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

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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