Margaret Cho on pansexual superheroes, TV throuples, and sex toy cleaning tips
Margaret Cho is known for her whip-smart comedic observations on—well, on a lot of things. Since breaking out in the mid-’90s as the star of All-American Girl, the first American primetime sitcom to feature an Asian-American family, Cho has carved out a career as an actor, author, and activist, all while remaining true to her first love: stand-up comedy.
Over the years, Cho has also been an outspoken advocate for (and member of) what she calls “alternative sexual communities,” speaking frankly about her experiences with polyamory, pansexuality, and kink. She’ll bring some of the kinky wisdom she’s obtained over the years to audiences this Valentine’s Day with After Hours With Margaret, a virtual event she describes as “advice, anecdotes, and absolutely amazing anatomical descriptions of anything and everything.”
As we kick off our Love Week here at The A.V. Club, we connected with Cho over Zoom to ask for her takes on a dozen different pop-cultural phenomena related to sex, love, kink, polyamory, and LGBTQ+ representation in the media. Among the topics we covered in this wide-ranging conversation: Jojo Siwa, Schitt’s Creek, Armie Hammer, vacationing while poly, sex toy maintenance, pansexual superheroes, the absurd censorship laws around penises, aching historical lesbians, and more.
Lesbian period pieces
Margaret Cho: I love Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. I love Gentleman Jack. There’s something about lesbians that’s really Victorian in my mind. With lesbians in history, it’s about longing, secondary citizen status, betrayal, emotional heartache—there’s a lot of cats, and a lot of nature play. I just think it’s really poetic and really beautiful, and to me it’s very heartwarming. It just makes me so happy.
Even up to the 1960s, the lesbian bars were sort of hidden away. That era of lesbian culture is something we see very sparse images of. So when you get a whole big movie like that, I think it’s really remarkable.
The A.V. Club: What do you think when people complain that there are too many of these? The “let the lesbians have smartphones!” type of comments?
MC: I think let them do whatever. It’s like complaining that there are too many straight-people movies. There is a place for it. There’s a lot of drama inherent to the story. I think that when you go back in history, and you’re able to tell stories about LGBTQ+ people, then you have so many layers to deal with, you know? You have oppression, and invisibility, and fear… like Carol.
Carol is one of my favorites. It’s just filled with this ache, which is at the heart of lesbianism for me. I think that because there’s something about women that’s very unknowable. It’s at the heart of loving women, this mystery. And I think anybody who loves a woman will identify with that fear and unknowability and mystery women really hold. And so these movies and television shows, they have a great power emotionally.
MC: I love it! It makes you cry. Like, you just cry. I want these queer stories to have all sorts of backgrounds, and to be able to put queer people in any situation, whether it’s a Christmas movie or whether it’s a historical drama. I think that’s beautiful.
AVC: Did you want Kristen Stewart to run away with Aubrey Plaza at the end?
MC: Yes! [Laughs.]
AVC: Of course, right?
MC: Of course. They’re perfect. But just the fact that we’re seeing these stories, I think it’s beautiful.
The decline of sex in American film
MC: There are always these eras that film goes through—and television, now—where we pull back. There was the Hayes code, which had so many things that you couldn’t show. Pre-code movies seem so incredibly lurid and adult [by comparison], because there was such a puritanical attitude toward film and entertainment in that era.
It’s a 20-year cycle. The ’90s were a time where we started to see more NC-17 movies, and in the ’70s people were going to movie theaters to go see porn, which I love. I think that is the greatest thing. The thing about now is, we have a century of films to look back on and explore all of these different eras, in this new universe of streaming services and ways to watch films. We have a library, a huge archive of films where you can see real sex and you can see sex as it’s been pictured [on screen].
When you remove sex scenes from movies, you do require a more nuanced interplay within scenes that represent sexuality—which can be really meaningful too! I’m against any kind of censorship, but I do think that there is a place for more imaginative interactions that display the mores of the time, so that future generations can see what people were thinking about and looking at when they were here. I appreciate all angles on [sexuality].
AVC: Do you see the cycle coming back around?
MC: It always comes back around. That’s just the nature of art and entertainment and fashion and all kinds of expression. You get overwhelmed with a certain kind of thing, and then you want to move back or move forward.
I never think that anything is really here to stay. When I think about early ’00s fashion, I really get freaked out. [Laughs.] But then I just bought a bunch of Juicy Couture tracksuits. I contradict myself often. People always go back and forth, and that’s something that’s definitely applicable to film. And we have many, many, many years of great cinema to look back on and see the truth of that.
MPAA rules about penises
MC: It’s like penis with intent. It’s like the line between homicide and manslaughter. Is it premeditated? [Laughs] It’s also supporting patriarchy, because you wouldn’t have a way to equally apply that to anybody [without a penis].
It’s so characteristic of [these censorship rules]. You can show an asshole, but you can’t show anything goinginto an asshole. You can say “up my ass,” but you can’t say “in my ass.” There is so much language and so many different parameters for television censorship that are really very arbitrary.
I think if you see a penis, it’s a penis. It doesn’t matter if it’s erect or not. To me, it shows the limitations of sexism, the patriarchy coming in for a landing. It’s a funny thing, but that’s where you see the inequity between bodies.
AVC: It’s centering the penis, and a hard penis in particular. “This is sex now. This is porn now.”
MC: Now it’s sex. And that also discounts that idea that sometimes erections can happen outside of a sexual context. Or sometimes erections can happen and sex isn’t even applicable, like rape.
There’s this phallic worship that exists in society where the erect penis has this imbued power that’s almost un-photographable. The erect penis is an incredible miracle! We cannot photograph this special thing! [Laughs.]
A throuple on House Hunters
MC: I think that it’s an unusual setup on something like HGTV, but it’s not that unusual in the wild. If you ever go on an alternative dating app, there are apps specifically for throuples. I’ve been in a few—quite a few, actually.
I don’t find them as successful as a quartet, because with throuples, you have the potential for really intense triangulation. That’s just the natural impetus when there’s an odd number, is that you’re going to have people ganging up on other people. It’s strange, but it seems to be inevitable. But when you have a quartet, there is an equanimity. If it’s two couples, then there’s a sort of an agreement that happens. I think it’s more long-lasting. It’s also much more suburban and easily closeted, because nobody questions two couples on vacation. It’s very pervertible. Like a convertible, but a pervertible.
Something that I found in my experience as polyamorous person—not so much anymore, but in my younger days—[is that] you do have to have a lot of energy to do all of that. You need a lot of iron supplements, or maybe wheatgrass. Take your vitamins if you’re going to be engaging in a polyamorous relationship—or more than one! But I do love the fact that you have a throuple on this house hunting show! It’s not like when shows like Donahue or Ricki Lake would have shows about “unusual arrangements.”
MC: They would have these people on, and the whole thing would be about the relationship. But this was actually a very practical show about, “We need to figure out how we’re going to fit our family—which is basically a blended family—into a house.”
AVC: When you see depictions of polyamory on TV, you often see the two women-one man throuple, which on the one hand seems to me, as a bisexual woman, like living the dream. But on the other hand, I wonder if it reinforces the stereotype of bisexual women where, like, you put a quarter in and a threesome comes out. You know what I mean?
MC: That somehow it’s performative homosexuality for the male’s pleasure. And it really isn’t like that—although also, on those dating apps, everybody is looking for a “unicorn,” which is a slightly younger bisexual woman who will not be threatened by the alpha female in the relationship, but will be there to pleasure everyone. And I think that that’s a myth, too. I don’t think that there are that many unicorns in the wild. I think that it’s actually this au pair fantasy, a nanny fantasy come to life. I don’t know very many [arrangements like that], despite being in alternative sexual communities for my entire adult life.
But I do think that polyamory is something that is becoming more mainstream. I think people are realizing the finite nature of monogamy, and as they always do, they look to the queer community for what to do. That’s always what’s happened. And so again, for me, polyamory is always centered within queerness. Just the practicality of it, I guess. Or the nature of it. You’re thinking differently, so you’re going to live differently.
The L Word: Generation Q
MC: I love it, because you’re seeing the progression of their lives. I love the institution of The L Word. I want to see them grow up more. I want to see them with different haircuts and stuff. It’s really, really important to me.
And I’m really glad that there’s a different approach. The old L Word had lots of differing views on trans women and trans men, and now we’ve got to approach that in a different way. I think that we have to grow up as a community, and I embrace it. I’m so excited about it.
JoJo Siwa coming out
MC: I think it’s really cute. I only know her from YouTube as one of these cute little influencers, but I think it’s great. I love it when young people know who they are, and share that. I think that’s really beautiful. It’s really comforting also for young people to see that and be like, “I have somebody that is like me out there.” And I think that’s really special, so good for her.
David’s wine monologue on Schitt’s Creek
AVC: This scene has been described as a good summation of pansexuality. Would you agree?
MC: Yeah! It’s very matter of fact. It’s just, whatever I feel like, and it’s okay. It’s almost that arbitrary of a decision: Red or white? It depends on what I’m having that day. It depends on what I’m feeling, and that’s true with sex too. That’s it. I just want the bigger bottle of wine—white wine, red wine, whatever!
The pegging episode of Broad City
AVC: This was a few years ago, but it was a big deal.
MC: I love pegging. It’s something that comes in and out of vogue, but it’s something that I love. I have a special pegging setup.
Not everybody likes it; you’ve got to go slow, and you’ve got to really work with what you have. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It can be a small thing. I think that some guys, regardless of how they identify sexually, really like something up their ass! They love it! But you’ve got to do it slowly.
I’ve got all sorts of different lubes, and you have to also make sure that you’re using the right lube with the right [strap-on]. No silicone on silicone! You’ve got to be really careful with toys.
But yeah, I think it’s really fun. I think it’s a very powerful thing, and it’s really satisfying if you’re doing it the right way.
AVC: That episode also taught us a great lesson, which is not to put a silicone toy in the dishwasher.
MC: Well, you just have to be careful. I have a special tap that puts out boiling water, which I may or may not have put into my kitchen just for that. [Laughs.] It’s great for cleaning sex toys, so it’s kind of perfect for me. But you don’t have to go crazy with it. No dishwashers!
MC: It’s really interesting, because so much of it is focused on the cannibalism. I can’t even really get my mind around that, because I think about vampirism as being a very common fetish. All the iconography around vampires is very sexual, but to me, it’s not that far removed from cannibalism. I feel like, though—this is why the kink community is composed of people who really, really negotiate.
AVC: Yeah, totally.
MC: If you had negotiated this beforehand, then you wouldn’t be in this space where people are so angry that they’re coming out with this stuff [in public].
I really see that the rage of these women who want to talk about it, and so it seems like more of an abusive situation and needing to deal with that. People are more fascinated with the cannibalism, but I think that fetishes don’t really apply here. It’s more about, where is he abusive and where did he cross the line there to make people so angry and want to lash out at him?
There are a lot of people who love the idea of nonconsensual play, but that’s gotta be really heavily negotiated. To me it’s less of a cannibalism… [Laughs.] it’s so weird. And I think it’s also because he makes you think of American Psycho. He’s so clean cut and icy white perfect. There’s such a robotic nature to his being that it’s tantalizing to think of him as this very sick person—which, you know, may be true. I don’t know. But I do think that that’s also an archetype. “Nobody can be that perfect. They’ve got to have this sickness underneath.”
Like I said, it really isn’t about the fetish. It’s more about, why is he crossing a line where people are very upset with him? That’s a pattern thing in relationships. I mean, you know, people get turned on for all sorts of reasons. And when you’re interested in something that’s, let’s say, not mainstream and you’re working with power dynamics, you have to make sure that the people that you’re playing with are really okay with what you’re going into.
When I think about my own past sexually, I’ve done lots of weird stuff. But the weirder it is and the more intense it is, the more it’s negotiated, you know? You really have to know what you’re doing when you’re communicating. It’s less about the actions, and more about the feelings.
AVC: Do you think that the fact that he didn’t seem to be negotiating these things and just sort of dumped them on people as a sign of larger toxic dynamics?
I don’t want to kink-shame. I’m a kinkster myself, so that’s not something that I would want to do. I’m not putting down the kink, I’m just not understanding the communication. This is a “I need to take a class” type of situation. I do that a lot. I was taking a lot of bondage workshops before the pandemic. I was working on my knot work. And there was so much in those classes about communication and about consent and levels of consent—and really, you can go really far with consent. None of this would be a problem if it was completely consensual activity, but because they are so upset, it’s not consensual.
Horny Republican cartoons
AVC: Have you seen this phenomenon of Republicans drawing cartoons of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez where they’re supposed to be demonizing her, but it just looks like fetish art?
MC: They’re so obsessed with her and The Squad. It’s this weirdly sexualized rage, where they also want to contain and possess her as well. It does prove a couple of theories: One, that the right can’t meme. Two, whatever they do just comes out exposing their true nature, which is so sickening. They’re obsessed because they really do love her, and they can’t come to terms with it. They need to come out of that.
AVC: It ends up exposing their own shit.
MC: I love it, because it makes them more human and it makes them more fun. I mean, why not? It gives them more dimension. I’ve always thought of Wonder Woman as a real lesbian icon, too. If you look back, she’s basically from the island of Lesbos—someplace where they had the female Olympics, where they would just wear teddies and do shot put. I do love that.
Wonder Woman also has a kind of a bondage, fetish-y aspect to her—they all have that, actually. All superheroes have a fetish-y look. It’s definitely a fetish archetype, and I think that’s absolutely perfect.
AVC: Did you see Professor Marston And The Wonder Women?