Features Published 23 July 2018

The Nanette Feelings Thread

Exeunt's writers process their thoughts on Hannah Gadsby's fiercely emotive farewell to comedy, currently on Netflix.
Exeunt Staff

Hannah Gadsby performs ‘Nanette’. Photo: Ben King/Netflix

***What follows is a spoiler-heavy dissection of Hannah Gadsby’s show-turned-Netflix-special Nanette – so please do watch it before reading, it comes highly recommended. CW: sexual violence***

Alice Saville: I have sent a lot of text messages telling people to watch Nanette. I’ve lain awake thinking about it then had to sit up and type thoughts in my teeming, doomed ‘drafts’ folder. I’ve fought with myself over rewatching it, worried that if I love it too hard its charms will rub off, like the fur on an old teddybear.

I’ve done all this about a one-off comedy show on Netflix, which is out of character, but I’d longed to see Hannah Gadsby’s set, her farewell to comedy, for years, and didn’t, and seeing it pop up online honestly felt like a gift from the heavens. Hopefully this dialogue will have room to explore all of its art-critiquing, comedy-destroying, complex energy. So just one thought to start with: how very, very wonderful is it to see a butch woman openly talking about her identity and her experiences of moving through the world. This basically never happens on TV (think of poor Sue Perkins, forced into a heterosexuality-by-proxy by the BBC by being first bonneted up as Giles Coren’s sidekick/periodic wife in Supersizers – the horror! – and then sent to Bake Off’s land of heavily queer-coded but obscure baking-related innuendo).

And by talking about her life, Hannah Gadsby talks about something wider – (something that I identified with, even as a lesbian who’d be fairly classified as gender-conforming, because in my secret heart I see myself as butch-with-a-deep-emotional-attachment-to-pastels) and that’s the gendered rigidity of what constitutes ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ behaviour, and the punishments meted out to people who push at its boundaries. The way that people who don’t fit in are constantly forced to apologise for or repackage their existence. And the very specific, familiar shame which comes with that. It’s a shame that’s seen in Gadsby’s admission that she didn’t come out to her grandmother not because she was from a different generation, not because she didn’t get the chance, but because she was ashamed of who she was. In this month of rainbow-flag-waving, it’s a painful reminder that ‘Pride’ isn’t a finite event, it’s an ongoing aspiration that’s ever so hard to meet.

Hannah Greenstreet: Firstly, ‘Yes!’, to Alice for so beautifully capturing the resonance of Nanette for so many of us. I’m going to move away from feelings though (sorry, I know it’s in the title) and geek out about form. Does watching Nanette on Netflix, rather than seeing the show live fundamentally change our experience of the show? I ask this partly because I think I watched Nanette wrong. Or, rather, I watched it how I watch anything else on Netflix – multi-tabbing, checking my Twitter, doing a Buzzfeed quiz or two. I realised about halfway through that this was a show that needed my full attention. So I paused it and saved the ending for the next evening. I wished I had gone to see it live because then I would have been compelled to experience the architecture of the show and go on its journey. My distracted mode of watching might have been why I had an intellectual rather than emotional reaction to it.

Confession: I very very rarely watch comedy. It’s partly because I don’t feel that comfortable in some of the spaces in which comedy is performed (which is why I hope that Hannah Gadsby does not in fact ‘quit comedy’ because it’s still such a male-dominated industry). But it’s mostly because I’m a pretty serious person with an idiosyncratic sense of humour and I worry that I won’t find the right things funny or laugh in the right places. Watching comedy for me becomes a very meta experience of gauging my reactions against the other members of the audience. What I really appreciated about Nanette was how Gadsby unpicked the form of comedy, uncovering the latent violence within jokes – they only tell part of the story; they depend on putting yourself down. She articulated some of my uneasiness with comedy as a form far more eloquently than I could ever think it. I liked how she wasn’t afraid to be serious. How her material demanded seriousness. And how she refused to compromise to relieve the tension or make the audience feel better.

I was surprised by the size of the audience shown on the Netflix recording – it seems such an intimate show but it’s being performed in a massive venue. Watching something online seems both a more intimate experience – you’re watching on your laptop, in your home, probably in bed – and less intimate – as you’re part of a massive, faceless audience. I also loved the intro and outro when we got to meet Hannah Gadsby’s dogs.

Eve Allin: I think there’s certainly something really interesting that she’s doing with form – I loved the reversal she makes on her jokes. So often I think people see comedy as an apolitical space, or at least, a space where things are “allowed”. Especially relevant with what Hannah was saying about it being a ‘male’ space, and therefore a space that can afford to be problematic (dunno if that’s the right word…)

Gadsby had a kind of duality to her whole performance which doubled back on itself – if that makes sense? She lets the jokes hang but she also deconstructs them at the same time – showing their merits and failings. I think also something really nice in the form is her refusal to let herself be mocked or be the butt of her own jokes. Also!! I feel like comedy is also something that shies away from confrontation but she does it so well, and no one is allowed to sit in their bubbles – she has such kick ass comebacks to everyone. It’s honestly what I want to show to all my friends who don’t think they need to be Feminists because it takes you on such a Journey, and it does it via form and deconstruction.

Hadn’t even occurred to me that Netflix changes the form of comedy but it so does – it feels like a dissemination as well as a “Netflix Original”. Maybe something interesting there in live/public spaces vs screen/digital spaces as political tools?

Ava Davies: i like thinking about the “right” and “wrong” way to watch things and hadn’t really thought about that with nanette until now – i watched it a bit hungover with a friend on the morning of pride and we both were on our phones at the beginning, sorta dipping in and out like hannah was, but then as eve says, as the form started to mutate or like reverse back on itself, far far before she says “this is my final joke”, we just naturally put our phones away and sat up to it. it reminded me a lot of bo burnham’s make happy which is also a netflix original, i think? in terms of addressing how comedy is actually about pain and trauma, and the innate weirdness of doing standup (but i think it can also be expanded out to theatre too) as a sorta cathartic but also sorta really not cathartic thing. because there’s something so freeing but also terrifying about the fact that hannah gadsby is still performing nanette live and has been for the last year or so – what does that do to a person? to exist in that structure for an hour every night? is it actually cathartic or does it trap her? and how does that show shift and adjust to how she as a human is inevitably changing?

Alice Saville: YES I felt that too, the weight of Hannah Gadsby having to perform this show over and over again, visibly cracking under the strain, nominally saying goodbye to comedy while she reaches new audience after new audience. And it’s a thought that echoes a part of the show that really stuck with me: the idea that telling a story or anecdote in a certain way freezes that narrative, makes it real, and stops you moving on. Like the way that for years, she told stand-up comedy audiences the story of her outwitting a homophobic thug as though it was this funny, ridiculous moment. And then in Nanette, she tells the full story (“there’s only so long I can pretend not to be serious”) and everything changes.

The story of the ensuing attack on her was the moment where I stopped doing the not-quite-focusing being-on-my-phone thing and suddenly leant forward, locked in and shaken and unable to look away. It’s so much more upsetting than anything you expect to experience during a comedy set, and as such, has been controversial with a few of the usual, terrible suspects:

But as other commenters have pointed out, the same male comedians criticising Nanette are the ones defending their own right to make rape jokes. You’re allowed to joke about anything, apparently, but you’re not allowed to make the audience “feel bad and guilty” – to use your power to make them feel something. As an audience member, humour sometimes creates this sort of illusion of being in a safe bubble where you don’t expect to feel anything or be genuinely challenged, and that protective effect is deliberately used by LGBTQ+ people or anyone else whose identity sits outside the ordinary in any way, as a strategy to make everyone else feel comfortable. In Nanette, Gadsby says ‘farewell’ to this narrow, restrictive model of comedy – since the huge, ironic success of her ‘final show’ she’s still making performances, and they’re still funny, but it’s exhilarating to be able to watch her say goodbye to the genre at its worst.

Rafaella Marcus: It’s interesting that I kept remembering as I was watching Nanette how much I did watch comedy when I was a teenager and don’t much any more. Quoting stand-up was a real social currency between me and my (mostly female) friends. All the comedians we imitated were male and white, and so much of that comedy was about establishing a position of bewildered outsiderhood, but one that slyly gave you superiority over other people’s behaviour, the implication ultimately “I’d rather be me than them”. When Hannah Gadsby said “Do you understand what self-deprecation means from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.” it was a sock to the jaw. Following her line of logic, I think what it means is that having a comedy art form embodied by people who are not privileged, and to engage fully with that un-privileged identity while doing so, changes what comedy means.

The argument that’s so often used (and I hear it most from men) is that you should be able to make jokes about anything because it undermines the powerful and privileged. The more I think about it, the more I think that’s almost entirely a crock of shit. I think laughing at power structures apathises us. I think we’ve mistaken being aware of a hypocrisy or injustice for doing something about it. To have Nanette so clearly articulate that, on stage, during a comedy set, is frankly astonishing.

To steer back to feelings slightly, I want to pick up on what Alice said at the start, about shame. When Hannah Gadsby told the full story behind the attack on her, almost to my own surprise, I found myself very suddenly weeping unrestrainedly. I’m going to get unashamedly personal here and put myself at the centre of my criticism, precisely because women are often criticised for using autobiography and self-cannibalising in their work, and I think Gadsby’s done it better than almost anyone. The feeling it brought up was this:

I too have been soaked in shame; I too am incorrect. I have been taught that there is a measure of womanhood that I have fallen far short of; the way I occupy space in the world is wrong, and I feel that wrongness. It means that as an artist, I don’t want to tell stories about thin white straight women any more, or not right now anyway. I don’t want to tell stories about the person I thought – think – I should be, because it’s torture. Like Hannah Gadsby, I believe that stories hold our cure. But it turns out that I’ve loved stories that haven’t always have loved me back.

Maddy Costa: I write this having just re-watched Nanette on Netflix, and it’s helped me name something I’ve been noticing in this conversation so far: until Rafaella joined in, a level of emotional calm. There is a double distancing in this version of Nanette: the room Gadsby’s performing in, the Sydney Opera House, is huge; and we’re not even in it, we’re watching her on TV. I first saw Nanette at Soho Theatre, in a room that seats 155 people, and in that situation of liveness and proximity I was devastated. I cried in uncontrollable waves through the second half, so hard that my shoulders shook and all my tissues leaked snot. I cried for Hannah as a child growing up amid homophobia and Hannah the adult carrying the trauma of being abused, beaten up, raped. I cried for everyone I know who grew up with Clause 28, a statute of law that from 1988 to 2003 banned “promotion” of homosexuality. I cried for all the trans people I know, including my AFAB nephew. I cried for the fucking state of things, for human-inflicted pain. I cried so much in that room that for an hour after it finished I could barely speak.

But there are differences between the version I saw and the one on Netflix, in the material. A whole section is missing about the arguments around equal marriage in Australia [in the run-up to the 2017 referendum], people saying think of the children – as though it’s OK to drench queer kids like Hannah in hatred, for them to turn that in on themselves. I remember the second iteration of the bus stop incident, this time with the actual punch that comes after the punchline, being more detailed too. I was anxious about watching it again, but actually it was fine: I’m emotionally calm too. I’m interested in the choices made about what to exclude from the Sydney set, and what happens as a result of the editing.

I want to bring in a response by my friend Griffyn Gilligan, who is one of the most fiercely analytic people I know. “I think Hannah Gadsby is doing loads of good,” he wrote on twitter, “but I’m so disappointed at the consistent gender binary line weaving through her set. Everything about that reminds my of my extradition from the dyke/lesbian community. Not surprised so many cis friends loved her set, but I am sad. It’s always sad when cis people, especially cis queers and cis women, don’t see the transphobia or trans exclusion in arguments we all would like to love. I understand, I get how we got here, I’m still on your side, but I’m constantly excluded and that hurts.” I want to bring it in with the confession that I’m one of the cis (and straight) women who don’t see the exclusion. Even on a second watch. I say this not to contradict my trans (AFAB) friend, but to think about the difference in our perspectives, and address how the limitations of my own contribute to the pain others feel.

Perspective is something Gadsby thinks about too, fuming at the arrogance of Picasso’s belief that he could represent all perspectives – such is the “universality” of (cis) male art. The perspective Gadsby presents here is only her own; early on she says: “I identify as tired.” I like how she makes an impassioned argument against gender binary in children, questioning why parents put “babies into opposing teams from day dot”. Watching it again, I’m more aware of how she constructs her material with reference to the gender binaries that exist in the world and that are directed at her. In another section missing from the Netflix set that I remember from Soho, Gadsby talked about gender-neutral toilets, and how often she is misgendered in women’s toilets, by women who see her as a man then recoil and attack. That violence also made me cry.

A line that hangs heavy with me is one Gadsby reports her mum saying: “I wanted you to change because I knew the world wouldn’t.” No matter how cynical and despondent I feel (a lot), I refuse to accept that. But we’re going to have to listen hard to each other – as Rafaella says, pay attention to different stories – for that change ever to happen.

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Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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