Story Arc: Why Ali Wong is the Anti-Neoliberal Feminist We Need

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“I’ve been reading that book by Sheryl Sandberg; she’s the C.O.O. of Facebook. And she wrote that book that got women all riled up about our careers. Talking about how we as women should challenge ourselves to sit at the table and rise to the top. And the book is called Lean In. Well I don’t wanna Lean In, okay? I wanna lie down. I want to lie the fuck down! I think feminism is the worst thing that ever happened to women. Our job used to be no job. We had it so good! We could have done the smart thing, which would have been to continue playing dumb for the next century, and be like ‘We’re dumb women. We don’t know how to do anything. So I guess we better stay at home all day and eat snacks and watch Ellen. ‘Cause we’re too stupid to have any real responsibility.’ And then all these women had to show off and be like ‘We could do it! We could do anything!’ Bitch, shut up! Don’t tell them the secret! They ruined it for us, and now we’re expected to work. When I hear the phrase ‘double-income household,’ I wanna throw up.”

-From Ali Wong’s Baby Cobra on Netflix

“Postfeminist sensibility” is a term coined by British feminist Rosalind Gill to represent the entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist themes in media culture. Postfeminism is a sensibility, not an ideology, in which media culture is its critical object. One cannot, for example, identify as a “postfeminist,” nor can you accuse a person of being “postfeminist” – rather, postfeminism is a feature of a media object. A stand-up special, for example, can be representative of postfeminist sensibility, but we cannot “accuse” the person performing the stand-up, as an individual, of being a “postfeminist.” It is represented by the following:

-The notion that femininity is a bodily property

-Shift from objectification to subjectification of women

-Emphasis upon self-surveillance, monitoring, and discipline

-Focus upon individualism

-Makeover paradigm

-Resurgence in ideas of sexual difference

-Sexualization of culture

-Emphasis upon consumerism

-Irony and knowingness (Gill).

You will notice in this post that I will be dwelling a good deal on whether Ali Wong’s special is representative of postfeminist sensibility or not – why is this important? Postfeminist sensibility, while an abstract concept, includes a playful, confusing entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist themes that become absorbed as values by the unknowing audience – it is this very playfulness and entanglement that allow certain types of gender prejudice to pass. And, whether or not we consider Ali Wong’s comedy as radical does, to an extent, depend on how much her special conforms to an already much-represented sensibility in media culture.

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A large part of postfeminism as a sensibility in media culture is the overarching notion that women “no longer need feminism.” On the surface, Ali Wong’s stand-up special seems somewhat aligned with postfeminist sensibility. It involves a sexualization of culture in which women are emphasized as sexual beings (“I’m a gross, filthy animal”), and a shift from objectification to subjectification of women (“‘cause I’m the real boss”). And, most importantly, it includes the notion of irony and knowingness surrounding feminism, with Wong’s ~seemingly~ tongue-in-cheek statement that “feminism is the worst thing that ever happened to women”. In an interview with Ariel Levy from The New Yorker, Ali Wong confirms that she was, in fact, joking: “I think people who don’t get that are, like, not so smart…it’s a comedy show, not a Ted Talk.” To justify the length of her bit on not wanting to work anymore, though, Wong continues, “I really just want more money for less effort…don’t you want that too?” (Levy).

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Wong may have been joking as an individual, but what sensibility does her special communicate? The politics of Wong’s “feminism” bit are complicated, especially because she does not make the joke and move on; rather, it frames the special’s storyline. Wong begins the special by introducing that she is thirty-three; she talks about getting older, and she talks about getting married. She eventually admits, about a quarter of the way through the special (once her live audience is warmed up), that she trapped her husband for his “earning potential,” because he attended Harvard Business School. She then launches into the bit about not wanting to work anymore (the aphorism of her special – if you take away one thing from it, it’s that she is sick of working), and then that feminism is the worst thing that ever happened to women. On one hand, as a successful woman who has a high-ranking writing job, or in Wong’s words, “one of the best day jobs you could ask for,” the special seems to be playing off of the irony and knowingness that is characteristic of postfeminist sensibility. Wong takes it for granted that audiences will “get” that she was being tongue-in-cheek, as she takes it for granted that “feminism” is a generally accepted ideology in the audience of her comedy. And, furthermore, feminism is positioned as the “monstrous abject”; the butt of Wong’s jokes.

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Of course, when a media object indicates that women “no longer need feminism,” which feminism are we talking about? There are many different feminisms – liberal feminisms, radical feminisms, socialist feminisms, American feminisms, transnational feminisms, black feminisms, womanisms, etc. What does it mean, then, for a woman with a high-paying, cushy writing job at Fresh Off the Boat to perform seven and a half months pregnant and shout, angrily, that she thinks “feminism is the worst thing to happen to women”?

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Rosalind Gill does “update” how postfeminist sensibility has evolved in the twenty-first century in a new article entitled, “Post-postfeminism?: new feminist visibilities in postfeminist times.” In examining popular twenty-first century media culture, especially women’s magazines, Gill determines that what is assumed to be the overarching “feminism” in media culture nowadays is neoliberal and corporate feminism – most aligned with what we might call “liberal feminism.” In an article “Feminist Perspectives on the Media,” Liesbet van Zoonen perhaps most eloquently describes “liberal feminism”:

In liberal feminist discourse irrational prejudice and stereotypes about the supposedly natural role of women as wives and mothers account for the unequal position of women in society. General liberal principles of liberty and equality should apply to women as well…the solutions liberal feminism offers are twofold: women should obtain more equal positions in society, enter male-dominated fields and acquire power (van Zoonen 33-34).

In liberal feminism, the solution to inequality between men and women lies in women’s infiltration of the “masculine” workplace. What van Zoonen finds troubling about liberal feminism, however, is what she calls the “Superwoman” stereotype in commercial culture. Since liberal feminism emphasizes that women and men are inherently the same and equal, the translation of this into media and commercial culture is that women can and should “have it all,” and that feminism is about confirming this on an individual level. She writes:

Women’s magazines and advertisements portray [the Superwoman] as an independent and assertive career woman, a successful wife and mother, who is still beautiful and has kept the body she had as a girl in perfect shape. Real woman trying to live up to this image end up suffering from serious burn-out symptoms” (34).

Liberal feminism as an ideology and sensibility in media culture has been widely successful. Ali Wong, without naming “liberal feminism” specifically, points to the success of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: “the book that got women all riled up about their careers…women are told to sit at the table and rise to the top.” This book is perhaps most representative of corporate and neoliberal feminism that Gill and van Zoonen point to. This book is highly encouraging to women in its “we can do it” mentality; however, the equality that it emphasizes is almost singularly based on women’s satisfaction and achievement in the workplace. Why is liberal feminism so successful? Because it is most aligned with American consumerist and working values that define one’s happiness as one’s ability to assimilate into the American capitalist workplace; it “sits comfortably with neoliberal capitalism” (Gill 624). It is these values that repeatedly confirm and justify the American capitalist system and the American dream: if you work hard, you will make money, get what you want, and achieve success and happiness.

Rosalind Gill is deeply suspicious of this. She writes in her latest article that the corporate and neoliberal feminism that is represented in Lean In : “may have little in common with—and indeed may be antithetical to—the activist feminism of those protesting budget cuts to women’s services or deportation of migrants” (Gill 612). Gill sees liberal feminism not only as dangerous due to the Superwoman stereotype that leads to frustrated, burnt-out women who end up taking on responsibilities both in the home and in the workplace, but as dangerous due to its emphasis on individual empowerment rather than on structural change. Because assimilation into the workplace to “gain control over it” is so strongly rooted in its ideology, this neoliberal feminism emphasizes the importance of the “empowered woman” – that women must be personal embodiments of feminism within themselves – rather than the importance of “activist feminism.” The reason Gill finds corporate or neoliberal feminism as “antithetical” to more activist feminisms is because “its psychologizing discourse and promotion of female “confidence,” self-love, and self-esteem as one-size-fits-all solutions to gender injustice” promotes and creates an emphasis on individual empowerment that does little to accomplish actual structural change (617). Furthermore, it ends up idealizing performance of whiteness, beauty, heterosexuality, and wealth as the American ideal, as these traits are what most easily succeed in the American capitalist system.

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Ali Wong’s choice to criticize Sandberg’s Lean In as a media object, then, is crucial to our understanding of her comedy. It seems what she is criticizing is not feminism as an overarching concept, but corporate/(neo)liberal feminism. This criticism of empowerment through work is rare in media culture, especially as liberal feminism has become so widely accepted. “I don’t want to lean in,” She says slowly, leaning forward and raising her eyebrows, “I want to lie down.” She tilts her body to the side and sticks her arm out, closing her eyes as if she is laying on a bed. She pops back up, eyes wide, and shouts, “I want to lie the fuck down! I think feminism is the worst thing that ever happened to women.” She angrily says about a minute later, “And now we’re expected to work. When I hear the phrase ‘double-income household,’ I wanna throw up…. ‘Cause I don’t wanna work anymore!”

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Wong does talk about her success at her writing job at Fresh Off the Boat. But even while she does mention that high-paying job, Wong makes sure that the audience does not equate her workplace success with her happiness. In fact, a good portion of her story arc is about de-glamorizing corporate success, the extent to which she goes into deep detail about the process of pooping in an office space:

I do write for Fresh Off the Boat at ABC. Which is one of the best jobs you could ask for. But I still gotta work at an office every day. Which means I gotta shit in an office every day. Housewives, they don’t gotta shit in an office! Housewives get to shit in their house, skin to seat…They don’t gotta worry about the velocity at which their doo-doo comes out. They don’t gotta try to, you know, squeeze the butt cheeks together to make sure that the doo-doo comes out at a slow and steady pace, so that no unpredictable noise suddenly escapes and brings you deep, deep shame. Housewives are free to just blow ass into the toilet, and let it echo and reverberate to the ends of their hallways while watching as much Netflix on their iPad as they want!

What is fascinating about Wong’s comedy is that she positions American neoliberalism and workplace individualism as ridiculous; why would anyone find satisfaction in having to take, as she describes, “boring and repressed shits,” in contrast to “watching as much Netflix on their iPad as they want”? The crudeness of this bit is also important to emphasize if we are to consider postfeminist sensibility’s emphasis on self-surveillance, maintenance, and the makeover paradigm. Media culture’s translation of liberal feminism ends up conveying the message that women must put as much effort into beauty maintenance, self-love, and workplace achievement while giving off the illusion that their achievement of these goals is effortless. The “office shitting” bit, as we might label it, unabashedly uncovers the grossness and intense maintenance that is involved behind this illusion.

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Wong doesn’t quite glamorize domesticity either. Though she does position “not working” as the ideal, she combats the stereotype of the “glamorous, beautiful housewife” in this particular bit by saying that housewives can “blow ass” into the toilet. She also de-glamorizes postfeminist housekeeping (finding empowerment through housekeeping):

I don’t wanna work anymore, and I’m not dieting anymore. Since I got married last year, I’ve been eating fried chicken skin every day since. That’s right. And just fulfilling my destiny. Which is to turn into a circle with eyelashes. Like Mrs. Pacman, just, ughhhhh! Let’s redecorate! Ughhhhh!

Here, Wong refuses the intense maintenance that goes into the upkeep of the “ideal woman” by saying that her “destiny” is to “turn into a circle with eyelashes.” Even more significant, she positions the “perfect housewife” as monstrous by transforming herself onstage into a monstrous “Mrs. Pacman,” groaning and stumbling around onstage as she shouts, “Let’s redecorate! Ughhhh!”

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What is also emphasized in this brand of “contemporary American feminism” is disaffectation of the feminist woman, and an emphasis on bravery in identification with the term “feminist”. Gill describes this as follows:

Aside from the relentless championing of heterosexuality, fashion-love, and consumerism that pervades “hot feminism,” this rebranded version—which shares much of its content with the women’s magazine culture from which it developed—is notable for both its affect policing (resolutely not angry)…and its contentlessness (618).

This feminist self-consciousness and “affect policing” is deeply related to Sara Ahmed’s concept of the “feminist killjoy.” Because feminists have been largely criticized for being “too angry,” a large part of feminist media culture ends up encouraging women to be “less angry” so that feminism will be a more widely accepted mainstream ideology. To be angry is to go against the dominant affective community, and to be rejected. 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? To voice this unhappiness, especially in an angry manner, is what Ahmed calls “willfulness.”

While Ahmed seems to reclaim the term “angry feminist killjoy”, the ideal feminist woman in (postfeminist) media culture is in opposition to the “angry feminist killjoy,” which is seen as an insulting stereotype. She is “empowered”, but not angry – she needs to get other people to listen to her. This new feminist woman, stripped of her anger, is demobilized – but at least she’s “empowered.”

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. Ali Wong refuses to affect police herself; her energetic, crackling anger is how she gets the audience to listen to her. At one point in her stand-up, Wong shouts, hands on her hips:

I can already see how there’s this crazy double standard in our society of how it takes so little to be considered a great dad. And it also takes so little to be considered a shitty mom. People praise my husband for coming to all of my doctor’s appointments with me. ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that he comes to all your doctor’s appointments. He is so supportive.’ Guess who else has to go to those doctor appointments?! Me! I’m the star of the show! There’s nothing for the camera to see if I’m not there. But he’s the hero for playing Candy Crush while I get my blood drawn.

Wong’s angry, advisory comedy allows her to be a mentor for a younger audience of women; it is a call to be willful; it is a call to anger, and a call to anger is a call to mobilization. And, most importantly, Wong’s anger is put in the spotlight, with the audience listening intently, and her body language (hands on hips, eyebrows raised, elbow propped on the microphone stand) communicates a “this is how it is” attitude – her anger at the double standard is positioned as rational.

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Another large part of postfeminist magazine culture, Gill also notes, stresses the “bravery” of celebrities declaring themselves as feminists… “the repeated celebrity claim ‘I am not afraid to call myself a feminist’—a claim that turns attention away from what being a feminist is or might be, instead refocusing it on the courage and defiance of the models, actresses, or other celebrities who would dare to own this identity” (623). Simply to identify as a “feminist” is to be one; “I am a feminist” becomes a speech act in which to declare it is to be. In this new re-branding of feminism, to “be a feminist” is to “feel empowered” (“empowerment” is extremely vague, and is never defined, as it is a subjective “feeling”) and say that you are a feminist – acts that do little to accomplish any structural change that might benefit women in concrete terms. Jim McGuigan confirms this in his book Cool Capitalism:

Moreover, although very nearly half the labour force in the cultural sector is female, women are mainly near the bottom of hierarchies with comparatively few in positions of power and control. Neoliberalisation does nothing to ameliorate this situation, in spite of much trumpeted anti-sexism policies, and instead exacerbates it, particularly because it is so difficult for women to bear and care for children in careers that are so insecure, time-consuming and stressful (McGuigan 184).

The “empowerment” motto and “I am a feminist” speech act, therefore, do very little to combat actual discrimination that women face both inside and outside the workplace. Wong denies us the pleasure of this “feminist identification bravery” as we might call it. Rather, she takes a risky move in jokingly not calling herself a feminist – to the shock of the audience. In saying, “I think that feminism is the worst thing that ever happened to women,” she subverts our expectations of what a feminist is, which have been created through postfeminist media culture. Rather than saying that she is a feminist, accepting applause, and moving on, Wong creates an ironic subversion; she ironically refuses to say that she is a feminist, but uses her stand-up to position the angry feminist killjoy as a rational being.

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So, what can we conclude from all this? Wong’s criticism of “feminism” does not criticize feminism as a whole, but rather corporate/neoliberal feminism; she refuses to affect-police, positioning herself as angry feminist killjoy; and, finally, she rejects a definition of feminism that is solely based on the “brave” declaration, “I am a feminist.” But that is not all. Ali Wong chooses to end her stand-up with a shocking twist to her willful-housewife “I don’t wanna work anymore” schtick. I offer you an excerpt from this conclusion:

So, you know…previously, before I met my husband, I had dated a bunch of losers. Then I meet this dream guy, who’s like, way more handsome than me, out of my league, graduated from Harvard Business School. Worked hard to trap his ass. Got him to propose to me. Oh my God, then we got married, all my dreams coming true, and then we got pregnant, and recently, we bought our first home together. And, uh, two weeks into the escrow process, I discovered that my beautiful, Harvard-educated husband was $70,000 in debt. And me, with my hard-earned TV money, paid it all off. So as it turns out, he’s the one who trapped me. How did he do it? How did he bamboozle me? Oh! Maybe because he went to Harvard Business School, the epicenter of white-collar crime, he Enron’d my ass. And now if I don’t work, we die! Why else do you think I’m performing seven and a half months pregnant?

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The twist here is that after hearing over and over that Wong trapped her husband “for his earning potential” and doesn’t “wanna work anymore,” she ends up becoming the necessary provider and earner for her family. The message we receive from this story arc is that Ali Wong is a strong, successful, independent woman who can work, but who is deeply resentful of it. She ends up being the reluctant breadwinner of her household; she is the liberal feminist Superwoman, but she does not like it one bit, and takes it upon herself to emphasize the intense effort it takes to maintain that image. “Why else do you think I’m performing seven and a half months pregnant?” She ends with a shout, rejecting the notion that perhaps she performed pregnant to “prove a point” – she did it because it was necessary. Wong does not doubt the ability of women to assimilate into the workplace; she rejects the essentialist attitude that women are “meant” to be domestic creatures, as she acknowledges her own success in the workplace. But she does emphasize that there is life, happiness, and meaning beyond the workplace; work and money do not necessarily create a meaningful feminist life. Her comedy works to combat the fetishization of corporate America, “hip consumerism,” and “cool capitalism” that dominate so-called feminist neoliberal values, and for that, it is one of the most radical pieces of comedy on Netflix.

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Citations

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.

Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10.2 (2007): 147-66. Web.

Gill, Rosalind. “Post-postfeminism?: new feminist visibilities in postfeminist times.” Feminist Media Studies 16.4 (2016): 610-630.

McGuigan, Jim. Cool Capitalism, Pluto Press, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Van Zoonen, Liesbet. “Feminist perspectives on the media.” Feminist Media Studies. na, 1991.

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