Comedian talks new Asian-led kink series, queer sex and Hollywood homophobia
By Chris Azzopardi
Damn that bulging carpometacarpal joint. Without it, Margaret Cho’s kink play could’ve been trouble-free, but nope – that thumb joint has been “the bane of my existence since 1991,” she tells me. That’s right: I talked to Margaret Cho and we somehow landed on the topic of fisting. These things happen! (They especially do if, like I did, you launch your convo with Cho by informing her that your introduction to the word “fisting” was via her early stand-up).
Clearly, our afternoon chat took many wild and sexually freewheeling turns when the trailblazing comic called to discuss executive producing Mercy Mistress, an Asian-led web series exploring BDSM through the relationship of its lead, a queer Chinese-American dominatrix named Mistress Yin (played by actress-activist Poppy Liu), and her new client. The series is based on sex-work activist and BDSM educator Yin Q’s memoir. Difficult digits aside, Cho discussed her intro to kink, diversity casting, what makes queer sex special and why Christian Grey should’ve been a sub.
You’ve long spoken openly about sex, sexuality and kink. Why is it important to you to talk about queer sex in your work?
It’s just another way to embellish identity. There are just ways of being ourselves, and when you’re queer and you come out, you come out to a world where you kind of need to figure out who you are because the examples aren’t out there for us. They aren’t defined. The lanes aren’t so, like, obvious (laughs). So, you really need to create it.
When I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s we had to deal with AIDS, which was such a huge, difficult monstrosity to get your head around and also to understand what we could do sexually that was not fluid bonded, so that’s where bondage and BDSM – all that kind of stuff – really came into the culture in a very, very big way. So, I was working in San Francisco at a lesbian BDSM collective making leather dildos and vaginas. (Laughs)
I believe you’re referring to Stormy Leather.
Yeah. Way back when. And so, I was just very interested in that world, and it just developed alongside everything. Now, BDSM is very mainstream with Fifty Shades of Grey and that kind of stuff, so it’s cool.
Is there a toy that you made that you were particularly proud of, like, “Hey, I did that”?
No, because I wasn’t designing them. It was more just the sheer number of ways you could make a strap-on. You could do a chin one, you could do a forehead one, like a unicorn. You could do a thigh one. I think the thigh one actually makes a lot of sense, ergonomically. It’s actually better for the lower back than the traditional jockstrap harness.
A strap-on that’s easier on the lower back appeals to me as I get older.
Yeah, you wanna make sure you can continue doing these repetitive movements. Strap-ons, there’s a great appeal to them. They’re really fun, and even if you’re not necessarily in a queer sexual relationship, you could definitely use them in any way, shape or form. I think that it adds another element. If you can add another phallus, it’s always a positive.
Regarding your own queer sex education, whose examples were you following while growing up in the ’80s?
(Sex-positive feminist author) Susie Bright had a major role in that, and in the digital age somebody like (erotica writer) Violet Blue, who’s a good friend of mine. Also (former porn actress and sex-positive feminist) Nina Hartley, who is a very, very old friend of mine and really great. They’re people who really just showed me the ropes, as it were. (Laughs)
Is Mercy Mistress a good introduction for somebody who doesn’t know much about the kink world?
Yeah, I think it’s a great, great introduction. And also, we’re seeing Asian-Americans in a way we’ve never seen before, which I think is really incredible too. That’s what I get really excited about. I think we’ve really gotten to this place that we’re looking at diversity as something that is really necessary and really important, so I love that. And it really puts the control back into our hands, like we can actually control the narrative, as opposed to being an object; we’re actually running the thing. That’s really amazing.
How did you get involved as a producer?
My company, Animal Family, is one of the producers. We got into contact with the Mercy Mistress people; they just really spoke to us, and we really loved what they were doing. We loved the landscape of the world they were showing. We loved everything. It just seemed like a natural fit.
When did your interest in kink first pique?
Growing up in San Francisco around that era of queer politics was a very big deal. I grew up on Polk Street, which was really the epicenter; that and the Castro, where Harvey Milk was doing a lot of work. So, I think being around all of that, it just seemed inevitable. My father owned a gay bookstore and he hired all these employees who were identifying in different ways, who were transitioning. Transitioning started in the ’70s, which is an incredible thing if you think about how early this was. People were transitioning, of course, before that, but that was the first experience I have had with people who were deciding to define their own gender. I got hired at Stormy Leather and I started meeting trans men for the first time. Before that it was just male-to-female trans women, but this was different, when it was female-to-male transition. That was a very big, eye-opening thing; it just gave female body sexuality so much agency, which I had never really experienced before, and I thought that was really amazing and powerful.
In recent years, the trans community has been given a greater mainstream platform. But as we know, and as you point out, transgender people have existed for a very long time.
Yeah, it’s been there; it’s just that we as a society haven’t looked to them, and yet they’ve changed and shaped culture for centuries. It’s really been forever but we just didn’t know.
I think the same can be said about the kink community in a way, don’t you?
It’s something that’s been there but we haven’t explored it in a mainstream way.
And when we do, do we get it right? Did Fifty Shades of Grey get it right?
Well, my feeling about Fifty Shades of Grey is, for the Christian Grey character, there’s no way he could actually be a dominant. He has to be a male submissive. Usually men who are wealthy, in great positions of power, and who have that much luxury at their disposal to kind of extend on their sexuality are going to be a male submissive because they are just sick of being in charge. That, to me, is where I find it to be off. It’s almost like Cinderella or something. It’s kind of this weird European folktale where these gender roles are very stringent and don’t allow for the men to fully explore their potential in who they really could be.
Because, according to Hollywood, it’s the way a man should act.
Yeah. And that’s the reason for these stories: to enforce the status quo and keep the culture intact and keep us from overstepping. But I don’t want to be told that when you’re in there for fantasy. It’s not authentic to me. But I appreciate that it exists – and I appreciate that it sent countless millions of people to explore what this kind of sexuality is.
What perspective does Mercy Mistress offer on kink that hasn’t yet been portrayed in the media?
It’s a real place of honesty and truth around what kink is. That it’s just about a turn-on and the different kinds of people encountered in this world. The images of people in it are very authentic, which I think is very different.
A gay character tells a straight character: “You all need some kind of manual to figure out kinky sex.” What can LGBTQ people teach the straight community about kink?
We listen to our instincts because that’s all we have to go on. And that’s the biggest truth: We do what we like because we fight so hard to get to do what we like.
How does your “interests and limits” list these days compare to your kink origins?
I’ve actually gotten way more vanilla, which is funny, because when you’re out there, you’re trying to show off a little bit, to some degree, as to what you can take and what you’re able to handle (laughs). And embellish that – embellish your own prowess. As I’m approaching 50, rapidly, I feel like, actually, I’m much more sedate, but I appreciate all the things that I’m experiencing seeing. I think that’s great. But yeah, still can’t get that thumb-knuckle in for the fisting! (Laughs)
Even all these years later?
All these years later, I could never get that thumb in there, and I always had this feeling of like, “I’m just not really good enough to do this.” But you don’t have to get the thumb in.
It’s still fisting without the thumb?
It’s still fisting without the thumb! And, you know, it’s really fun.
In my mind, I’m still laughing about this thumb thing.
It’s the first joint that comes out. I’m looking at my thumb right now. It’s that first little thumb joint. I just cannot get it in – no matter how small their thumb is, that joint always stick out. That joint has been the bane of my existence since 1991. I just can’t get it in there. No kind of lube is gonna (work) and I’m probably as stretched out as you can get and it’s still not gonna happen.
And you give up?
I give up. I’m done.
When it comes to kink, does anything shock you anymore?
Mm, no. Because it’s in the realm of play, nothing should be off-limits. It’s play for a reason; it’s just fantasy. It’s these cathedrals we construct around our imagination; they have no bearing to what is in the real world, you know? If it’s just play, everything is just play. People get into very wild situations that we don’t have to judge or that we don’t have to say, “That’s too far,” because it’s not for public consumption; it’s just between two people or between however many people have agreed on this particular fantasy.
Have you seen Call Me By Your Name?
Yes, yes, I’ve seen that.
Some in the queer community wanted to see Armie Hammer’s character eat the peach after Timothée Chalamet’s Elio ejaculated in it because that’s what happens in the book. Was that a missed kink opportunity?
I think that’s exactly what should happen, but homophobia still exists, even in the realm of film and in the realm of not even what’s real, but what’s possible.
It seems Hollywood is walking a tight rope. Bohemian Rhapsody was damaging when it comes to the way gay sex is portrayed in film. I think Hollywood really has muted our sex lives to be palatable for mainstream consumption. What’s your take on the way queer sex is portrayed in mainstream Hollywood films?
We’re always going to have to strive for better and strive for more. There are examples where it actually goes very well. I’m thinking about Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, which has incredible sex scenes, and that film is about 20 years old, and it’s from Hong Kong and that’s another element of it. Hopefully we’ll get more of that.
But you know, it’s still developing and still growing. There’s just the complexity of the sexuality too. I just saw Boy Erased, which to me did a great job in really talking about how we can be misguided and misunderstood, like whether it’s assault, that it actually can be assault, that there’s all these questions: Is this rape? And, yes, it is. That was actually the first time I had seen that issue come up in a mainstream movie.
Do you think that scene was important?
I thought it was important because it was giving permission for a male survivor to say that it happened and there was no thinking of, “Oh, he deserved it,” or, “He wouldn’t mind that because he wanted that anyway.” It being brought up was really meaningful, and as a survivor myself it was a really important thing that I had never seen in a film, especially with male characters. That kind of really blew my mind.
I’d like to come back to Asian representation in media, since you blazed that trail with your 1994 sitcom All-American Girl. As someone who keeps finding new ways to break that ground, and after Crazy Rich Asians and Mercy Mistress, what do you hope is the next step for Asian representation?
I just hope there’s more, which there is, which is great. I’m really excited about it. I’m so thrilled about Crazy Rich Asians and, of course, All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. And now both of those projects are going to have sequels. They’re already in the works; it’s happening. And there’s more and more. So now we’re looking at more of an excitement around Asian-American participation in entertainment, which is something I’ve been working on for more than 20 years, trying to get there, so this is a realization of that dream. It’s very exciting.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair and Billboard. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).