Writer Jasmine Andersson reviews the poignant new show from comedian Hannah Gadsby, Nanette, explaining why it’s such a powerful addition to the industry’s female narrative.
I didn’t realise I was crying until I’d finished Nanette.
Absent-mindedly massaging the bits of sodden tissue that had worked their way into my hands, I had just watched the show that has arguably changed the landscape of comedy forever.
It’s highly unusual to watch a comedy show and be left with a fiery dose of anger and conviction that changes your perspective on how comedy is made as we know it. We’re more likely to leave most stand-up sets with a mild sense of elation, confusion, or frustration knowing that we’ll never get that £12 and 25 minutes back again.
But as indicated, Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s show doesn’t fit that bill, which is the reason why Netflix has televised it for the world to see — and it speaks to women who have survived a world that is all too comfortable in profiting from their trauma.
For those not in the know, Gadsby is a lesbian woman who was born in Tasmania - “Australia’s butthole,” as she proclaims - and is leaving comedy for a quieter life.
But it’s that quieter life, she unpacks, that will offer her respite from trauma and ill health in a way comedy cannot offer. She, alerting an audience fifteen minutes into the set, is deciding to start again for one poignant reason: she wants to look after herself.
Gadsby doesn’t waiver once as she trills through a world of confusing gender dynamics. Putting pink headbands on girls is “a bit like putting a bangle on a potato,” she declares, and on her own lesbianism, she says that she now “identifies as tired.”
But when she shifts to describe “doing the comedy,” the tone of her conversation changes. Gone is the rapidly-blinking, dry pitch of her humour, replaced by a raw, declarative voice of conviction.
“I want to stop comedy because I don’t feel very comfortable in it,” she says. “Do you understand? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak. I will not do it anymore.”
Gadsby identifies here with women the world over. Although she is considered to be at the top of her game, she still depends on reducing herself in order to be seen. Trapped in the patriarchal fittings of a worn and dated comedy industry, Gadsby’s life and world has to be showcased as a novelty in order to be accepted by the circuit.
Her validity of life, and her rights, are socially acceptable when makes fun of them. To stand tall and proud as a lesbian woman takes guts, she notes, and that’s when the tone of the show changes.
Initially, Gadsby interjects to make these statements of intent, while still dancing around anecdotes of the time a man said he wouldn’t hit her for hitting on his girlfriend because she was a boy, or how when she came out as a lesbian, her mum asked why she shared the news, “because murderers don’t tell where they’ve hidden the bodies.” As these anecdotes grow darker and darker, she returns to her anger.
“Comedy has frozen my trauma,” she says. “My story has value,” she says. “I will not allow my story to be destroyed. What I would have done to have heard a story like mine … to have felt less alone.”
In the world of comedy, feminism is still regarded as a subsection of performance. For any woman who wishes to describe herself as a feminist, she is already carving herself out as a niche performer.
For men, however, that role is different. Irony bro feminism can be used by men at the top of their game to appear ‘woke’ enough to incentivise the fandom of a female audience — or in some cases, for abusive dominance.
The most high-profile male performers who have incorporated feminism into their set are now alleged abusers and assaulters of women. While Louis C.K. is already attempting to make his way back into the circuit for a predicted “comeback”, Aziz Ansari has been seen performing at the Comedy Cellar to an enthusiastic audience. While Hannah hides her pain, abusers in the entertainment industry shielded and exonerated for fear of damaging their reputation.
And it’s for this reason that Gadsby puts her reputation on the line in this show. Not only does she recognise that she needs help, she wants other women to get it too.
Nanette is encouraging each other to deal with the pain and abuse that has haunted their lives. It is telling women that the public pressures of presenting ourselves as happy and free are not as fixed as they seem. Gadsby’s Nanette is not a breakdown, but it certainly does break down how women are encouraged to perform themselves, with a society reluctant to interrogate the trauma that lies beneath.
As Gadsby implores women across the world to be empowered by their recovery, she uncovers one poignant truth: “there is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”