Daniel Fickman is a writer, producer and aspiring comedian. A lifelong comedy fan, Daniel has written an entire blog on the history of SNL and studied journalism at Texas State. Nanette is a groundbreaking Netflix hour comedy special from Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby. It’s been written up by virtually every entertainment news outlet as a revelation and praised by women everywhere as a long overdue statement about gender politics. You can watch it now, streaming on Netflix.
I’m a straight white male and I am outing myself: Comedian Hannah Gadsby is my new role model.
In her blisteringly honest new stand-up special, Nanette, Gadsby uses her identity as a lesbian comic whose voice has been marginalized to indict the world of comedy for being carelessly complicit.
In case you missed it (and I suggest you don’t) Gadsby’s ground-breaking special on Netflix is a place where love and hate seem equally welcome. She’s inarguably funny, so of course you laugh. Then she seems to peel her skin off, layer by layer, until she exposes her truth with the rawest of emotions. Then you grimace and feel pain, too, while she threatens to quit the comedy business because – in her need to talk about her rape at 17 and her torturous beating years later, both at the hands of men – she became her own punchline.
In an era where we continue to witness the anguish caused by men who abuse their power, Gadsby puts her perspective on full display. It’s a broad view that stems from being “gender not normal,” as Gadsby puts it. Her honesty and humor in the face of demoralizing violations are just two reasons she’s my new role model and should be yours, too.
At times it is uncomfortable to watch her, but maybe that is common when you discover the brutal truths of a different perspective, particularly one that has been marginalized for so long.
From an early age Gadsby was made to feel ashamed for being herself. She grew up in Tasmania, an Australian island, in a not-too tolerant town where she says 70 percent viewed homosexuality as a criminal act. One of the most tragic elements of Nanette is Gadsby’s confession that she had to build a career off self-deprecating humor to succeed in comedy.
Self-deprecating humor can be hilarious. Some of the world’s best comedians have made fortunes off of it. But for Gadsby, it is no joking matter.
“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,” Gadsby said. She said she is no longer willing to put herself down in order to seek permission to speak. “And if that means that my comedy career is over, then so be it.”
That’s role model material.
It would be a shame to be robbed of Gadsby’s compelling voice, but it’s understandable that she feels that way. We neglected to hear her true voice for so long that when we finally were ready to listen, the damage had already been done. Audiences weren’t ready to hear her true voice. The only way Gadsby could deal with that was to turn her tragedy into jokes. Whether it be openly discussing a gut-wrenching conversation with her mother, who at first compared her being lesbian to being a murderer, or being too ashamed to come out to her grandmother just last year, Gadsby views Nanette as the chance to tell her real story.
And this is precisely why Gadsby decides that she needs to quit comedy. She needs to take care of her story. No longer will she present it for a cheap laugh.
The comedic art of tension and release, the common joke’s protocol, has clearly taken a toll on her. Gadsby admits the reason she’s funny is because she’s been learning the art of tension diffusion since she was a child. “Back then it was a survival tactic. I didn’t have to invent the tension…I was the tension. But now, I am tired of the tension.”
While watching Nanette there were times I wanted to personally apologize to Gadsby, on behalf of all men. “To the men in the room who feel I may have been persecuting you this evening…well spotted,” Gadsby cracks. I felt she was talking directly to me. And she was, for all the times I laughed at things that seemed funny, but revealed a more painful misogynistic reality.
There was the comedy show where a male comedian accused a woman in the audience of being a lesbian for not laughing at his jokes. And yes, I joined the audience in awkwardly laughing at her. Then, in the 90s, I laughed at Monica Lewinsky jokes, not thinking to lay blame on the man in power who had clearly taken advantage of her. The comedy world has been complicit in marginalizing not just Gadsby, but generations of women before her.
That’s a point Gadsby drives home by exposing a rift in the world of comedy she may not be able to mend for herself.
“Maybe, if comedians had done their job properly, and made fun of the man who abused his power, then perhaps we might have a middle-aged woman with an appropriate amount of experience in the White House, instead of, as we do, a man who openly admitted to sexually assaulting vulnerable young women because he could,” Gadsby declares.
No disagreement here. When comedians were all offering the same viewpoint on Lewinsky, we were living in an echo chamber with no room for dissenting opinion. Can Gadsby’s astute observation lead us into an era where we refuse to make a victim the national punchline? Maybe, if the fibers of rage continue to grow in men as well as women, as they do in Gadsby when she confronts the audience with another painful truth that allowed the Lewinsky joke model to fester.
“We only care about a man’s reputation. What about his humanity? These men control our stories. And yet they have a diminishing connection to their own humanity, and we don’t seem to mind so long as they get to hold onto their precious reputation.”
It’s a serious problem. Why are we so concerned with protecting the reputations of those who could clearly care less about their own reputations? Why is our first instinct always to defend? Gadsby had me smacking myself in the face with that question, and it hurt. The fact that I didn’t have an answer hurt even more.
“The tension, it’s yours. I’m not helping you anymore,” Gadsby declares toward the end of Nanette. And the tension that Gadsby left with me gave my mind room to grow. It’s like she had taken a scalpel and deftly performed surgery on my brain to rearrange certain male wiring that had been installed improperly. I want to thank her for that.
She’s right when she concludes, speaking to men: “You need a good role model right now, fellas.”
Yes, we do and Hannah Gadsby, speaking her truth in the face of all she has experienced, is the perfect one.