A campus poster for the event with actress and comedian Margaret Cho.

Photo by David. J Hawkins/CSUN.

Actress and comedian Margaret Cho (left) talks with Heidi Schumacher, a lecturer in Queer Studies, about the making of the film “Fire Island.”

Photo by David J. Hawkins/CSUN.

Faculty members pose with actress Margaret Cho. From left, Lecturer Heidi Schumacher, Margaret Cho with Lucia, Lecturer Amanda Harrison, Sheena Malhotra, director of the Queer Studies Program and College of Humanities Dean Jeffrey Reeder.

Photo by David J. Hawkins/CSUN.

A student asks a question during the “M[C]ocktails and Cheese” event with actress Margaret Cho.

Photo by David J. Hawkins/CSUN.

Margaret Cho, holding her beloved chihuahua Lucia, stops for a chat after speaking about the making of “Fire Island.”

Photo by David J. Hawkins/CSUN.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” So begins Jane Austen’s seminal novel, “Pride and Prejudice.” That famous first line also kicks off the 2022 queer rom-com “Fire Island.” The warm and funny film’s modern take on Austen’s classic features a group of gay men and their search for love on the New York island and summer hotspot known as an LGBTQ+ safe space.

“Fire Island” is an extremely popular part of the film class, QS 304 – Queer Screen/ Queer Spectator course. As an added perk for students this spring, the Queer Studies Program in the College of Humanities brought comedian Margaret Cho, who stars in the film, to campus for a discussion. In late March, students packed the University Library’s Ferman Presentation Room for “M[C]ocktails and Cheese with Margaret Cho.” 

Cho told the audience that she campaigned hard for the role.

“My manager told me about it, and I reached out to [the producers] and said, ‘Oh, I don’t know if you realize I am actually in this movie. I’m actually in it,'” Cho said, showing off her trademark chutzpah, evident since she began performing as a stand-up comic in the mid-1990s.

In the film, she plays Erin, an older lesbian who came into a small fortune after a (hilarious) restaurant incident and lawsuit, and who subsequently bought a home on Fire Island. Every year, Erin hosts a group of her gay male friends for a week of parties, debauchery and relaxation. Erin’s an affectionate and benevolent “house mother” to the younger group, who face the snobbery of wealthy visitors. “Saturday Night Live” cast member Bowen Yang also starred (as the “Jane” role from P&P).

A Space for Queer Joy

Cho, who’s openly queer, told her CSUN audience that she worked with the filmmakers to create a role for herself.

“There was no part for me. There was just nothing,” she said. “We were sort of mapping out this little cameo, then the character of Aaron, which was written for a man … [then the] actor dropped out. And they said, ‘Why don’t we just make Aaron a woman?'”

During the “M[C]ocktails and Cheese” program, Heidi Schumacher, who teaches the film course in Queer Studies, interviewed Cho as they sat in comfy chairs in front of the audience. Schumacher opened their discussion by sharing students’ reactions when she features the film in her class. The lecturer noted that many films that feature gay or queer central characters are very heavy. 

“So much of the kind of great queer film is about oppression and murder and torture and difficulty,” Schumacher said. “And that one summer ‘Fire Island’ came out, which I loved, I thought, ‘You know what? I’m just going to tack this on the end of my syllabus. I’m going to call the unit Queer Joy.'”

Then, she read aloud some of the comments she’d received from students:

“Watching ‘Fire Island’ filled me with a sense of optimism and happiness. It was so refreshing to see queer characters simply enjoying life on their terms without their queerness being depicted as shameful or pitiable.”

“‘Fire Island’ strikes an outstanding balance. The characters face microaggressions, but [they] don’t let those define them. They choose joy, kinship and celebration.”

The Luxury of Talking About Love

Cho understands why “Fire Island” is seen as a welcome respite, the actor said.

“As queer artists, when we tell our story, we only have that limited amount of time … because the space that the sort-of mainstream world has for queerness and our stories, they don’t want to hear it unless it’s our most important story,” Cho said. 

“So that’s why it comes off as, we’re [always] talking about AIDS, we’re talking about gay-bashing,” she continued. “We’re talking about not being accepted by our families, not being accepted by society, you know, because those are the stories that take up the most emotional space in our lives. We don’t necessarily have the luxury of talking about love, talking about romance or summer love.”

Cho and Schumacher spoke for about an hour, alternating between themes in the film and Cho’s stories about filming “Fire Island.” She lobbied hard, Cho said, to get a cameo appearance in the film for her white chihuahua, Lucia, who also came to CSUN and accompanies the actor everywhere. The filmmakers nixed the idea, but the actress found a way to include her beloved pet.

“There’s a wall of photos [shown in the film],” Cho said. “So, we just put [up] photos of her. Everybody in the film is actually holding her, in the pictures on the wall.” 

The event ended with a lively Q and A session with audience members, and Cho (with Lucia) lingered to continue talking with students and take photos.

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