I saw Hannah Gadsby for the first time on the Australian TV series, Please Like Me. I was equal parts uncomfortable about and addicted to the comedy-drama that explored the deep shades of life, like queer pride, mental health, suicide and conditional love, in a lively, almost pastel palette. I was in love with the character Hannah in the series. Which drew me to Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette on Netflix. I was expecting her to be different, say more with less. But she surprised me. She punched and gutted me in a way no comedy show has done before. She also declared why she is quitting comedy in favor of storytelling. Here is Hannah Gadsby’s story and why you must share it far and wide.
Hannah is Queer, Queer is Hannah. And yet…
Nanette is the story of Hannah. It is the story of her identity – of being Tasmanian, of being Queer, of being a Tasmanian Queer in the ’90s. It is the story of how her comedy is inextricably wound with her identity. It is the story of her discomfort with the ‘side-eye’ in the small town. It is the story of her being ‘not Lesbian enough’. Her favorite sound, she says, of the ‘cup finding its place in the saucer’, is not really in keeping with the loud and proud lifestyle expected of a Lesbian mouthpiece. The ‘self-appointed’ spokespeople of the queer world complain that her content is not ‘Lesbian enough’ either. The woman whose story revolves around being persecuted and alienated by her dearest for being queer is expected by people, even her ‘own people’, to crystallize the crux of her identity into punchlines. Around 17 minutes into the performance, Hannah declares she is quitting comedy.
The Scathing, Unapologetic Feminism
Hannah’s Nanette may very well be critiqued as an attack on the straight, white man. And she is not shying away from the charge. She puts the ‘gender normal’ in the spot, asking them to check themselves for their weirdness. She rues how we put children on opposing teams from day one, feeding the divide-and-rule line, “Men are from Mars, Women are from his Penis”, she adds. The more uncomfortable she makes the straight white men in the room, the more fierce her presentation gets. Not reverse sexism, “you wrote the rules, read them.”
Then she shares her first, deep discomfort with identity jokes. She tells the straight white men to suck it up – because, “it’s just jokes, innit? Just locker room talk!” If only it were so easy to disregard slurs on the core of your being.
Hannah calls misogyny out as a mental illness, especially for the straight white men. “Because if you hate what you desire, you know what that makes you? Fucking tense. Sort that shit out!” The way she cuts the legend of Picasso to pieces is savage. Let’s make Art great again, then. “A seventeen-year-old girl is never in her prime”, she screams, daring the disgusting misogyny of Picasso to take on her now.
She apologizes for her anger while reminding us that angry white-man comedy is an actual genre! “I love angry white-man comedy. Why are they angry? What’s up little fella? If they are having a tough time, the rest of us are goners…”
Leaving Comedy for Storytelling
There is only one kind of comedy that works, isn’t it? The self-deprecating kind. Gadsby puts it simply, “I don’t want to do that anymore.” Self-deprecation for someone in the margin is humiliation, she adds, bending down to get just that little space to ‘have a voice’.
Hannah breaks down comedy to its bare components – an artificially inseminated tension or a setup, and then the punchline to diffuse it. To make others feel better. Stories, on the other hand, need three parts – a beginning, a middle and an end. And stories don’t care if they feel you leaving tense. Hannah had captured the trauma of her adolescence, the trauma of rape, assault, and ostracization, in the defense of jokes that diffused the tension to help us, gender normals, relax around her. But, the question is, why is that burden on her? Why isn’t it on us to take the tension that ‘Gender not Normal’ causes us and deal with it instead? Why isn’t it on us to give the podium to Hannah Gadsby and all those we have hurt and ravaged, by just hearing their story? “I need to tell my story properly”, and we owe her life to her to sit down and listen. Even when it makes us scarily uncomfortable in our own skin. As Hannah puts it, “This Tension, it’s yours. I am not helping you anymore”.
Hannah Gadsby has just changed the rules of comedy. She has just made it impossible for any person to come on stage and break-down a human’s identity struggle in the sick warp of a ‘joke’. Hannah Gadsby has come to tell her story now folks, and you better listen!
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