Twenty-five years ago, Annie Leibovitz stunned America with her infamous portrait of Demi Moore — nude, bronzed, seven months pregnant — on the cover of Vanity Fair. The image of Moore's proud, bare body, heavy with child and unmistakably erotic, meant that in some states the magazine had to be sold sealed inside a white envelope: veritable pornography. Depicting a modern Venus figure, the photograph boldly declared bodily empowerment — and soon became a subject of scorn. It was the belly that launched a thousand opinions.
Today the gossip industry’s fascination with the “baby bump” is de rigueur. The phrase is a relentless fly buzzing in our faces, a constant reminder that our motherhood-venerating culture dissects “mommy” — is she too much or not enough? — before the child is even born. Yet a quarter-century after Moore’s reveal, it remains somewhat taboo to invoke the sexuality of pregnant women. (In fact, the historical impulse to hide pregnant women away as evidence of sexual congress is alive even today.) Generations after Roe v. Wade, Dan Quayle’s crusade against single moms and the emergence of attachment parenting, we’re still caught in Sturm und Drang over birth, personhood and sexuality. In 2016, a stranger will still publicly berate a nursing mother as “disgusting” and a “whore” for the mere act of feeding her child the natural way.
So rising comedian Ali Wong draws loud applause but also silent awe when she steps onstage to perform her one-hour comedy act in the Netflix special Baby Cobra. Or perhaps it’s a jolt of surprise. Slightly built, her attractive face brightened by red cat-eye glasses, Wong performs her set decked out in a slinky, skin-tight, horizontal-striped dress, her third-trimester belly protruding underneath. It’s a sight rarely seen in the comedy world, and the dichotomy between her vixenish composure and the ball of life bulging from her middle may cause viewers to titter before she’s told her first joke. We know that the surprise of whatever she’s going to open with will be amplified because she’s already upended our expectations by being there at all.
Luckily for us, Wong’s cutting observations and blue cracks make for a superbly cohesive and feminist piece of art. A master of shifting voices, she tackles many topics — scatology, aging, Asian-American identity — taking on the id-driven persona of a henpecking gold digger. (She claims she ensnared her husband for his “Harvard nectar,” and announces she never wants to work again.) Like the women of Broad City, Wong demystifies the female body — and all its oozy grotesquerie — as a site of relatability, not horror. She muses on the clinical sexuality of infertility and the shock of miscarriage: She (or the woman she plays onstage) is excitedly relieved to find out that she lost twins and revels in how she milked the situation to glean presents from her husband. It’s sacred motherhood happily come undone, and unlike Sarah Silverman, who deals in “I’m cute and gross!” currency, Wong doesn’t set out to disgust audiences as a form of anti-comedy.
Don’t mistake Wong for endearing. She’s as raw and as raunchy as anyone in her profession. She doesn’t even acknowledge her pregnancy until 40 minutes in, but when she does, something closer to the real Wong emerges. “Female comics don’t get pregnant,” she pronounces. “Once they do get pregnant, they generally disappear. That’s not the case with male comics. Once they have a baby, they’ll get up onstage a week afterwards, and they’ll be like, ‘Guys, I just had this fuckin’ baby. That baby’s a little piece of shit. It’s so annoying and boring!’ And all these other shitty dads in the audience are like, ‘THAT’S HILARIOUS. I IDENTIFY,’ and their fame just swells because they become this relatable funny man all of a sudden. Meanwhile, the mom is at home chapping her nipples, feeding the fucking baby and wearing a frozen diaper because her pussy needs to heal from the baby’s head shredding it up. She’s busy!”
It’s clear from this indictment that Wong does not intend for motherhood to crater her career or her personal life. Sitcom writers of the last 15 years have found the intersection between pregnancy and sexuality rife for comedy — the joke rising from the very idea that a man might find a pregnant woman desirable. These writers seem to think that the more we perceive her as unappealing or even gruesome, the funnier it is that he’s aroused by her.
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Shows like Malcolm in the Middle and Two and a Half Men feature leads with pregnancy fetishes meant to be unstintingly hilarious. With Baby Cobra, Wong isn’t interested in being the joke, even when she does bring direct attention to her waistline. Instead, her pregnancy helps her fire missiles at the sexism of her industry. It is as refreshing as it is vital in a culture that subliminally erases women’s personhood as they approach motherhood. (The sheer number of stock photos of headless pregnant women is just one indication of this.)
All that made it ever more transgressive this spring to see a spate of visibly pregnant women — on television and the movie screen — who not only bare their belly but are actively sexual in pregnancy. In Neighbors 2, Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen’s pregnant married couple engages in quick and dirty coitus that highlights this act's normalcy rather than making pregnancy itself the joke. This season on Outlander, Starz’s historical romance epic already considered revolutionary for its devotion to the female gaze, the leads’ passionate lovemaking halts this season as Jamie (Sam Heughan) comes to terms with a previous sexual assault.
When the married couple finally reconnects, we watch as heavily pregnant Claire (Caitriona Balfe) seductively removes her shift and straddles him with full breasts and belly. He kisses her stomach as they both writhe. (Both actors had to fight hesitant producers to showcase her prosthetic belly in the scene.) Perhaps the last time we saw something like this on television was 11 years ago, when The L Word incorporated Laurel Holloman’s real-life pregnancy into the show’s sexually explicit storylines. Even this year’s Tony Awards featured noticeably pregnant Audra McDonald, cleavage popping, in a vampish velvet dress, shimmying through numbers from Shuffle Along.
Sixty years after Lucille Ball's controversial sitcom pregnancy and almost 50 years since Joan Rivers shocked viewers by performing pregnant on The Tonight Show, we need performers like Ali Wong and more representations of sexually vibrant pregnant women. In a society that still too often expects women to shed all identities except that of mother, these necessary images and shocking words reinforce that women are more than just vessels, incubators or nurturers; we are people. And we desire.