It’s been a few weeks since Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette dropped on Netflix and it’s already clear that it will be a part of comedy canon for some time.
In the special, Gadsby eviscerates comedy culture for enabling bigots and abusers and belittling and silencing survivors. She forces her audience to acknowledge social issues, says “yes, you’re complicit” and leaves.
In the show, Gadsby announces she’s quitting comedy because she’s tired of making self-deprecating jokes. She discusses her sexuality and gender identity—“gender not-normal”—her assaults and why she’s no longer joking about those subjects in a way that makes audiences feel comfortable. Doing so, she gives the audience permission to feel real feelings, not just the elation of having been told a funny joke. In a little over an hour, she makes you laugh, cry, fidget and then cry some more.
LGBTQ viewers have said the special made them feel “seen,” having experienced similar trauma growing up in a straight/cis world. Though she began working on the show before #MeToo, it speaks directly to the same issues that propel #MeToo. Sharing our stories of trauma, without regard for the comfort of the abusers, is new, scary and vital. And yet there are plenty who still don’t get it.
Some on social media, generally but not always of the cisgender, straight white male variety, feel attacked by Gadsby. They feel that she is not doing comedy correctly. They say she’s making the audience feel guilty for liking comedy.
But Gadsby is not scolding the audience for liking comedy. She’s showing that mainstream comedy audiences will only accept people like her (gay, “gender not-normal”) when she performs comedy they’re comfortable with. She and other LGBTQ comedians can talk about their LGBTQ-ness as long as they belittle their own identity and belittle the trauma that comes with being LGBTQ in a heteronormative world. By stepping outside of the audience’s comfort zone, she’s making the audience reckon with its complicity in silencing survivors.
Despite being a denunciation of comedy, the special isn’t humorless. There are jokes everywhere. Gadsby just doesn’t make herself the butt of them. She doesn’t make her lesbianism the butt of her jokes, as Buzzfeed’s Shannon Keating puts it. Instead, she targets straight/cis people who take pleasure in the repackaged stories of LGBTQ trauma, repurposed by the LGBTQ performers themselves to make their straight audiences more comfortable. She mocks straight/cis enthusiasm for laughing at her trauma and if that makes straight/cis people uncomfortable, good.
We’re used to seeing straight, white cis male comics make jokes that are declared genius because they make people uncomfortable. In reality, they’re just jokes without punchlines. These comics just say rude stuff about women and minorities, whose perspectives don’t matter. Cameron Esposito nails this in her own recent special, Rape Jokes. Men have been telling rape jokes for decades, eliciting shocked laughter because, as Esposito puts it, they’re touching on a taboo subject. There’s no punch line, the shock is the punchline. Their bravery in the face of angry feminist PC culture is the punchline. But when Gadsby elicits shock for talking about her rape, suddenly it’s too much. Suddenly it’s “where are the punchlines?” Gadsby doesn’t owe you any, if you have to ask that question.
When women and minorities make art, a common response is “well what about the straight/cis/white man? Are you leaving him out of the conversation?” This question is usually coded by asking about what a “normal” person would think, because the straight/cis/white man is the default normal person. A user on Reddit asked if anyone has seen Nanette aside from the “thousand female writers” who, according to this user, are angry feminists who don’t like most comedy (by men). How many women does it take to equal one person worthy of an opinion? And if it’s true that thousands of women don’t like comedy, why is that not itself significant? Why are you not asking yourself why so many women are turned off by mainstream comics? Why is that a fault of all those women and not comedy itself?
Another Reddit user posted a clip of Gadsby talking about being assaulted. She doesn’t tell any jokes in this section, because she’s finished making her assaults palatable for straight/cis men by turning her trauma into humor. Reddit users responded to the post by making a couple jokes about her rape then they talk about flip-flops. What an on-brand response.