me,’ thank you.’” Once again, we see here the “queer” used in a humorous routine, but it is a humor to be celebrated rather than chastised. The British woman’s heteronormative, Victorian sensibilities are being mocked here, rather than the queer viewpoints of the lesbians on the cruise ship.

Similarly, in the film’s encore, when Cho imitates her mother pondering the contents of a gay book entitled Ass Master, she blends racialised and sexualised discourse together to rebel against cultural stereotypes. Cho claims that, when her mother worked at a gay bookstore in San Francisco, her mother would innocently pick up gay pornography and would ask Margaret questions about them. “What is an ‘ass-master’?” Cho’s mother asks at one point. The legitimacy of her frank question astounds the audience, forcing them into peals of laughter. Through this question, Cho successfully manages to mock the gay pornography industry which tries to sell hypersexualised images of gay men to the public through such tawdry titles as In the End Zone, Penis Coladas, or I Can Take It All. Instead of mocking her mother through cheap racial stereotypes, Cho reveals how the direct, honest nature of Korean women may bring all of us to understand previously unacknowledged truths of how the media portrays gay culture. While speaking at the Hawaii Gay and Lesbian Film Festival later that year, Cho celebrated the fact that her work brought “old Korean people and leather daddies together.” By using her performance to redefine “queer,” Cho managed to bridge a gap of understanding between two diverse communities.

Cho addresses queer sexuality even more directly in her next concert film, Notorious C.H.O. During one routine in this show, she speaks frankly of going to an S & M sex club. She describes such practices as “worshiping [the] cock” of a “leather daddy top,” serving as the “slave” for a “Mistress Paulie,” and being placed “in a sling” in which Mistress Paulie “was going to fuck [her] with a giant leather dildo.”[9] In the midst of her description of the sex club, Cho explains to her audience: “I’ll eat pussy… it’s just not my first choice.” Even though at the end of the routine she tells us that ultimately she decided not to immerse herself permanently in the sex club’s world, she concludes that she is glad that she had the experience because “there’s no real way for women to really learn about sex in our culture except for to dive into something like that,” other than to read mundane sex tips in Cosmopolitan magazine. Thus, through her routine Cho subverts the cultural myth of passive female sexuality. Contrary to moralistic dictates which state that women in general, and Asian women in particular, must willingly submit to their men’s desires, Cho shows that women have the right to go out and explore their sexuality on their own. She queers the ideology of submissive feminine sexuality through her frank discussions of female sexual exploration: she asserts that, if they choose to do so, women should explore S & M, use sex toys, or even engage in lesbian experiences. Reading Cosmopolitan perpetuates the idea that only pretty, thin women have the right to be sexually desirable. Part of the power of Cho’s comedy is her power to disabuse her audience of this destructive myth; by addressing queer sexual practices openly and honestly, she allows all self-defined queers to feel beautiful and loved.

In her concert films, Margaret Cho successfully reveals the performative nature of “queer.” As Cho discusses “queer” issues during her performance, she subverts the common destructive ideologies associated with queer existence, thus revealing how “queer” is a culturally subjective definition. By instilling pride in her audience for their queer sexual practices through her blue humor, she brings into being a new, more positive notion of “queer.” Cho’s world applauds the subversive, demanding that we not let ourselves be destroyed by heteronormative cultural mores. She asks that we love ourselves “without reservation” and “without restraint… unless you’re into leather… then by all means use restraint.”


[1] Margaret Cho, I’m the One that I Want, dir. by Lionel Coleman, 96 min (Fox Lorber, 2000), videocassette.

[2] J. L. Austin, How to do Things with Words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), 5.

[3] Richard VanOort, “Performative-Constative Revisited: The Genetics of Austin’s Theory of Speech Acts,” Anthropoetics 2.2 (January, 1997), para. 1.

[4] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. (New York: Routledge, 1999), 29.

[5] Cited in David Gauntlett, “Judith Butler,” accessed May 30 2003, available from http://www.theory.org.uk/ctr-butl.htm , para. 12.

[6] Katherine Liepe-Levinson, Strip Show: Performances of Gender and Desire (New York: Routledge, 2002).

[7] Eve Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (London: Duke University Press, 2003), 1.

[8] Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[9] Margaret Cho, Notorious C.H.O., dir. by Lorene Machado, 95 min (Fox Lorber, 2002), videocassette.