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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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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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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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