Childbirth is beautiful, sure. But mostly it’s heroic. Because what happens to the bodies of people who birth and then breastfeed babies can, for so many of us, be described as nothing short of carnage.
Nobody expresses the sheer nastiness and torture of birthing a child better than Los Angeles comic Ali Wong. Her jokes about childbirth veer into gruesome, graphic, and scatological territory, but to write off her material as toilet humor for plain shock value would be to miss her deeply political message. Wong’s recently released Netflix comedy special Hard Knock Wife should be required viewing for our entire Congress, which has yet to pass any sort of paid-family-leave policy, let alone one that could actually begin compensating the people who create other people and break their bodies in the process.
“In every other First World country—Canada, France, Germany—women get up to three years off—paid maternity leave—when they have a new baby,” Wong told the crowd at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre in September 2017, when she taped the special while seven months’ pregnant with her second child. “In the U.S., we get jack shit.”
During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Ivanka Trump tried to give women and families a reason to vote for her father by promising he would bring paid parental leave to the United States. Critics have ripped apart that proposal for being unfair and lacking (just six weeks of leave, and only to mothers of newborns or the parents of newly adopted babies). Meanwhile, research shows that birthing people need at least one year to physically recover from childbirth. Other studies show a link between paid maternity leave and lower infant mortality rates.
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Trotted out to promote her father’s plan, Ivanka had little but empty rhetoric to say when questioned about the proposal. In defending the plan’s lack of a paternity leave clause to a Cosmopolitan reporter in a contentious interview back in September 2016, she argued, essentially, that her father’s plan was an improvement from nothing.
“It’s critical for the health of the mother,” she said. “It’s critical for bonding with the child, and that was a top focus of this plan.”
Sorry, but I’d rather Ali Wong be my parental-leave ambassador.
She says: “Maternity leave is not just to bond with the baby. Fuck the baby! Maternity leave is for new moms to hide and heal their demolished-ass bodies!”
Of course, Wong’s graphic humor about the aftermath of pregnancy and sex while parenting might go too far for many people, not to mention many of the pearl-clutchers in Congress—but they are exactly the people who need Wong to beat them with her demolished-ass-body jokes.
Wong winds up her argument for universal maternity leave with a story about a friend who, after 72 hours of labor (“the baby’s head kept on going in and out and in and out and in and out and in and out”), still had to have an emergency cesarean section. At the end of it all, she was left with a tattered vagina.
Wong brings it home: “You see, this is why women need maternity leave. Yeah, you’d better pay our ass, too. My friend couldn’t go back to work with her meat curtains dragging on the floor, like the train of a sad-ass wedding dress. You can’t litigate like that.”
Hard Knock Wife follows Wong’s 2016 Netflix special Baby Cobra, whose through-line is the joke that Wong married a Harvard Business School graduate so she would never have to work again. In this new special, Wong calls back to her old thesis and reports that she was wrong: Being a stay-at-home mom is not just about chilling and pooping in your private bathroom. In short, “it’s a wack-ass job.”
Behind all the filth of Wong’s language and imagery is a sincerity that clearly resonates with so many people—and, specifically, so many women.
I am no fan of poop jokes, but as a mother of a 2-year-old, I am 100 percent with Wong when she jokes that true love is wedging your nose in your baby’s tiny ass crack to determine if he’s pooped again. Her jokes about the abject pain and torture of breastfeeding speak to me personally, as do jokes about feeling guilty about having a nanny—not just socially guilty, but guilty for, as she puts it, having “to work very hard to not take care of our child ourselves.” It’s a laugh line, of course, but she punctuates it with a truth about trying to compensate by doing the main caregiving, though both she and her husband work full time. When this seven-months’ pregnant mother of a toddler says, simply, that she feels anxious and overwhelmed, it doesn’t feel like a joke.
Wong’s comedy is also obviously appealing to people other than those who have given birth. Within two years of Baby Cobra, the once largely unknown stand-up comedian, writer, and actor, who had previously written for the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, started appearing on late-night talk shows, and selling out shows for her stand-up set.
Her blue sparkles. There’s love in her poop jokes and feminism in her sex jokes. Wong’s timing and delivery border on brilliance, often double-landing jokes. In both specials, she never loses the main thread while zig-zagging through a nice variety of dating, parenting, and sexual humor told in a way one rarely hears from a woman comic.
The irony is that while Wong regularly jokes about being lazy and wanting to mooch off her husband, she is a workhorse, one who has done two comedy tours well into the second trimester. I’ve never done stand-up or gone on any kind of tour. But just walking around seven months pregnant was exhausting. And Wong’s comedy is very physical. She uses her entire body to tell jokes, sometimes flashing the audience her panties.
Beneath the humor, what Wong is saying is that, at the very least, women should receive government-funded paid leave for their labor—the labor of delivering a child and beyond.
Toward the end of her set, Wong grabs her vagina through her leopard-print maternity dress. I won’t spoil this hilarious bit, but suffice it to say: Ali Wong is the only pussy-grabber I want influencing the White House’s parental leave policy.