By Sohini Chatterjee
When comedian Hannah Gadsby takes the stage, the audience expects to be amused. They expect to laugh at her expense – it is as much an expectation as it is a demand. Gadsby enters the stage with the burden of this knowledge and she plays to the gallery. Nanette begins ordinarily, unremarkably, and somewhat evasively. Gadsby tells us she feels uncomfortable in small towns, where, at first sight, she is more often than not mistaken for a man. When people realize their mistake, their response is inappropriate on most occasions and she is greeted with a lot of side-eye. Gadsby grins, as if genuinely tickled by the memory of their discomfiture and wariness regarding her appearance, and the audience erupts into roars of laughter. It serves as approval, indicating a promising beginning – Gadsby is aware of it and carries on. She keeps at it for a while longer.
Gadsby then takes a walk down the memory lane and talks about Tasmania, a small island state in southern Australia, where she grew up with the realization that she was a “little bit lesbian”. “I got a letter,” she jokes. Sydney Opera House, where she is performing, bursts into laughter and breaks into applause. Gadsby entertains this levity and encourages it – the purpose behind this would eventually be revealed. She informs the audience of the difficulty of being gay in Tasmania, where homosexuality was categorized as a crime until 1997, during the time that she was growing up. She narrates personal struggles of being lesbian in a place, where gay men were vilified and lesbians were invisibilized and left out of conversations on homosexuality – which was considered an abomination. She also talks about how the “quiet gays” like herself in small towns struggle to identify with queer people in big cities who flaunt their privilege and celebrate their flamboyance at Pride parades. She talks about her struggles, in various ways, acquainting us with her myriad lived experiences, but she does this in a casual, playful manner, almost nonchalantly. She gives the appearance of not caring for or needing empathy, as she charmingly addresses one struggle and then quickly walks us through another, deftly and strategically, all for the sake of good humor and jollity. She seems to be playing by people’s expectations, rigidly conforming to the norms of stand-up comedy which demands she sell her trauma for a good laugh, a solid hour of entertainment. At the beginning of Nanette, Gadsby leads us to assume that her only mission is to provide fodder for humor through clever quips and witticisms – nothing more, nothing less. So she allows her struggles to be reduced to commodities that take the form of jokes and punchlines delivered to those, who pay and want good value for money. She does it in such a manner that one would think she has processed her trauma, dissolved it into humor, and is now protected by it. You would think she is at a safe distance from traumas of the past. However, it is an act and Gadsby is a performer par excellence. She leads you into believing what you wanted to believe all along about her and her performance and then shocks you into silence by berating your steady comfort in that belief.
Gadsby says she has made up her mind to quit comedy and with that declaration, repeated several times over, slowly but surely, leads you into a world of injustice she has hardly ever survived. She reveals that by virtue of her identifying publically as a lesbian, she is expected to include more lesbian content in her comedy routine. It is yet another expectation that does not allow her to tell her story truthfully but compels her to reduce it to “a set up and a punchline”: a middle that had a beginning but will not have an end. Comedy is tyrannical; it does not offer the liberty of an introduction or a conclusion with an explanation in between for both that one finds in a novel or a story that is read at leisure. When an hour is all that you are granted to do justice to your craft, you often do not end up doing justice to yourself. And when a marginalized individual is forced to do injustice to herself, the damage is even more severe. For those of us at the margins, ending our story at a punchline means leaving it untold and allowing it to reinforce our marginalization. Our truths and traumas need to be articulated, vocalized at every opportunity because the margins where we find ourselves are so alienated from the mainstream that our voices cannot easily escape our locations of disempowerment. As people struggling to be heard and understood, we need to claim the right to narrate our truths and must refuse to be content with half-truths that can do us nothing but disservice. We deserve to do justice to ourselves and our communities by way of telling our stories. Gadsby says this cannot happen when we are bound by a singular way of doing things – norm-bound stand-up comedy is not empowering. She knows this because she has done it for over a decade. She explains how while trying to provide queer content, she freezes her experiences at their “trauma points”. She is allowed to speak only through jokes and she ends up trivializing her story as it is never explored in all its depth and its nuanced complexity is never allowed a language. Gadsby tells us how telling jokes about homophobia led her to eliminate her experience of violence altogether, which in turn, never allowed her to heal. Despite having the power to address an audience, she experiences a lack of agency to talk about herself and her lived realities in a manner that is not self-deprecating. It is a problem of the form fuelled by expectations that drive it. Her humility, she states, is her humiliation. She wants to quit comedy because she cannot conscientiously partake in the humiliation of herself and her community. She has had enough.
Gadsby is now wonderfully adamant. She subverts the form that robbed her of her agency, so she makes her humor uncomfortable, allows herself to be fiercely political and righteously angry. She talks about cishet people’s obsession with gender, authoritarianism of straight white men and men from Pablo Picasso to Donald Trump who are valorized despite the history of misogyny, abuse, and violence towards women that characterize what they stand for but are conveniently overlooked. In conversations about their creative genius or political acumen, stories of women they hurt are rendered redundant, unsavory, and unwelcome. Their genius is thought to be representative of something more than themselves – a claim Gadsby dismisses. She asserts that these men “control our stories”; men who have lost their humanity have become our heroes and we are not revolted by it. She knows what it does to a person and a society when people at the margins are not allowed to tell their story – they suffer in silence until it destroys them.
The fine art of comedy functions through the build-up of tension. Tension is built only to be diffused; comedy allows the release of tension through laughter. Gadsby says she has been doing it for far too long, long before it became an occupational hazard. She has lived the tension all her life for being “gender not normal”, a “little bit lesbian” and “incorrectly female”; she has been punished for embodying difference. “I identify as tired,” she confesses. Throughout Nanette, Gadsby shifts from strength to vulnerability to strength again. Her ultimate strength is the declaration that she is not going to diffuse tension anymore. Towards the end of Nanette, Gadsby does not create tension to diffuse it. She lets it linger because it needs to. “…this tension, it’s yours. I’m not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this tension feels like because this tension is what not-normals carry inside of them all of the time because it is dangerous to be different.” Gadsby offers no escape route. She is not pretending to be indifferent to her own trauma. She is asking for compassion, she is demanding to be heard and understood. Not for her own sake but for the sake of the “gender not normals”, the small town queers, the women who are written out of history in favour of men, who do not deserve their esteemed place in history.
The audience that laughs at every queer joke at the beginning of Nanette is reminded at the end of it that before laughing at this brand of humor and consuming it as entertainment, one must acknowledge the trauma that often births and breeds it. Nanette questions and scorns at the detachment of the audience that ceases to search for stories beyond punchlines, who consume humor without recognizing the marginalized location of the comic in a social system that is essentially hierarchical and who fail to understand what it means to perform from that location and despite it. Gadsby’s subversion lies in the sharing of her story. Her subversion also lies in revealing the cost of hiding stories that need to be told so that the excuse of ignorance does not become the reason for injustice again.
Sohini Chatterjee holds an MA in International Relations from South Asian University, New Delhi. Her work has previously appeared in Kindle Magazine, Coldnoon: Travel Poetics, The Lookout Journal, Huffington Post India, etc. She writes and researches on gender, culture, and politics.
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