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As A Woman Inspired By Comedy, Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ Forced Me To Question ‘Humour’

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My friends tell me I do this thing, where just to say something funny or inordinate, I put myself down. When I write on my blog, where my most authentic voice escapes the editorial eye of publications, I let my freak flag fly. I undermine myself, take a dig at people who’ve hurt me, but only with the vain intention of getting a few laughs. This is me after a break-up about two years ago:

Like every other girl or woman I have deep, impending, unresolved issues about my body, my face, my hair, my pubes… some other stranger on the road is obviously prettier and no guy likes you because your breath stinks. JK about the latter, when it comes to guys I have realised with perhaps a very few exceptions, the fucking matters more than the feeling. They might not be able to carry you in their arms and give you a twirl, but they can and will take you from behind.

Humour was a coping mechanism; what I didn’t address was the fact that I was spiralling in a foreign country after having my heart broken in the most abrupt way possible. That I was going on dates, passing out in the beds of strangers, trying to evade my emotions.

“You learn from the part of the story you focus on, I need to tell my story properly.”

My writing has, of course, been heavily inspired by female comedians like Amy Schumer whose stand-up material revels in the glory of self-deprecation. After 10 years of using it as a comedic trope, in her Netflix special “Nanette” Hannah Gadsby refuses to degrade herself anymore. Because being self-deprecating when you’re already someone who lives in the margins, “is not humility, it’s humiliation.”

Gadsby breaks down comedy for you. In its bare bones, it is the art of creating tension and diffusing it. But it only lets you focus on the beginning and middle of a story, what about the end? she asks.

Having grown up in the orthodox Bible-belt of Tasmania, in Australia, the comedian, who identifies as a lesbian, says that till 1997 (at the peak of her adolescence) homosexuality was still illegal in the region. She feels that her comedy has suspended her in “a state of adolescence” which has also inadvertently altered the fate of her coming-out story, which she has often used as her stand-up material.

The comedy allows her to tell you that a young man had once called her a “faggot” because she was flirting with his girlfriend at a bus stop. But on realising she is a woman, he had backed off and apologised saying he wouldn’t hit a woman. What she had chosen not to tell you is that he came back for her again, “Oh no, I get it, you’re a lady faggot, I’m allowed to beat the shit out of you.”  Her eyes well up as she lets you in on the searing shame, “And he did. He beat the shit out of me and nobody stopped him.”

With this admission, the tension looms in the air, heavy and palpable. You want a silver lining. But there isn’t any. Gadsby says she’s not going to help you anymore, “…because this tension is what not-normals carry inside of them all the time, because it is dangerous to be different.”

The comedian who used to look up to Bill Cosby, probes the problematic argument of separating the art from the artist, in one of the many memorable moments of the show. She gives the example of serial misogynist (also known as the propounder of the 20th-century art movement, Cubism) Pablo Picasso. To give you context, amongst his many problematic statements about women, Picasso had also had a sexual encounter with an underage girl (aged 17) stating that she was in her prime, and at 42, so was he.

“How about you take Picasso’s name off his little paintings there, and see how much his doodles are worth at auction? Fucking nothing! Nobody owns a circular Lego nude, they own a Picasso!”

She points out what we already know, but choose to ignore, time and time again. We are obsessed with reputation. Reputation of powerful men, who wreck havoc and abuse their power, but for the sake of “reputation” their actions go unquestioned.

“We think reputation is more important than anything else, including humanity. And do you know who takes the mantle of this myopic adulation of reputation? Celebrities, and comedians are not immune. They’re all cut from the same cloth. Donald Trump, Pablo Picasso, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski. These men are not exceptions, they are the rule.”

In this special, Hannah Gadsby has positioned herself as not just a skilfull comedian, but also a master orator who forces you to take off your blinders and pay attention exactly when she wants you to. You might have tuned in for some good laughs, but she leaves you no choice but to take stock of how you navigate through the world and treat those whose lives have been violated for the benefit of a privileged few. We cannot keep on enjoying art if we are afraid to think and question its intent.

“Nanette” made me realise that they are many ways to be funny and make a point. And as a woman, undervaluing myself and my story, is not one of them.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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