Diversity is Strength, Difference Is A Teacher: Media Review

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On Hannah Gadsby’s Comedy Special, Nanette

*This review contains major spoilers

There is no question about it, we are living in inhumane times.  Look around and you won’t have to look very far to find heaps of evidence to prove that collectively, we have, in a sense, lost our way.  We have forgotten what matters most.  We have forgotten that we are all connected and that one person’s story, whether we like it or not, impacts and affects everyone else’s.  In times like these, nothing has the power to soothe as does a brave, compelling voice, climbing out of the wreckage and speaking truth to power, with heart, conviction and love.  Such a voice has surfaced in a most unlikely place, a 1-hour Netflix comedy special by Hannah Gadsby, titled Nanette.  If you’re looking for something to help restore your faith in humanity, we recommend that you take some time to listen to this woman’s story.  It is comedy unlike nothing we’ve ever seen.  It cuts to the heart of what ails us in a time of hatred and confusion and demands to be heard in full.

Hannah Gadsby, a non-traditional, non-conformist, gender queer, lesbian, hailing from the bible belt of Tasmania, delivers a powerful theatrical performance that is so much more than stand-up comedy.  In her one-hour special, she illustrates her mastery of the art of creating tension with bitter truth only to relieve it with the sweetness of laughter.  A master of her craft, at the prime of her life and career, she stands tall in her conviction that nothing is more important than connecting people through the power of story.  She declares that the time has come for her to quit comedy, denouncing self-deprecating humor and cleverly crafted angry jokes as weak attempts to mask the pain of our collective reality.  Instead of making her audience laugh at the unfortunate circumstances we find ourselves in, she challenges her captives to hold the tension and the weight of her story long enough to learn what it feels like to be a “not-normal” in this world.   

“I don’t feel comfortable in a small town.  Mainly because, I’m this situation,” she says, referring to the masculine presentation of her physical self.  “In a small town, that’s alright from a distance.  People are like, ‘Oh, good bloke!’  And then they get a bit closer and they’re like, ‘oh, no, no, trickster woman!  What are you doing?’  I get a lot of side eye.  So, I feel quite tense in a small town.”

Hannah’s comedy special opens like most comedy shows, with a few palatable jokes that ease the audience into a comfortable rhythm of tension and relief, followed by more tension and relief.  “I don’t think I’m very good at gay,” she says.  “I’m not the only one who thinks that.  I’ve been getting a bit of negative feedback as of late from my people, the lesbians.  One of the spokespersons for the lesbians came up to me after a show and said, ‘I was disappointed in your show Hannah.  I just don’t think there was enough lesbian content.’ I’d been on stage the whole time, and I didn’t even straighten up half-way through.” At this, the audience laughs, easily recognizing the flow of the comedic narrative unfolding.  Lulled into a false sense of the known, they expect to explore some familiar terrains of the comedy landscape.  No one in the audience has the slightest idea of what they are about to experience. 

The shift into something deeper, more complex, happens when Hannah announces that she has been questioning the whole comedy thing.   “I don’t feel very comfortable in it anymore,” she says.  “I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor and I don’t want to do that anymore. Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it come from somebody who already exists in the margins?  It’s not humility, its humiliation.  I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or anybody who identifies with me.  If that means that my comedy career is over, then, so be it.”  Thus begins the journey of this stand-out performance. 

She tells a story about a fan on Facebook who sends her a message telling her that she owes it to her community to come out as transgender. “Now, I want to do right by my community,” she says.  “I really do, but that was new information to me. I don’t identify as transgender.  But I’m clearly, gender-not-normal.  I don’t think even lesbian is the right identity for me.  I really don’t.  I might as well come out now.  I identify as tired.  I’m just tired.  There is too much hysteria around gender from you gender normals.  You’re the weird ones.  You’re a bit hysterical.  You’re a bit uptight.  You need to get a grip.  Seriously, calm down, gender-normals!”

The follow-up to that bit is a story about an encounter she has with a young woman she finds herself flirting with, late at night, at a bus stop.  The young woman’s boyfriend appears out of nowhere. Assuming that she’s a man trying to pick up his girlfriend, he violently lunges at Hannah and stops short when he realizes that she is a woman.   “I get mistaken for a man, quite a lot,” she says.  “But not for long.  My masculinity doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.  I’m only a man at a glance.  I wouldn’t want to be a straight white man, not if you paid me.  Although, the pay would be substantially better.  No, I don’t think its an easy time for you fellas.  I do feel for you.  Very difficult, very confusing time, and you’re not coping.  For the first time ever, you’re suddenly, a sub-category of human.  Right?  You’re like, ‘No, we invented the categories, we’re not supposed to play.  We’re human neutral.’  Well, not anymore.”

Hannah’s approach to the comedic act weaves in and out of the intersections of gender, social expectation and performance, creating a brilliant mesh of gut-wrenching, unexpected twists and turns.  “I’ve been mastering the art of tension since childhood,” she says.  “I didn’t have to invent the tension.  I was the tension.  I’m tired of tension.  Tension is making me sick. I have to quit comedy.”  Primed for a story about Hannah’s childhood and upbringing, the audience leans in to learn more about her mother, the singular character in her family narrative.  Of her mother, she says, “I say things like, mom, you made my life very difficult and she’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t think I liked you very much.’  And we laugh, because you got to laugh. What my mom eventually said to me was pretty much at the core of why I’m questioning comedy.  She said to me, ‘The thing I regret is that I raised you as if you were straight.  I didn’t know any different.  I’m so sorry.  I knew well before you did, that your life was going to be so hard.  I knew that, and I wanted, more than anything in the world, for that not to be the case.  And now I know that I made it worse.  I made it worse because I wanted you to change, because I knew that the world wouldn’t.’ I looked at my mom in that moment and thought, how did that happen?  How did my mom get to be the hero of my story? She evolved.  I didn’t.  I think part of my problem is that comedy has suspended me in a perpetual state of adolescence.” 

Something remarkable happens in the transitions of Hannah’s truth-telling comedy.  We, the captive audience, yield to her sense of injustice, to the notion that things are really messed up and that they don’t have to be as bad as they are.  That we are somehow better than we have allowed ourselves to be.  By revealing to the audience, her realization that she had become trapped in a self-defeating narrative of her own comedic design, she teaches us the difference between the inner-workings of a joke and how it pales in compassion to the power of a full story.  “Through repetition”, she says, “the jokes fused with my actual memory of what happened.  But unfortunately, the joke versions were not nearly sophisticated enough to help me undo the damage done to me in reality.  Punchlines need trauma, because punchlines need tension and tension feeds trauma.  I didn’t come out to my grandmother last year because I’m still ashamed of who I am.  Not intellectually, but right here (points to heart), I still have shame.  You learn from the part of the story you focus on.  I need to tell my story properly.  The closet for me was no easy thing to come out of.”

Hannah goes on to educate the audience on the history that birthed her shame.  “From the years 1989 to 1997, ten years, effectively, my adolescence, Tasmania was at the center of a very toxic national debate about homosexuality and whether or not it should be legalized.  And I’m from the north-west coast of Tasmania, the bible belt. 70 percent of the people I lived among believed that homosexuality should be a criminal act.  70 percent of the people who raised me, who loved me, who I trusted, believed that homosexuality was a sin, that homosexuals were heinous, subhuman, pedophiles. 70 percent!  And by the time I identified as being gay, it was too late, I was already homophobic.  And you do not get to just flip a switch on that.  No.  What you do is that you internalize that homophobia and you learn to hate yourself, HATE yourself to the core.  I sat soaking in shame, in the closet for ten years.  The closet can only stop you from being seen, it is not shame proof.  When you soak a child in shame, they cannot develop the neurons and pathological pathways that carry thoughts of self-worth.  Self-hatred is only ever a seed planted from outside in but when you do that to a child, it becomes a weed so thick and grows so fast that the child doesn’t know any different.  It becomes as natural as gravity.”

The heartache at the core of this narrative is palpable.  Hannah’s voice strains against the pain of the words she is relaying when she says, “I paid dearly for a lesson that nobody seems to have wanted to learn.  And this is bigger than homosexuality.  This is about how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things.  It’s toxic. It’s juvenile.  It’s destructive.  We think its more important to be right, than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with.  Ignorance will always walk among us because we will never know all of the things.  I need to tell my story properly,” she repeats, “because you learn from the part of the story you focus on.”    

Not only does this show shine a spotlight on the critical issues of gender equality in our times, it gives voice to the experience of brutality that many queer people face every day.  It calls out patriarchal systems of power and oppression and it demands restorative justice for the harm done to her and people like her who are criminalized for being born different. “Do you know what should be the target of our jokes these days?” She asks the audience.  “Our obsession with reputation.  We’re obsessed with it.  We think reputation is more important than anything else, including humanity.  And do you know who takes the mantle of this myopic adulation of reputation?  Celebrities.  And comedians are not immune. They are all cut from the same cloth.  Donald Trump, Pablo Picasso, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski… these men are not exceptions, they are the rule.  They are not individuals, they are our stories.  And the moral of our story is that we don’t give a sh*t.  We don’t give a f*ck about women or children.  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 on to their precious reputation.”

By this point in the show, the audience experiences the intensity of Hannah’s anger with no comedic relief in sight.  The structure of the moment begs the question, how much more intensity can you bare?  Clearly, there is more to the story.  To go past this point in Hannah’s narrative is to enter a state of catharsis and transformation, but not before a few more gut-punches of intense and overwhelming truth.  Hannah takes the audience back to the start of this journey, back to the jokes she told about her bus stop encounter with the young man who thought she was a man hitting on his girl-friend and nearly assaulted her for doing so.  In the last part of this soft-spoken segment, she tells the story as it actually happened, admitting that it wasn’t funny, that she regrets having made it an incomplete joke, because in actuality  the young man did assault her.  He beat her up for being a lesbian and no one stopped him. “I didn’t report it to the police and I didn’t take myself to the hospital, and I should have.  And you know why I didn’t?  Because I thought that that was all I was worth.  And that is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate.  That was not homophobia, pure and simple, that was gendered.  If I had been feminine, that would not have happened.  I am incorrectly female.  I am incorrect.  And that is a punishable offense.  And this tension is yours.  I am not helping you anymore.  You need to learn what this feels like, because this tension is what not-normals carry inside of them all of the time.  It is dangerous to be different.” 

The audience can’t help but gasp at the truth that has come barreling down on them and there is no respite.  We enter into an experience designed to rearrange molecules in the mind so that empathy and compassion are truly possible.  As audience participants in this hour-long comedy special, we reach an unexpected threshold, impossible to have foreseen.

“All my life I’ve been told that I’m a man-hater,” says Hannah.  “I don’t hate men.  I don’t.  But, there’s a problem.  You see, I don’t even believe that women are better than men.  I believe that women are just as corruptible by power as men, because you know what, fellas?  You don’t have a monopoly on the human condition.  But the story is as you have told it.  Power belongs to you.  And if you can’t handle criticism, take a joke or deal with tension without resorting to violence, we have to wonder if you are up to the task of being in charge.  I am not a man hater, but I am afraid of men.  If I’m the only woman in a room full of men, I am afraid and if you think that’s unusual then you’re not speaking to the women in your life.  I don’t hate men, but I wonder how a man would feel if they had lived my life.  Because, it was a man who sexually abused me when I was a child.  It was a man who beat me when I was seventeen.  It was two men who raped me when I was barely in my twenties.  Tell me, why is that okay?  Why is it okay to pick me off the pack like that and do that to me?  It would have been more humane to take me out to the back and put a bullet in my head if it was that much of a crime to be different.  I don’t tell you this so that you think of me as a victim.  I am not a victim.  I tell you this because my story has value.  My story has value.  I tell you this because I want you to know, I NEED you to know what I know; To be rendered powerless does not destroy your humanity.  Your resilience is your humanity.  The only people who lose their humanity are those who believe they have the right to render another human being powerless.  They are the weak.  To yield and not break, that is incredible strength.”

“What I would have done to have heard a story like mine,” she says.  “Not for blame, not for reputation, not for money, not for power but to feel less alone, to feel connected.  I want my story heard, because, ironically, I believe Picasso was right, I believe we can paint a better world, if we learn how to see it from all perspectives, as many perspectives as we possibly could, because diversity is strength.  Difference is a teacher.  Fear difference and you learn nothing.  Picasso’s mistake was his arrogance.  He assumed that he could represent all of the perspectives and our mistake was to invalidate the perspective of a seventeen-year-old girl, because we believed that her potential was never going to equal his.  Hindsight is a gift, can you stop wasting my time?  A seventeen-year-old girl is just never, ever, ever in her prime.  Ever!  I am in my prime.  Would you test your strength out on me?  There is no way anyone would ever dare to test their strength out on me, because we all know that there is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has re-built herself.”

Hannah shares in her performance art, what so many women have struggled to admit for so long.  In the age of the resurgence of the #MeToo movement, this story-telling genius gives every person in her audience permission to be, to speak their experiences and to liberate each other through the power of a shared story.  She leaves her audience shaken by all that has transpired in such a short amount of time. But we, the listeners, pulse with a renewed strength and a profound understanding of the power of raw and fearless vulnerability.  We witness the beauty of anger as it burns to the core and purifies the self, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of a broken world.

“I am angry”, she says.  “I believe I have every right in the world to be angry, but what I don’t have a right to do is to spread anger.  I don’t. Because anger, much like laughter, can connect a room full of strangers like nothing else.  But anger, even if its connected to laughter will not relieve tension. Anger IS tension.  It is a toxic, infectious tension, and it knows no other purpose than to spread blind hatred.  I want no part of it.  I take my freedom of speech as a responsibility.  Anger is never constructive.  Laughter is not a medicine, stories hold our cure.  Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine.  I don’t want to unite you with laughter or anger.  I just needed my story heard, felt and understood by individuals with minds of their own.  Because, like it or not, your story is my story and my story is your story.  I don’t have the strength to take care of my story (alone).  I don’t want my story defined by anger.  All I can ask is that you please help me take care of my story.  Connection is the focus of the story we need.”