Brow Beat

WNYC’s Nancy Is About More Than Queer Life

The podcast also provides a unique look at the Asian American experience.

Kathy Tu and Tobin Low, with balloons of many colors in the background. Low holds a rainbow umbrella.
Kathy Tu and Tobin Low of WNYC Studios’ Nancy.
Mindy Tucker

There’s a deep, rare thrill that shoots down your arms when someone articulates an unease you’d long buried. As the shame emerges and is exposed to light, it alchemizes into a pleasure of recognition. I experienced that zap of shocked relief a few weeks ago while listening to the WNYC Studios podcast Nancy, as hosts Tobin Low and Kathy Tu discussed with comedian and Saturday Night Live writer Bowen Yang their one-time fondness for the Mad TV character Ms. Swan. Here were three politically engaged Asian Americans honest enough to chat about their complicated affection for Alex Borstein’s yellowface character, a racist mockery of Asian faces and accents. The trio recognize, of course, that Ms. Swan wouldn’t fly today, nor should she. But back in the Mesozoic Era of Asian American representation—aka the ’90s—Ms. Swan was, for these three, and for me, one of the few crumbs in the mainstream comedy world that was at least there.

That particular thrill, I suspect, is exactly what Nancy exists to elicit. Currently in its fourth season, the podcast is dedicated to “provocative stories and frank conversations about the LGBTQ experience today.” The bubbly Low and wryer Tu don’t seem especially interested in the bleeding edge of contemporary queer discourse, though even familiar topics get an unexpected spin. (A discussion of the way homophobia, or at least queerness, informs the characterization of Disney villains, for example, gives way to a fascinating dissection of a more nuanced kind of villainy—that of Roy Cohn, the closeted McCarthyite turned Trump mentor.) And for a show about LGBTQ experiences hosted by two queer people of color, it rarely feels like homework. Nancy has received positive reviews throughout its run for its earnest explorations of queerness, particularly when it intersects with race. But lately I find myself loving the podcast for being a bastion of progressive Asian American representation and storytelling in the podcasting world, even when—as is often the case—the topic of the week has nothing at all to do with Asians.

A couple of caveats before we go forward: There are plenty of Asian American podcasts out there, though far fewer like Nancy, which specializes in reporting and personal storytelling. And I don’t mean to diminish Tu and Low’s focus on queerness, which is so baked into their mission statement that they initially pitched the show as “Gaydio.” But Nancy has become one of my favorite regular Asian American retreats because of its resemblance to so many second- or third-generation lives. Some segments are entirely culturally specific, like Tu’s story about coming out to her conservative Taiwanese immigrant mother. Others, like the one in which Vulture writer E. Alex Jung discusses the return of Will & Grace with Low, tackle mainstream topics, sometimes through a racial lens. Still others, like a segment on a trans vocalist’s shifting relationship to Sacred Harp singing, have nothing to do with race, and in doing so provide a quiet reassurance that underrepresentation in media and entertainment is a product of bias and unequal access, rather than talent or interest.

Nancy also benefits from its nonwhite hosts by featuring perhaps more stories by and about queer people of color than might otherwise be the case, as well as an obsession with the LGBTQ interviewees’ relationships with their parents. But the podcast is also, from an Asian American point of view, a wonderful reminder that the project of diversifying media representation is about more than the individualized joy of “seeing yourself on screen.” The ability to see oneself in a mirror is certainly a worthwhile goal, but there is a gift, too, in seeing how variations of yourself, or your culture, take unexpected forms. A recent episode called “God + The Gays,” in which artist Phoebe Wang chronicles her struggle for her queerness to be accepted by her former church friends, profoundly resonates with me for its details of being alienated from her religious community over cultural values. If you’re a straight listener, like me, it’s engrossing, and enlightening, to trace how cultural details that feel familiar play out differently for our LGBTQ siblings. Nancy’s queered intersectional view is all the more welcome at a time when online discussions of variously manifesting oppression in the Asian American community have unfortunately been hijacked by the men’s rights movement within it.

Nancy’s Asian American segments make up a minority of its episodes, but they cover much ground, from Queer Eye to Brandon Lee, a porn star often billed as “the first Asian top.” A mystery-structured episode about why TV writer Jason Kim’s ill father wouldn’t accept one of his son’s kidneys—and the role that homophobia might play in that decision—is a particularly wrenching (and surprising!) standout. But Tu’s multi-episode journey through her mom’s reluctant approval of her queerness serves as the podcast’s core, as well as its must-listen-first episodes. Her coming-out experience is inextricably, but thankfully not tragically, linked to her family’s immigration and subsequent linguistic and cultural gaps. (A visit to the Tu family’s native Taiwan, the Asian country most friendly to gay rights, ultimately offers the host culturally specific ways of explaining her queerness to her mother.) It’s a storyline that reminds us that the queer and Asian American communities aren’t so different. With a long but largely invisible history behind them, too many of its members fumble into the future, needing to seek their truths.