Time is a funny thing. As a queer person who’s interested in how queer people are portrayed in media — as a queer person who grew up in conservative parts of Canada and watched PrideVision 24/7 when it launched in 2001 — I am aware that my people have rapidly progressed from being so stigmatized that we could not appear in film and television, to appearing as villains and clowns, to appearing as useful, non-threatening friends to the straight community, to appearing as objects of pity, to, maybe now, appearing as ourselves.
Nanette — an hour-long special performed by Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby — is an important step for all of us. It is the first time that I have ever personally seen someone get up on a stage with a microphone and beam pain at an audience in such a confrontational, brutally honest, sharply intelligent way — and it’s definitely the first time I have seen someone be so acclaimed for having the courage to tell hard truths to a group of people who were not expecting to hear them. The special has sparked serious discussion about the future of comedy, especially because a large part of Gadsby’s material dissects the way that minority groups use humor to ingratiate themselves with the majority, at the price of truncating their own experience.
Gadsby — whom I already knew to be funny from her work on ABC2’s Please Like Me, and YouTube videos — builds a tightly-controlled emotional roller coaster with Nanette that moves through comedy, an intellectual analysis of how certain types of jokes fit into Western culture, and a shocking, intense account of the sexual and psychical assaults she’s suffered because of the systemic hatred directed at her.
The most powerful example of this violence, and the one Nanette really turns on, is a story about a time Gadsby was mistaken for a man by a stranger who thought she was trying to hit on his girlfriend. He called her a “faggot” and threatened to beat her up, and then became apologetic when he realized she was a woman. The first time Gadsby tells the story, it ends there. The man’s behavior is absurd, and we laugh at him. It was an unpleasant situation, but nothing all that bad happened, and no one’s scarred for life. Later on, Gadsby returns to the story and tells the part she hasn’t told about because it isn’t funny: after the man walked away, he realized she was a lesbian — or a “lady faggot”, as he put it — came back, and beat her. And no one helped her.
Gadsby’s position, which she explains eloquently in the special, is that, as long as we avoid telling the parts of our stories that are painful to us — the parts that we can’t roll into a punchline; the parts that we can’t pretend to be objective and unfeeling about; the parts that we can’t say without tears coming to our eyes; the parts that make people uncomfortable to hear — we’ll be trapped in purgatory with them forever, and the world won’t have to change. It’s to this end that she announces she’s done with stand-up comedy because self-deprecating jokes that have become de rigueur in that genre are humiliating.
It’s ironic that a special that was meant as a goodbye tour has catapulted Gadsby into international fame, but maybe also not surprising. Because she thought she was about to quit, she had the freedom to say whatever she wanted — one last chance to get it all out before she stopped performing. It’s the familiar situation where the one person who isn’t trying to be liked — the one person who’s just opted out of the whole entire system and couldn’t care less whether she’s invited back — is also the one person who’s bold enough to do something different.
The groundswell of support for Nanette also highlights how relevant Gadsby’s insights are to the cultural moment we’re living in. They point us toward a future — a future where people can be safe and supported when they display vulnerability; where we can express ourselves using a broader emotional palette; where minority voices can be as strong, and full, and dark, and smart, and complicated as any other voice. They’re also telling us something important about the present. We live at a moment in history when lesbian and gay people can be in the media at all and, on top of that miracle — which didn’t happen until very, very recently — we live at a moment in history when a lesbian can share the full truth of who she is without trying to tend to the feelings of others at the expense of her own, and have that be accepted and embraced by most other people in her culture. Until I saw the reactions to Nanette start pouring in online, I didn’t know that was true.
It bears mentioning that the self-deprecating jokes and the ritual humiliations Gadsby rightly wants to move beyond were part of the journey that got us to the point where we’re at today. Jokes got our foot in the door, and that’s the way we made it safe for ourselves to exist, the way we shimmied far enough up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that we could start to care about authentic self-expression in the first place. Just because the time for that is ending doesn’t mean there was no time for it before. Indeed, it seems we’d all be dead if we hadn’t learned how to ingratiate ourselves a little.
Stand-up comedy, like any other art form, doesn’t exist in isolation from the time and place from which it’s created. As humankind continues onward and, ideally, progresses — as our ideas, and norms, and vocabularies, and attitudes change (and hopefully, for the better) — there’s always going to be tension between the meaning that art had, or was understood to have had, at the moment it was created, and the meaning it has viewed through the frameworks of future generations. If the framework used to make Jonathan Lynn’s Clue in 1985 includes some gay jokes that haven’t aged well — which it definitely does — does that mean the film shouldn’t exist or that I have to stop liking it? If the same movie were made today, we’d rightly expect its insight into homosexuality to be a little more sophisticated (frankly, some of its insight into other subjects, could be more sophisticated, as well).
Similarly, on the cultural timeline, I’m not mad at drag queens who did gross caricatures of women in the ’80s, but I find it really off-putting to see that kind of thing now, as if our culture hasn’t changed in the last three decades. I also find it really off-putting that The Simpsons wants to justify creative decisions it makes in 2018 by appealing to cultural norms of 28 years ago before mainstream America rejected the idea of ethnic stereotypes.
Nanette stands apart because it’s the first comedy special many of us have seen where the dominant reaction is “I loved it because I couldn’t stop crying,” but it also stands apart because it’s planting a flag for the progress we’ve made as a civilization and demanding that we keep striving for more. It’s not a repudiation of history, but it is a reminder that history is over and that the strategies that served us well at one time may not be appropriate today. We need to adapt our approach to the world we’re living in now.
It’s a message that artists in any field can learn from, and one I’m grateful to have heard in what I thought was going to be a gentle, inoffensive comedy routine.