The First Two Minutes: The Semiotics of an Opening with Ali Wong

“NETFLIX ORIGINAL. ALI WONG: BABY COBRA,” The title reads, in white lettering and all caps. The title is already interesting; it includes the word “baby,” which signifies innocence and nurture, and the word “cobra,” a venomous, dangerous snake – a monstrosity. “Baby cobra” together puts two words that typically signify opposite meanings together; the title alone is already a playful inversion. The thumbnail shows an Asian-American woman with black hair and red glasses. We get a side-view of her, and are able to see that she is pregnant (seven and a half months in, if you decide to look it up); the side image allows us to get a full view of her rounded belly. She is set against a turquoise background. If you hover over and click on the thumbnail, there are two descriptions of the special available. The first is: “She’s fierce, filthy, and very pregnant. And after finally finding her Mr. Perfect, she dreams of never working again.” The second, available if you choose to expand the description of the special, is: “Ali Wong’s stand-up special delves into her sexual adventures, hoarding, the rocky road to pregnancy, and why feminism is terrible.”

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The statements “after finally finding her Mr. Perfect, she dreams of never working again” and “why feminism is terrible” are seemingly traditional on the surface, and seem to contradict the powerful position Wong occupies as a pregnant woman performing comedy. We learn later that Wong’s bit on “why feminism is terrible” is mostly ironic, and is meant to satirize neoliberal values and the liberal strand of feminism, which promote happiness through assimilation into the capitalist workplace (stay tuned – I will unpack this further in a later blog post). We don’t, of course, know this from the description, so this description becomes strategic, intriguing bait. This baits feminists who on one hand, are inspired by a woman performing stand-up comedy pregnant, and on one hand, curious (if not already angry) about how Ali Wong will explain why feminism is “terrible.” It also baits those who do not define themselves as feminists, who are looking for a confirmation of their beliefs.

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As always, Netflix offers a slideshow of images to frame the special. The first image is a “Mom-zilla” image of sorts. In it, we see a city with large skyscrapers and buildings, and a highway with a raised highway traveling over it. There are cars and people on the highway (some people are out of their cars, running). Over this scene towers a gigantic, monstrous Ali Wong, taller and larger even than the city skyscrapers. Ali Wong is a very pregnant (we can see this due to the size of her belly in the picture, and she specifies that she is seven and a half months pregnant in her special) Asian-American woman. She is wearing large, red glasses, a tight, striped and flowered dress, a statement necklace, and beige, open-toed heels, but is a terrifying sight to the city below her – she is a feminine monster. She is not smiling, but is looking straight ahead with a certain vengeance, her eyes wide. Her legs are straddled over the raised highway, and given her tight dress, it is clear that she is “flashing” the highway, though this is not the focus of the picture. Her left foot is wearing a beige heel, and makes cracks from impact in the lower highway. Underneath her legs, on the raised highway, two cars have crashed into one another, and they are both on fire – smoke rises up into the sky. Some of the people beneath her are running away while looking back at her, though one man is standing on a car to take a picture of the “spectacle.” Wong grips a car (it looks like a police car), which is turned sideways, in her right fist. Her French manicured left hand is reaching down, seemingly to grab the other cars and people below her. This image seems to communicate almost exactly what is in the description of the special: “she’s fierce, filthy, and very pregnant.”

This is an inversion of the stereotypical notion of the pregnant woman as nurturing, caring, and loyal. In this image and her title, Wong allows both femininity and pregnancy to become “filthy,” monstrous, and sources of power. As she tells Elle magazine in an interview, “I wanted to use my pregnancy as a source of power and turn it into a weapon instead of a weakness. When you’re pregnant, you’re hungry, tired, and fat, so you have this ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude that lends itself really well to performance. You let go of all dignity and shame, and it’s beautiful” (Kovan).

The next image is of Wong in action onstage, during her stand-up. There is a turquoise background, which we can see Wong’s shadow reflected on. There is a black stool on the stage to the right. Ali Wong is the center of the shot. She is wearing the same dress and glasses as in the first image of her, and she is wearing a watch on her right hand, which is resting on top of the microphone stand. She grips the microphone in her left hand, and sassily leans on her left hip. Her pregnant belly protrudes from the dress, and there is a slight, knowing smile around the corners of her lips. This is a stance that allows Ali Wong’s body to take up a good amount of space, and that establishes her dominance as a performer. This is an expansion upon the message we get from the first image; she is monstrous, and she is feminine, but she is rational. She “tells it like it is.” In addition, Wong’s slight, playful, witty smile further establishes her power and control – she knows something we don’t.

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The final image is also an action shot of Wong in the middle of her stand-up. The camera is positioned just above the audience, but below and to the right of Wong (we are above the audience, but below her). From this camera angle we can see that the stage is flat and rectangular. The lights are still turquoise, but we can see that there are also round, yellow white lights behind her. The audience members, positioned strategically below Wong, are mostly in the dark, though there is a faint blue light over them that allows us to see that they are present and watching attentively. We have a full body shot of Wong, who is wearing the same outfit as in the first two images, but red flats instead of beige heels – these both match her glasses and allow for greater mobility. She takes on a similar stance as she did in the second image; she is leaning on her left hip (her signature “sassy” stance). The “sassy hip” establishes Wong’s confidence and willingness to take ownership of her body on the stage – she is comfortable in this setting, and in control. Her right hand is holding the microphone, and her right arm is bent at the elbow, her palm out and facing slightly downward toward the audience. Not only does the audience see the bottom of Wong’s hand -further establishing her dominance, but the outstretched hand signifies that Wong is communicating a story that offers some form of guidance or knowledge that we are meant to trust and take seriously. What further establishes Wong’s dominance is the both the audience and camera’s positioning below her. What is the significance of an image in which a collective audience, insignificant, shrouded in darkness, find themselves below a very pregnant Asian American woman who is bathed in light, and towers, powerful and knowing, above them? It is as if they have come to the altar of Wong’s worship; they are here to be subjected to what she has to say; they are here to be acted upon, not to act. In media culture, non-white bodies, female bodies, and pregnant bodies are typically positioned, especially in genres of comedy, as the Monstrous Other. These bodies are typically treated as abjects, and are the butt of jokes that involve stereotypes and the marking of their bodies as “non-normal.” Louis C.K., for example, is a white comic who employs a feminized “irrational” voice and “funny” foreign accents (see “The Semiotics of an Opening with Louis C.K.) as a method of positioning himself as dominant and rational in his comedy. Wong does not deny any of these parts of herself, as we can see in the first image (and as we shall see in her stand-up material). She is unabashedly Asian, feminine, womanly, and pregnant (in no other special has a comic performed seven and a half months into her pregnancy). But, through the positioning of the camera and of her body, Ali Wong establishes herself as a monstrous, feminized, pregnant Other, yes, but also as a fierce, rational site of knowledge and power. This is a very powerful image, in which the Other becomes the new normal; the Other becomes rational without having to deny any part of herself. Already, in these slideshow images, we have this crucial inversion that will frame Ali Wong’s comedy.

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In the actual filmed content of the special, Ali Wong needs little introduction. Unlike C.K. and Schumer, who have very calculated Netflix introductions to cultivate their image and personality, Wong’s special jumps right into the stand-up (this echoes her sentiments on how pregnant ladies “don’t give a fuck”). The special opens with the familiar Netflix logo, and then the screen turns black, with the words “A New Wave Entertainment Production” over it. We hear immediately in the background, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage: Ali Wong!” As we hear the words “Ali Wong,” we see an image with a pink and purple background. “ALI WONG” is written in all caps in black, and “Baby Cobra” written underneath in cursive. We see a black silhouette image of a pregnant woman with one hand on her belly, one hand on the microphone. Her legs are positioned so it seems like she is walking forward.

Upbeat music plays in the background, and we hear loud cheers from an invisible audience. The next shot shows an empty stage. It is a large, flat, rectangular stage, with deep blue lighting and a turquoise background that also fades into a deep blue. Spotlights are moving on the stage, to pump the audience up. We get another shot from a side angle, that allows us to see some of the audience; some of the audience members are standing even before Wong comes onstage.

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We cut to a shot from the right, and see Ali Wong waddle on from the left of the stage, her belly leading. The camera cuts to a more intimate shot of Wong from belly up; we see that she is not only waddling, but grimacing slightly, already playing the “body comedy” of pregnancy. She takes the microphone off the stand and smiles at the audience as the music fades.

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She waves. She does not shout, but her voice still has a bright, crackling energy. “Hi. Hello! Welcome. Thank you! Thank you for coming.” She points at the audience while doing this, seeming to intimately point them out one by one. The camera cuts to a close up of Wong from shoulders up.  “Hello. Hello. We are…going to have to get this shit over with, ‘cause,” The camera offers a full body shot of her, in which we see her pregnant belly again, “I have to pee in like ten minutes.” Her eyes widen, mockingly annoyed. The audience laughs at this indirect acknowledgement of her pregnancy.

“But thank you everybody, so much for coming, um…” Her voice grows slightly softer. According to an interview with Ali Wong with the New Yorker, this is how Wong both draws and audience in, and “tests” to see if the joke can stand without taking advantage of her wild energy (Levy). “It’s a very exciting day for me. It’s a very exciting year for me. I turned,” She puts her hand out to emphasize, “thirty-three this year.” There are a few whoops in the audience. “Yes! Thank you five people,” She says calmly, eyes wide to denote irony. The audience laughs – the joke here is that thirty-three is not an age typically celebrated. The lack of enthusiasm for this age is what will drive the next part of Wong’s stand-up. “I appreciate that.”

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Her voice becomes lower in pitch, but slightly louder. “Uh, I can tell that I’m getting older, because now, when I see an eighteen year old girl, my automatic thought…” The camera has closed in on Wong’s face and shoulders now. She taps her finger to her brain and pauses slightly for emphasis, “Is fuck. You,” She almost whispers, her eyes wide. “Fuck you. I don’t even know you, but fuck you!” She glares at an imaginary eighteen year old, and her voice raises in pitch – she is angry. Her voice becomes quieter again. “‘Cause I’m straight up jealous. I’m jealous, first and foremost, of their metabolism. Because eighteen year old girls, they could just eat like shit,” She mimes stuffing food in her mouth, “And then they take a shit,” She points down to her lower body, “And have a six-pack, right?” On the words “six pack,” she places her hand on her belly – part of the comedy here is that she clearly does not have a six pack. “They got that – that beautiful inner-thigh clearance,” She bends over slightly, waving her hand in between her thighs, “Where they put their feet together and there’s that huge gap here, with the light of potential just radiating through?” Her voice is getting louder as she emphasizes every word,  “Like ahhhhhhhh,” She vocalizes the song from The Little Mermaid where Ariel gives up her voice in exchange for human legs from Ursula. We get a shot of the audience here: the choice for this shot is three women and one man, all laughing hysterically in the audience. They seem approaching or at middle-age; this is the target, “knowing” audience for this particular joke.

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“And then when they go to sleep, they just go. to. sleep. They don’t have insomnia yet. They don’t know what it’s like to have to take an Ambien or download a Meditation Oasis podcast,” She slows down, emphasizing every word. Her eyes are wide, annoyed, and her voice is biting, almost acidic, “To calm the chatter of regret and resentment towards your family just cluttering your mind.” She’s almost grumbling now. “They have their whole lives ahead of them. They don’t have HPV yet,” The audience laughs louder, but she keeps breezing on. “They just go to sleep in peace at night.” She pauses, observing the audience; they are still recovering from the HPV joke. She puts her palm out, defensive. “Everybody has HPV, okay? Everybody has it. It’s okay. Come out already, everybody has it!” The camera cuts into an intimate shot of Wong’s angry face. “If you don’t have it yet, you go and get it,” She clenches her teeth, threatening. “You go and get it. It’s coming. If you don’t have HPV yet you’re a fucking loser, alright?” She points to the audience, and they roar with laughter. “That’s what that says about you.”

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Who is the “you” in Ali Wong’s comedy? In the first minute, it seems to be other people in their thirties, but her target demographic ends up moving. In a later bit, she makes this clear as well when she talks about her experience having a miscarriage: “A lot of twenty-year olds flip out when I tell them that…Girl, I’m thirty-three. When you’re thirty-three, you’ll know plenty of women who have had a miscarriage. It’s whatevs, okay?” The “you” in Ali Wong’s comedy, the audience for her advice, is the anxious girl in her twenties. Her comedy is applicable to several demographic groups (as we saw, the beginning of her stand-up provides a laugh for middle-aged audiences), but the audience she speaks to primarily is the girl in her twenties; for these young women, Wong acts as the wise mentor of the older generation who knows how to have fun, but who tells it like it is. For the HPV joke, the implicit audience expands beyond the knowing middle-aged audience of her opening bit, and becomes centered on the woman in her twenties who may be anxious about HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases. “It’s okay! Everybody has it,” marks the beginning of Wong’s reassurance, which provides an arc of guidance in her comedy.

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This guidance is reassuring, but interestingly not calm; as we see, what punctuates Wong’s comedy is anger, resentment, and irony. Why is this so? Ali Wong purposely does not present herself as an embodiment of perfection; she is the filthy, feminine, monstrous guide that reassures an anxious younger generation of women. The “angry woman,” or what Sara Ahmed calls the “feminist killjoy” in her studies of feminism and affect, is considered as abject in the typical affective community. At the dinner table for instance, the “angry feminist killjoy” is considered to be a disruption of unhappiness if she interrupts the conversation and brings feminist points to light. Ahmed explains that this annoyance at the feminist killjoy arises from the feminist not experiencing happiness from the things she is supposed to experience happiness from: “When we feel happiness in proximity to the right objects, we are aligned; we are facing the right way. You become alienated—out of line with an affective community—when you do not experience happiness from the right things” (Ahmed). This is a position that feminist women, especially young feminist women feeling pressure to be obedient of their families, experience, and this position brings conflict: do I voice my unhappiness and bring anger, or do I remain silent and let my anger stew?

What does it mean, then, to be angry, and to go against the affective community? Ahmed defines this by the term “willfulness,” a term she appropriates from womanist writer Alice Walker:

When you are charged with willfulness it is as if your being is an insistence on being, a refusal to give way, to give up, to give up your way…It is the experience of “coming up against” that is named by willfulness, which is why a willful politics needs to be a collective politics. The collective here is not assumed as a ground. Rather, willfulness is a collecting together, of those struggling for a different ground for existence. You need to be supported when you are not going the way things are flowing (Ahmed).

To be “willful” is to refuse to be complicit, and to refuse to be submissive. Consider Ali Wong’s dominant stance, and the camera’s positioning below her, establishing her power. Consider her comedy, punctuated by anger and frustration, and consider the listening audience, complicit and sympathizing with her anger. Wong’s angry, advisory comedy allows her to be a mentor for a younger audience of women; it is a call to be willful. This is why the collective, accepting, and laughing audience is so crucial in Ali Wong’s comedy. She creates a dome of pleasure and laughter that arise out of anger, in which women are at the center. She offers women a seat at the table (or, in this arena, a seat in the dome) because her comedy, angry, raunchy, uncensored, but still reassuring and positioned as rational, appeals to women and is directed at them. It is this willfulness that drives Ali Wong’s comedy; she’s pregnant, filthy, womanly, angry, and, in her words, she “doesn’t give a fuck.”

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Ahmed, Sara. “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects).” The Scholar & Feminist Online 8.3 (2010): n. pag. S&F Online. The Barnard Center for Research on Women. Web.

Kovan, Brianna. “Ali Wong Did a One-Hour Comedy Special While Seven Months Pregnant, DGAF.” ELLE. N.p., 14 June 2017. Web. 21 June 2017.

Levy, Ariel. “Ali Wong’s Radical Raunch.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 19 June 2017. Web. 21 June 2017.

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