The first time I tried watching Hannah Gadsby’s new Netflix special, Nanette, I turned it off after the first 10 minutes.
I was at home with my partner, and we’d finally gotten around to the comedy set, which some of our friends had been raving about. Gadsby kicks off the special by explaining (or, rather, not explaining) its name, which she’d chosen before actually writing any material. She says that she’d met a “very interesting” woman called Nanette, from whom she thought she could squeeze an hour’s worth of laughs. “Turns out,” she says, “no.” We never hear about Nanette again.
Gadsby goes on to talk about being raised in a small town in Tasmania, where, after she found out she was “a little bit lesbian,” her life got considerably harder. In Tasmania, if you “choose” to be gay, the wisdom goes, then you should get yourself a one-way ticket to mainland Australia — “pack up your AIDS in a suitcase and fuck off to Mardi Gras.” Gadsby points out that in Tasmania, being gay was a crime until 1997, a disturbingly short time ago.
Even though Gadsby is clearly very smart, and clearly very funny, there was something that made me uncomfortable, and a little annoyed, with a set about gay oppression and hardship being packaged into quippy anecdotes for a mainstream audience. I laughed at some of her brilliant one-liners (Do lesbians “even exist if no one’s watching, really?”) and her bit about feeling alienated from the spectacle of Mardi Gras (“Where do the quiet gays go?”). But by the time Gadsby began talking about a man who had threatened to beat her up for chatting up his girlfriend, I figured I’d reached my limit with her comedy special.
“This is clearly meant for straight people,” my partner said, turning on Killing Eve instead.
I agreed — Nanette seemed like it wasn’t going to be much more than Lesbianism 101. So even though there was something very appealing about Gadsby, I figured this particular special just wasn’t for me (a practiced lesbian, if not necessarily an expert). I’m bombarded with stories of anti-LGBT discrimination every day, and experience some of them myself. Even though I know that humor can be healing, I just don’t feel much like laughing about gay trauma these days.
It wasn’t until a friend chastised me for giving up so early that I decided to revisit the special from where I’d left off. And I realized that throughout Nanette, which changes dramatically in tone after the first 20 minutes, Gadsby was making precisely this point: What’s so funny about lesbians being subjected to hatred and abuse? And why do queer comedians like her — all queer people, really — feel the need to repackage our memories of trauma for the sake of straight people’s comfort?
Watching Nanette made me question the way queer people tell our darkest stories, and who we’re telling them for. Namely, how often are we either sensationalizing these experiences, or else downplaying them and making jokes, worried that what we’ve gone through isn’t traumatic enough to merit more than a passing mention? Tragedy of all kinds is usually centered in the queer stories we do see, particularly in the mainstream, and not for nothing — for so many of us, our identities were formed in times of trauma. But what would it mean if the stories we told about ourselves weren’t focused on the worst things that have ever happened to us?
“I have been questioning this whole comedy thing,” Gadsby says about 20 minutes in, signaling the very different direction she’s about to take. “I don’t feel very comfortable in it anymore. For the past year I’ve been questioning it.” She explains that she’s built her career out of self-deprecating humor: “I don’t want to do it anymore. Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists on the margins? It’s not humility; it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore — not to myself, and not to anyone who identifies with me. … If that means my comedy career is over, then so be it.”
Critics have raved about the way Gadsby’s special unfolds from here. She speaks directly to those she calls “gender-normals,” condemning them for their obsession with upholding the gender binary by freaking out about “men in dresses” while putting pink headbands on their bald babies. More specifically, she speaks to straight white men, who have grown uncomfortable with their new label as “a subset of human” instead of the default demographic. If Gadsby is labeled a “fat dyke who’s dead inside,” then straight white men should have to deal with the discomfort of being specifically and sometimes negatively labeled too.
But Gadsby takes her set to another level when she goes beyond dissecting the gender binary to dissecting the art of joke construction itself. “A joke is a question that I have artificially inseminated with tension,” she says. “I make you all feel tense, and then I make you laugh, and you say, ‘Thanks for that, I was feeling a bit tense.’” She explains how she came to be “such a funny fucker”: “I’ve been learning the art of tension diffusion since I was a child. Back then it wasn’t a job; it wasn’t even a hobby. It was a survival tactic. Back then, I didn’t have to invent the tension. I was the tension. And I’m tired of tension. Tension is making me sick.”
Throughout a sprawling arc about male artists throughout history and whether or not artists should be tortured to make good art (Gadsby’s take: Fuck that), she makes much more explicit why that tension is breaking her.
“I froze an incredibly formative experience at its trauma point, and I sealed it off into jokes,” she says. And the joke version of her life was not “nearly sophisticated enough to undo the damage done to me in reality.”
Seventy percent of the people Gadsby grew up with in Tasmania believed that being gay should be criminalized. “By the time I identified as being gay, it was too late — I was already homophobic.” And after internalizing that prejudice, she didn’t have any jokes at her immediate disposal. “The only thing I knew how to do when I came out of the closet was to be invisible and to hate myself,” she says.
That was until she eventually developed jokes about her identity as a defense mechanism. And she explains that jokes on some level have to come from mining the unpleasant stuff — a story about her mom coming to accept her for who she is doesn’t involve any tension; it’s just a pleasant anecdote. The really juicy stories, whether you’re shaping them into jokes or tearjerkers, are the ones that don’t have a happy ending. But in comedy, there’s a limit to how much unhappiness an audience will tolerate.
“Remember that story about the young man who almost beat me up?” Gadsby says toward the end of her special. “It was a very funny story. I made a lot of people laugh about his ignorance.” But, she says, “to balance the tension in the room, I couldn’t tell that story as it actually happened. Because I couldn’t tell the part of that story where that man realized his mistake, and he came back. And he said, ‘Oh, I get it, you’re a lady faggot. I’m allowed to beat the shit out of you.’ And he did.” Gadsby raises her voice here, and her eyes are glassy with near-tears. “He beat the shit out of me, and nobody stopped him. I didn’t report it to the police and I didn’t take myself to hospital, and I should have. You know why I didn’t? Because I thought that was all I was worth.”
Crucially, Gadsby insists that this horrific incident wasn’t due to “homophobia pure and simple” — it also had to do with gender. “If I’d have been feminine, that would not have happened. I am incorrectly female — I am incorrect, and that is a punishable offense. And that tension? It’s yours. I’m not helping you anymore.”
What I realized while watching Gadsby’s special was that I was uncomfortable with the earlier iteration of her story because I felt like it was giving “gender-normals” the opportunity to laugh at and feel superior to this bigoted stranger, rather than grappling with their own role in upholding the gender binary and the anti-queer culture it breeds. Turns out, Gadsby was just waiting to pull the rug out from under her audience’s feet, in order to force them to face the full truth.
That truth is that intolerance cannot be cured with the well-meaning but bland and ultimately pretty meaningless declarations of #LoveIsLove that have been popularized since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. Anti-gay bigotry, at its root, is not about queer people being denied the ability to love one another (though that is indeed one of its products) — rather, anti-LGBT prejudice of all kids boils down to a kind of sexism, and queer people’s failure to abide by gender norms. Because she was “incorrectly female,” Gadsby was a threat to a straight man’s hold on his heterosexual relationship, and for that he decided that she deserved to be punished. I don’t think it’s an accident that Gadsby’s special was named for a woman but turns out to have nothing at all to do with dating or relationships; rather, it is about the ways in which she has been abused for her gender-nonconformity.
What Gadsby does throughout her special is condemn a cultural canon that privileges and upholds men’s stories, oftentimes at the expense of women and children. Women, she says, are just as corruptible; men “don’t have a monopoly on the human condition.” But, she says, speaking again to the men in the room: “the story is as you have told it. Power belongs to you.”
So what does that mean for everyone else’s stories? Gadsby doesn’t seem to have faith in the power of comedy to solve the world’s ills. Talking about some of her work as a young comic, when her sets were “wall-to-wall lesbian content,” she told lots of jokes about homophobia. “Really solved that problem,” she quips. And she scrutinizes her own set, too, before she fully transitions from comedy to call to action: “Nobody is leaving this room a better person. We’re just rolling around in our own shit here, people.” I don’t know if she believes that sharing her traumas straightforwardly, in full, without a punchline will necessarily wake the world up, either — only that she refuses to keep making others feel better at her own expense. She’s giving her audience the whole story, and they can make of it what they will.
But how does one strike a balance between owning and amplifying the things that make us different — which can connect us to others who share that same difference, an assurance that we’re not alone — and getting stuck in what’s effectively a minority ghetto, gay or otherwise? Anyone who, as Gadsby says, “exists on the margins” is stuck on that ever-wobbling balance beam.
I don’t think Gadsby is necessarily saying that lesbians shouldn’t make jokes about the struggles of lesbianism, but I do think she’s raising crucial questions about how we approach the production and distribution of queer comedy and art for a mainstream audience, versus queer art that is by us and for us. Lesbianism, particularly masculine-of-center, gender-nonconforming lesbianism, is still pretty much a joke in popular culture — we are the mean softball coaches, the grouchy cat ladies, the predatory bull dykes, the one-line bits of comic relief — so do we really want to give straight people more reasons to laugh at us? Especially if that means shrinking ourselves past the point of recognition?
Turns out, I was actually the right audience for Nanette. I just didn’t know it at first. As Gadsby tried to shake her straight, cisgender audience out of laughing complacency, she was also speaking to queer women — and, I think, anyone of a marginalized identity — about how we handle the delicate cargo of our own stories, which depend so much upon who hears them, and who understands what’s really at stake when we tell them. Maybe the goal of conversations like these needn’t be to erase all of our traumas or instantly eradicate all bigotry, but instead for the storyteller to process their own experiences, and, little by little, to expand the audience who can really hear what’s being said.
We deserve to have our stories told in the mainstream — the good, the bad, and the ugly — but it is worth thinking about whose comfort is being prioritized when it comes to the way those stories are packaged and sold. And our stories can exist, and thrive, outside of the mainstream, too. Gadsby, admirably, is no longer willing to be self-deprecating about lesbianism on stage at the Sydney Opera House or for the enormous audience she’s amassed on Netflix after shooting her special. Self-deprecation seems better served through, say, lesbian meme accounts on Twitter and Instagram, where we can lovingly poke fun at ourselves without making what’s so wonderful and messed up and hilarious about lesbian life widely available for straight consumption.
The world may be burning, but we can still find time, between our anger and our sadness, to laugh with one another. Nanette makes room for all of it, the rage and the grief, the highs and the lows, without flattening the whole mess of the human condition into a few easy jokes. Lesbians deserve better than that. I think we all do. ●