“I find myself wondering – where do the quiet gays go?”
Ten minutes into Nanette I sit in my living room giggling alone as Hannah Gadsby talks about being the type of lesbian who doesn’t exactly belong where the glitter’s at. No, she would rather be where the sound echoing in the room is a “teacup sliding into its saucer.” She’s not the type of woman who’s making fun of her hermit tendencies or really making fun of those big flashy Pride parades, either. It’s just a mismatch of stereotypes in a space where only certain stereotypes are accepted.
She continues in the same vain, talking about “[her] people” – lesbian women and their constant stream of “feedback.” I crack up as she tells a story about a woman asking her to come out as transgender. Hannah states simply, that was actually news to her, “I identify as tired.”
It’s in nestled in this little bit about feedback where the viewer gets the first indication that things maybe aren’t going to be what you expected of the Tasmanian’s 90 minute special. The first time Gadsby says, “But that’s why I have to quit comedy…” the idea is so absurd for the funny woman on stage that my immediate reaction was to gloss over it. But then she talks about the difference between humiliation and humility, about being expected to self-deprecate and the toll that takes on the psyche and suddenly I’m more than a little uncomfortable.
The first thought that comes to mind is not the nobler one for me. I question, “Well then why are you here?” and the second is an immediate correction – she’s here to be honest. I shift my expectations of the set and the discomfort goes away. In Nanette that is perhaps the biggest question asked of the audience. Can you put your expectations on hold for a moment and listen? Or did you come here for a comedy hour and the whiplash of earnest, personal truth too much for you?
To say that Gadsby doesn’t understand her audience in and of itself would be laughable. Like she says in the show – she’s a master of building tension and releasing it. Her quiet, tense delivery of her opinions on the world is woven with subtle facial tics and just-concealed laughter and anger. No, every ounce of uncomfortable drained out of you in the special is drained very much on purpose. In fact, my only real complaint about the content of the show is the fact that I think an audience that’s somewhat cornered into listening isn’t really a receptive audience at all. Consider this your warning so that you can be an incredibly receptive audience member: Nanette will make you laugh, but it is not a comedy special.
This is most clearly demonstrated in the way Gadsby goes back to each of her jokes from early on in the set and annihilates them with bouts of truth. An anecdote about a bigot whose girlfriend Gadsby hit on later becomes the harrowing story of assault. Jokes about “quite forgetting to come out to Grandma” and a sighing, but kind mother turn into a reflection on being raised as a straight girl in the hopes that Gadsby could possibly just change her mind because her mother “knew that the world wouldn’t change.”
As she puts it, her jokes (which consist of two parts, the set up and the punch line) turn into stories (which consist of a beginning, middle and an end). She emphasizes that “we learn from the part of the story that we focus on” and refuses to let her reality be shaped by the half-truths that make a joke so memorable and funny but are formulas without resolutions in real life application. Once again, “I have to quite comedy because….” rings out into the packed theatre and the temptation to squirm in your seat gets a little stronger.
The next chunk of the show demonstrates just how intelligent Gadsby really is. A story about a fan who has qualms with Gadsby’s medication for depression and anxiety turns into an art history lesson that assaults the ideas of the patriarchy ruling higher art and the messages given to women everywhere by our attitudes toward the artists. The power of this section is best demonstrated by the way in which Gadsby uses Picasso’s affair with a seventeen-year-old (while he was 42) to demonstrate the mottled view that we’ve allowed our greatest artists to take on women. Picasso claimed the affair was perfect, “I was in my prime, she was in her prime.” Gadsby rightly points out that a seventeen-year-old girl is never in her prime – and the idea that she could be is one used by older men to justify taking advantage of youth and naivete.
As the art history lesson distills into a quiet tension in the audience, Gadsby makes several heartfelt confessions that stem from living in a world where men make the rules and filters for how she is perceived. She talks about being sexually assaulted as a child, about the assault when she was just a teen, about being raped in her twenties. The admissions are brutal, and Gadsby has no problem pointing out to the white males in the audience that they have a responsibility to do something about what’s going on and to own the tension she’s thrown their way.
As a survivor she is unflinchingly honest about how these attacks on her body have broken the world around her almost irrevocably. When she last says, “that’s why I must quit comedy,” I shake my head because I can see the chunk its taken from her own healing and her own heart. But in the face of her bravery, I also hope that quitting comedy doesn’t mean quitting her story. Because it’s so relevant in a society finally coming alive to the heaps of damage we pour on our children by asking them to be “normal” and finally acknowledging that the cost for being different is too damn high.
So watch the show. Watch it and hear from a woman who’s lived a life well in the face of a world that never wanted her to make it through. Laugh at her quiet humor. Learn from her rage and her wisdom. Go back and collect all the quotes I didn’t have room for here. And think about this truth from her in the meantime.
“We don’t have sunflowers because Van Gough suffered. We have sunflowers because Van Gough had a brother who loved him.”
Nanette is available for viewing on Netflix.