Notes & Queeries is a monthly column from Malinda Lo that focuses on the personal side of pop culture for lesbians and bisexual women.
Last Saturday night onstage at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, queer comedian Margaret Cho — now on tour with her new show, Beautiful — recalled going on a radio show where the host asked her: “What if you woke up tomorrow and you were beautiful? What if you woke up and you were blond, had blue eyes, were 5-foot-11, weighed 100 pounds, and you were beautiful? What would you do?”
In a deadpan voice, Cho said she responded, “I probably wouldn’t get up because I would be too weak to stand.”
Though she joked about the radio host’s question, there was an underlying sadness to the tale. Anybody who isn’t tall, blond, blue-eyed and thin (that’s most of us) can easily understand why.
That’s why, Cho said, she wanted to name her new stand-up show Beautiful: to celebrate the fact that she is beautiful.
In a way, Beautiful is a return to I’m the One That I Want, the hit 1999 tour that marked her comeback from the failure of her sitcom, All-American Girl. Back in 1999, I went to her Boston performance with a few Asian-American lesbian friends. At that time — probably because I was a bit less loud and proud about being queer than I am now, as the managing editor of this site — Cho’s comedy made me nervous.
She did everything that my Chinese parents told me not to do. She cursed. She made fun of Asian Americans, including her mother. She revealed in detail how much she loved the gays. She talked bluntly about sex — way too bluntly.
She made me uncomfortable, but she also got my attention. That’s why Margaret Cho is so necessary. The sharpest comedy shows you the boundaries of your own tolerance, and pushes them.
Cho is still exhorting her audience to love themselves (with the help of an armful of sexually explicit jokes), but Beautiful is more than a repeat of her tried-and-true message. It’s the next step.
She seems to be saying: Now that we’ve chosen ourselves, it’s time to celebrate our beauty.
It’s disturbing how deeply the roots of self-hatred go; it’s also disturbing when it’s excused as modesty. I say this because just the other day, I found myself dismissing a compliment that I received from someone whom I had every reason to believe.
It was Sunday afternoon, the day after Beautiful, and my girlfriend told me (as she often does) that I looked beautiful. I laughed at her and said, “Whatever, you’re biased.”
Possibly because I had dismissed her compliments more than once (and because she knew I wasn’t just being coy), she objected, “No, you look beautiful when you’re dressed up or when you’re wearing a T-shirt or whether you’re wearing makeup or not.”
And then she said, “Sometimes we can’t see what others can see more easily.”
I think of myself as someone who is relatively well-adjusted in terms of my own self-worth, but she hit upon something that I haven’t really admitted to myself until now: I still, often, think of myself as less than beautiful, and that’s because beautiful, in contemporary American culture, is indeed about being tall, thin, blond and blue-eyed.
That definition excludes the vast majority of the population. How could I possibly believe that?