UPDATE: Ali Wong announced on April 13 she and her husband, Justin Hakuta, were divorcing. You can read the article here.
Only about five minutes into her latest stand-up special, “Don Wong,” comedian Ali Wong, dressed in a loud red leopard print dress, struts around the stage and declares just how enthusiastic she is about certain sex acts.
“Whenever I get a deep tissue massage, the masseuse is always like, ‘Do you sit and work at a computer all day?’” Wong said before explaining exactly how her sexual exploits got her physically tensed up while the audience swiftly dissolves into a mix of screams, giggles and nervous laughter.
Wong’s special is filled with similarly hedonistic lines — raunchy, blunt and shamelessly honest. While the topic of sex is no outlier in the tradition of stand-up comedy, experts say the way Wong articulates her own sexual yearnings as an Asian American woman is powerfully significant against a backdrop of the group’s often having been cast as helpless objects of desire.
And it’s especially profound to see an expression of sexuality that’s not through the white male lens at a time of heightened fear and anxiety among Asian American women, about 74 percent of whom reported in a new study having personally experienced racism or discrimination in the last 12 months.
In much of her special, her third with Netflix, Wong lays claim to her sexual fantasies, many of which she says are part of her “midlife crisis.” Wong details how “being the breadwinner of my family has turned me into a 50-year-old man,” expresses how much she wants to cheat on her husband after a decade together and laments the abysmal quality of the male groupies straight female comics get, in comparison to the “young, hot” women whom mediocre male comics attract.
And while Wong’s previous specials deal heavily with commentary around marriage and motherhood, “Don Wong” is more personal, firmly about what she wants for herself after having achieved her level of fame and success.
Experts said previous hypersexual images of Asian women were, in part, formed by Western imperialism and racist legislation, only to be further confirmed by Hollywood depictions conjured up by predominantly white male gatekeepers. The image is far from innocuous, creating a perception that Asian American women are less of a threat and easier to take advantage of and that they aren’t going to fight back. Experts said it also puts the onus on Asian women to avoid violence.
Catherine Ceniza Choy, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said any conversations around sex and Asian American women have existed in the realm of fear and real danger. Many such discussions have been prompted by incidents from the spa shootings in the Atlanta area, in which eight people — six of them Asian women — were killed to the recent killing of Christina Yuna Lee, who was stabbed to death in New York. In addition to first-degree murder and burglary, the suspect in Lee's slaying was charged with “sexually motivated burglary” — defined as a burglary committed for the purpose of his own direct sexual gratification.
Wong, in her own subtle way, alludes to the threats to safety many women feel, referring to “Silence of the Lambs”-type men in her DMs while simultaneously underscoring that the Asian American female experience isn’t defined by just tragedy. There are also joy and pleasure.
Although Wong leans into her hypersexuality, leaving little to the imagination, it’s significant that white men aren’t involved in defining her fantasies, said Anthony Ocampo, a sociology professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
“The hypersexualization of Asian women by white men doesn’t mean that Asian women shouldn’t be afforded sexual agency,” Ocampo said. “Asian women like Ali Wong should have free rein to determine how much or little they want to share about their sexual lives because our sexual lives are part of our humanity. Shouldn’t Asian women get the chance to embrace all parts of their humanity just like everyone else?”
Because Wong centers her worldview in her special, Choy said, audiences get to see sex and other topics according to an Asian American woman, rather than through a white male lens. For a moment, Wong is able to disrupt the dynamics of power and privilege.
“She moves us forward, because in her work and in the special, we see her perspective as the center of the universe, and we rarely see that,” Choy said. “It gives us the opportunity to ponder what would happen if my own perspective was at the center of the world. And what do I think?”
In her own way, experts say, Wong also takes back the sexual agency that stereotypes have long denied Asian women, challenging Hollywood’s reductive depictions.
“It’s basically a very direct and explicit example of an Asian American woman herself owning and embodying and verbalizing her sexuality unapologetically,” said Nadia Kim, a professor of Asian and Asian American Studies at Loyola Marymount University.
Wong’s jokes are no social justice call to action, nor does she explicitly invoke race throughout, but experts emphasized that she doesn’t have to to be subversive. The prevailing Asian American female characters on screen have long fallen into two predominant, overly sexual categories, one of which is the submissive, demure, subservient exotic lotus blossom. Choy said the trope allows little room for Asian women to acknowledge their own pleasure in sexual activity, relegating the group to being obedient objects for men. And so Wong’s sexual assertiveness is profound, she said.
“The power of Ali Wong is that so much of what she’s saying is recognizable. Women, Asian American women, have sexual desire, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Choy said. “It could actually be something to be celebrated and discussed and poked fun at.”
And dismantling the idea of the reductive, ultrasexual Asian woman doesn’t mean avoiding the topic of sex altogether, Ocampo said.
“Somehow people think, ‘If I don’t talk about sex or if I act extra respectable then I will be treated like an equal,’ and that is not the case at all,” Ocampo said. “Respectability politics is a myth meant to keep marginalized people in line.”
Ocampo said unapologetic, sex-loving depictions of Asian American aren’t the only ones that can be powerful and poignant. For the existing stereotypes to be disrupted, audiences need to see a variety of personalities, moods and identities, because ultimately that’s what reality looks like.
“What kinds of images of Asian American women are helpful? Every possible image that can exist. I support Asian American women who embrace being nuanced, full characters, just like Ali Wong has,” Ocampo said. “They can be heroes, villains, sexual, chaste or all of the above at different moments of their lives. You know why? Because we are all these things at different moments of our lives.”