Poster art for Ali Wong's Netflix special HARD KNOCK WIFE (C) Netflix
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 post-partum 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 38, 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. She became a comic to watch following a subsequent move to New York and a schedule that involved performing up to nine times a night, and soon she began to make appearances on shows such as The Tonight Show. We started to see her in guest appearances on 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, 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 onstage almost ready to give birth in a skin-hugging cheetah print dress just shy of her zany striped underwear (which she shows 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 out and pregnant with her first child, a performance the awe of which we hadn’t come close to in comedy since the late 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 that Wong is 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, her first special, Wong took no prisoners on any number of loaded topics – race, career, marriage – instead diving into the anxieties that had fueled her to this point. Half-Chinese, half-Vietnamese and married to half-Japanese, half-Filipino Harvard-educated start-up 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, on a more serious note, 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 scolds 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 relentlessly excoriates any rose-colored notions of the entire process of child bearing 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 moms 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 who can’t quite grasp the experience. It might be uncomfortable, but the laughter overwhelming 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, 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 still aren’t the custodians of our vaginas, our ovaries or our uteruses. Genital mutilation remains a common practice in several parts of the world, the burden of birth control if allowed falls on the female body, and even the right to choose on home shores is, with the current conservative make-up 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, 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 1991 naked-and-pregnant 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 for Wong to meet the judgment of fans, critics or family members. 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 instill as she brings up her female warriors. Wong’s utopia, the one that she’d have us all reach for, is the one where we rewrite the rule book.