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‘The Great Gadsby’: Why Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix Special ‘Nanette’ Strikes A Chord

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I watched Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ and my, what a show that was! I am not just going to write a long post on why one must watch her show if you haven’t watched it, please do. Watching her show got me thinking, in fact at certain points I had goosebumps. It’s not one of your run-of-the-mill comedy shows that end on a high note or indulges in slapstick humour and the most overused tool of comedy, i.e. sarcasm. I try to watch as many specials as I can, and comedians usually play on familiar tropes. But, what Hannah Gadsby did was change the meaning of comedy, what it does and what it can do.

Comedians usually come under fire for political opinions and for quote-unquote, “controversial” humour. I don’t believe such a type of humour exists; it’s only controversial because someone couldn’t laugh at the joke and found it a little too close to hitting home. This particular special got under the surface of superficial comedy. Gadsby dove into the idea of drawing on experiences to make a joke and showed the mess behind a joke, what happens after the punchline or more importantly what doesn’t happen. The idea that jokes draw on trauma was not news to anyone but for the first time a comedian called it out. The joke is only a part of a story, it’s up to you to decide which is more important, the joke or the story.

You’d think living and existing are easy things, but unfortunately, it’s not that simple. It’s not black and white. For me, it felt very real. I was laughing while being just as close to crying. The thing is a comedy doesn’t always have to be funny, and some people expect comedy to make them laugh. But life isn’t funny. There are two schools of thought one is to be sensitive to the situation and the other to be able to laugh in the face of adversity. But how often do we get under the skin of a joke, understand where that joke has come from? It’s easy to laugh when someone tells you a joke, but maybe the situation out of which the joke was born wasn’t exactly what you’d call funny.

Comedy is serious business, and what it does for me is make me more empathetic. When she called self-deprecating humour humiliation, that’s when she won my respect. I’ve always thought that it was but never understood why it became such a tired genre of comedy. Why is it ok to put yourself down when it’s not ok to put someone else down? I do it too, but I know it comes from a place of insecurity and lack of confidence. The more you put yourself down, the more you think that you’re not worth anything more than that joke.

“I’ve built a career out of self-deprecating humour. That’s what I’ve built my career on. And…I don’t want to do that anymore….because do you understand what self-deprecation means? When it comes from somebody who already exists in 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 or anybody who identifies with me.” – Hannah Gadsby, ‘Nanette’

I wouldn’t say I identify with Gadsby I do in some senses and in others, I can’t. Even in the places that I couldn’t relate though, I had a great amount of respect for what she went through because braving it isn’t easy. Her comedy special has finally called out all those people who complain that women always want to be seen as victims. I have heard men who are well-educated and consider themselves respectful of women ask why we constantly reiterate the negatives of our past, related to sexual harassment, being told we’re playing the victim card. It’s easy to make these statements when you haven’t faced it or when you don’t relate. They also go on to say, “You don’t see men complaining about sexual harassment…” Well, that isn’t healthy, whether it’s a man or a woman.

Gadsby rightfully pointed out how hysteria around gender has grown in recent times. In the fear of being incorrect, people are striving to be overly accurate. We seem to not be able to acknowledge that gender is fluid. We have stopped treating people like people. While laws are making progress at least at snail’s pace, mindsets still remain firmly where they always were. Gadsby’s comedy special is going to get mixed reactions, whether we like it or not. I’m not sure how much change it will bring, or what the overall effect of her special on the comedy scene will be. All I know is, I found a new comic I can look to for intelligent and poetic humour.

To be fair, I hadn’t watched her other specials and was very disappointed when she said that she wanted to quit comedy just when I was getting to know her. I don’t blame her. Comedy is a messy place, and I say this as a complete outsider. As part of the audience, there are huge fissions, yet I’ve seen comedy acquire new layers. Comedy has become more representative. Although comedians are doing more than just representing their identity, they are pushing the envelope, there is a call to action in comedy today, and I was waiting for that. Some comedians just stopped short of doing so, and today Gadsby took that extra step unabashedly. How many of us identify with self-deprecating humour and search for representation in comedy, but when will we believe that we’re more than just a joke?

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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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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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