By Soleil Nathwani
All other factors – health, partner, capacity – being optimal, we see pregnancy as an ultimate goalpost on the road of “womanhood.” The idea that you might not want children begs an explanation because the default setting must be yes. And conversations around pregnancy, the say-it-at-a-dinner-party ones, not the ones where you complain in quiet to the girlfriend network, are heavily air brushed. For the most part, pop culture shows us the version of pregnancy where you bask in your bump, scream briefly with your doting partner at your side, and cut to a swaddled nugget and a swift return to beach bod, boardroom, familial bliss. And as women, unwilling to seem ungrateful for our superpower, we’re reticent to put a pin prick in it.
Recently, though, we’ve seen the mainstream pregnancy conversation stripped of some illusions. Charlize Theron plays a disconnected new mother struggling with postpartum depression in Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s film Tully; Angela Garbes published her book Like A Mother, debunking many childbirth myths ; and in a moment that indelibly shapeshifted the pregnancy conversation, comic Ali Wong stood onstage seven months pregnant for the second time in as many years and laid it bare in her Netflix special Hard Knock Wife.
Wong, now 36, began her career in standup when she moved back home to San Francisco in 2005, after majoring in Asian-American studies at U.C.L.A. A subsequent move to New York and a schedule that involved performing up to nine times a night saw Wong become a comic to watch and she began to make guest appearances on shows such as The Tonight Show, Chelsea, Lately and Inside Amy Schumer, and in the short-lived medical drama Black Box while she was a writer on Fresh Off the Boat. But it was in a star-making performance in her first Netflix special Baby Cobra, which released on Mother’s Day 2016, that Wong became a sensation. A performance that she followed up this year in the Mother’s Day slot that has become Wong property with Hard Knock Wife, going from great to jaw-dropping.
Standing on stage almost ready to give birth in a skin-hugging cheetah-print dress just shy of her zany striped underwear (she shows this off in an explosive bit on refusing to fake orgasms because that would be cheating yourself), gold-glitter ballet flats and siren-red rimmed glasses, Wong is throwing us the gauntlet before she even opens her mouth. For Baby Cobra, Wong was similarly decked and pregnant with her first child, a performance the awe of which we hadn’t come close to in comedy since Joan Rivers performed pregnant on the Ed Sullivan Show decades ago. But something about coming back a second time, one newborn at home and one on the way, with an honesty about the process that we feel viscerally as Wong inhales deeply like a glue-sniffing addict and exhales, “I told my husband ‘till death do us part,’ and not once have I ever sniffed his ass to see if he shit his pants,” signals Wong hitting new heights of owning it. She is no longer on the cusp of a change that often takes women out of the workforce or the public eye, she’s bang in the messy middle of it and foxier, more hilarious and center-stage than ever.
In Baby Cobra, Wong took no prisoners on any number of loaded topics – race, career, marriage – and dove into the anxieties that had fueled her to this point. Half-Chinese, half-Vietnamese and married to half-Japanese, half-Filipino Harvard-educated startup exec Justin Hakuta, Wong covered Asian-American identity, a colorful sexual past, her pointedly tongue-in-cheek desires to trap her husband for his “Harvard nectar” and to get pregnant so she could ditch comedy for the “lazy-mom lifestyle,” and her own miscarriage. The topics aren’t entirely novel in an era where we are thankfully re-embracing feminism, but the delivery is startlingly so. Her bravest and funniest material came from her takedown of the purity of motherhood. She scolded that women aren’t squeamish about anal sex because it might hurt, but because of “doo-doo on the dick.” Literally potty-mouthed, with one arm protectively wrapped around her bump, Wong dislodged patriarchal classifications of vixen and virgin mother.
It’s in Hard Knock Wife, though, that Wong really tackles pregnancy and childbirth head-on. As she covers every inch of the stage with gesticulation and pantomime and reaches each corner of the room with the balloon animal-like power of her facial expressions, Wong shifts the consciousness, bringing mainstream audiences to a real debate around what motherhood means. Emphasizing, “Sex is not dirty, a C-section is dirty,” she swiftly pushes us to truths that we have trouble talking about.
In the first half of the special, Wong is relentless in excoriating any rose-colored notions of the entire process of childbearing and rearing. Opening with a flat, “I love her so much but I’m on the verge of putting her in the garbage,” Wong proceeds to slay every part of the process. She describes breastfeeding as “chronic physical torture” and her body as an “organic farm” for her “freeloading baby” as she reminds new mums to steal as many diapers as possible from the hospital, not for the baby, for yourself because, “After the baby comes out, you know what else exits? Her house.” Maternity leave isn’t for the baby, Wong rebukes, “It’s for women to hide and heal their demolished-ass bodies.” Wong is the deep, dark inner voice of sleep-deprived nursing mothers everywhere who feel guilty that their thoughts might escape and is reading the riot act to those that can’t quite grasp the experience. It might be uncomfortable but the laughter that overwhelms the gasps affirms that it’s also true.
At times Wong punctuates her bits with pronouncements that feel almost political. “The U.S. has zero federal policy for maternity leave,” she declares, educating as she entertains. But her gift is in giving us her unadulterated experience and opening a door to a conversation about what new parenthood really feels and looks like, not from the external vantage point of Louis C.K. (unshockingly in #MeToo exile), who has famously joked about how having girls changed his view of vaginas, but from the empowered perspective of a woman who is embracing having a second baby, appears to be at the top of her funny game and can tell all. Wong’s picture of herself, “For 3 months I was walking around my house with a topknot, giant diaper, nipples bleeding, like a defeated sumo wrestler,” while light years from the “sitting on a lily pad” she had imagined, is tangibly more powerful and more cathartic in its honesty.
In spite of, or perhaps as a challenge to, her prominent bump, Wong spends the second half of the hour on the two things that the world tells women they sacrifice after having a child – their career and their allure. The fact that so much of this is laced with irony only makes it percolate longer. Wong riffs that her success was both unexpected, given that her goal was really to “make more money for less effort…like by playing a piece of tofu in a Pixar movie” and unwelcome in an Asian family who felt that her outsize paygrade would scare away her husband. She describes the arc of her sex life – robust before kids, relaxed after, as something where above all she is being served as much as serving. Her almost romantic retelling of the time a guy told her that he was ready to “make a mess” when she was on her period and of keeping her husband “down there until his face looked pruny” are perhaps the most feminist moments of her show for an audience that undoubtedly holds some men who might rethink cringing at doing either and some women who may feel bolder about commanding pleasure.
Directing her material both at and away from her bump is Wong’s simplest, strongest statement – that women are more than baby-makers and that our apparatus, as important for fulfillment as reproduction, should be above all our domain. As women, we aren’t the custodians of our vaginas, our ovaries or our uteruses. Genital mutilation is still a common practice, the burden of birth control if allowed falls on the female body and even the right to choose on home shores is, with the newly conservative makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court, under attack. The notions that a woman should not enjoy sex or that birth control can be met with more fury than date rape, persist. Motherhood and childbirth are a designated female utopia and yet the dialogue and structure around both are disempowering. In a pussy-grabbing era, Wong grabs the power back with hilarity.
As she struts the stage pregnant, Wong’s visual is the natural progression beyond Demi Moore’s iconic naked-and-pregnant 1991 Vanity Fair cover. She strips the perfection and exposes the chaos. Wong takes us on a journey of what it is to be female and negotiate sex, identity, career, success and family and shows us that utopia isn’t found in motherhood or in having the elusive “all,” but in refusing to compromise and insisting on being comfortable in your skin, or at least your skintight animal-print mini dress. It’s hard to watch this special without wondering what it must be like to be Ali Wong and meet the judgement of fans, critics or family members, and then the credits roll with the words “For Mari,” and you realize, of course, that Ali Wong, now a mother of two girls, doesn’t care because these are the ideas that she not only lives by but will bring up her female warriors with. Wong’s utopia, the one that she’d have us all reach for, is the one where we rewrite the rule book.
Soleil Nathwani is a Consulting Editor and Film Critic at Honeysuckle Magazine. She is a Contributing Editor and the Culture Columnist at Rolling Stone India. Formerly a Senior Features Writer and Contributing Editor at L’Officiel India and MW India, her celebrity profiles, opinion pieces and features on art, culture, politics, human rights, film and fashion have appeared in numerous publications across the globe. Soleil is also a film producer and former hedge fund COO. She can be found at @soleilnathwani.