On Nanette, and the limitations of stories

Is the ‘future of comedy’ really just a TED talk?
by Anne Russell

nanette-imageMuch of the internet has been waxing lyrical about Nanette, a one-woman show by lesbian stand-up comedian Hannah Gadsby. In it, she talks about how she wants to quit comedy, because she has sealed her trauma off into self-deprecation, and needs to process it properly by telling her story in earnest. Stylistically, Nanette is well-done and well-structured, and many have found its emotional rawness and political commentary moving. I wasn’t sure how I’d like Nanette, but felt sure I was supposed to find it more funny, interesting and ground-breaking than I would. In this way it did not disappoint—in every other way, it did.

Since many detractors fault Gadsby or other women for talking about their trauma publicly, Gadsby’s most ardent fans mistakenly perceive virtually any criticism of Nanette as misogynist. Many of them outright dismissed Peter Moskowitz’ negative review as no more than a man policing a woman’s trauma, even though most of the review focused on comedy as a genre. Moskowitz is non-binary, but one’s mere gender doesn’t wholly define one’s political position or legitimacy anyway. Regardless of my womanhood, I’m sure many will believe that I’m insufficiently butch, lesbian, Tasmanian or visibly traumatised—the latter being a particularly messed-up metric of political worth in parts of the liberal-Left—to appreciate Nanette, because “it’s not for you”. (For a good rebuttal of this argument, please read Eleanor Robertson’s piece of the same name.) Unfortunately, Nanette is surrounded by the weird cultural demand to enjoy certain artefacts as a way of proving one’s political credentials.

Capitalism has partially absorbed feminism by making it a static personal identity applied to any woman with power, be they a presidential candidate or a popular comedian. Like Helen Razer’s critical review said, “Nanette is no longer a decent hour of affecting work but an example for us all. It’s our shortcut to understanding the nature of gendered abuse, political abuse and the abuses of art and of truth. We need not read a book nor should we carefully examine our own moral framework. We need only subscribe to Netflix.”

As political movements get diverted in this way into fanclubs, we are being expected to rally around the latest woman who is somehow a better leader than the rest of us. It’s a neat bait and switch, whereby other women are often labelled misogynists for criticising them. This is part of why “believe women” isn’t a reliable maxim; I much prefer “take women seriously”, which involves supporting the likelihood that women are telling the truth or making a legitimate point, but which also allows room for some investigation, disagreement and analysis of other power structures at work. Doing otherwise often comes from a reactionary pedestalling of (usually white, cis) womanhood that doesn’t allow women to be human, or flawed. Nanette lets Gadsby be emotionally flawed on stage, but god forbid that anyone should point out the imperfections in her work afterwards.

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To be clear, critics’ problems with Nanette come both from the show itself, and from its cultural reception. Like Razer said, “It’s hardly Gadsby’s fault there are so many so starved for moral and political understanding that they will take her very particular pain and claim it for themselves…It is her regular tendency, however, to present some intimate truths as universal.” Young white men with guitars and queer feminist slam poets are mainly united by the belief that personal emotional expression makes their art good (or ‘valid’) and subject to special rules of response. How dare anyone fault someone for expressing their trauma?

But this is exactly what Nanette and much of its surrounding commentary does, making a sweeping indictment of everyone who prefers gallows humour to TED talks. Neither coping mechanism is inherently worse than the other; palliatives for pain aren’t generally harmful, unless mistaken for a cure. Moreover, while bigoted or reactionary comedy is gross, comedy doesn’t need to be politically radical to work. It might, but only if we think that comedy has the power to change the world – and that is a dodgy proposition to begin with.

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Nanette relies heavily on the presumption that discourse is the primary tool for social change. When Gadsby discusses the battle for queer rights in Australia, she boils the problem down to “how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things”, arguing that “we think it’s more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with.” Unfortunately, she’s unclear about who has to do the work here—does she mean that queers have to appeal to the humanity of hardcore homophobes and transphobes, however deeply-buried? When the problem is portrayed as merely how we conduct the debate, all anger becomes equalised.

In my view, Nanette’s lowest point is when Gadsby says that “[Anger] knows no other purpose than to spread blind hatred, and I want no part of it.” What? Not all hatred is blind; much of it can see its targets very clearly. As Moskowitz pointed out, Gadsby’s total disavowal of anger “completely lets her audience off the hook, transforming justified queer rage…into a fault within herself, and by extension all of us.” (Italics mine.) She similarly follows up her stories of misogynist, homophobic trauma by rapidly reassuring men that she doesn’t hate them. But how can we Make Misogynists Afraid Again if we have to keep pausing to sympathise with their discomfort and perceived problems? Despite claiming she doesn’t want to spread anger, Gadsby’s whole set does just that—but then essentially “just jokes” itself back into the safe realm of glowing New York Times reviews.

Following her love of discourse, Gadsby said towards the end of her set that “stories are our cure”, arguing that we need to tell more, or better, stories about ourselves (but not funny ones, because “laughter is not our medicine”). However, most media are overflowing with personal stories, too many to keep track of. Moreover, marginalised people are rarely permitted cultural room outside of personal stories. This preference reaches its apex when mainstream journalists try to profile sex workers; many sex workers refuse to tell their personal stories to a pitying and/or prurient audience, because as Melissa Gira Grant put it, “this is not a peep show”. It’s also common for trans people, especially women, to be pigeon-holed into the memoir section—along with the cultural assumption that their transition is their only character trait. Many people treat ‘listening to survivors’ as reducing them to their real or perceived emotional pain, because seeing them as well-rounded people with important political knowledge about abuse and their abusers (or anything else) would be unconstructive ; or even dangerous.

Personal stories can thereby be a trap that keep our wounds open for no real gain. #MeToo’s focus on stories is its strength but also its limitation; Charlotte Shane wrote: “We’re told there’s a sea change occurring, yet there’s no codification of that shift—no formal reform, no organized action—and we’re left with the sense that while “speaking out” has little to no power, it’s the only power we have, or the only one we’re permitted to wield.” While stories are important parts of radicalisation, to go further they need to be synthesised with a variety of analytical tools, converted into political critique, and then used to knock oppressive structures down, or fascists’ heads together.

When Carol Hanisch wrote The Personal Is Political in 1968, she said “There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.” In contrast, Nanette’s implicit call for feeling emotional as praxis, along the lines of “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”, feels anachronistic in an era where leftist outrage often doubles as clickbait (including this article, sure) and where 21st-century capitalism is bombarding us with the demand to feel everything at once, all the time. Moreover, the cultural demand for re-enactments of victimary pain is deeply voyeuristic; your personal story is your currency, but if you don’t tell it with enough feeling, you won’t be taken seriously.

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This is particularly difficult in media like stand-up or songwriting, where performers often end up repeatedly performing pain for live audiences’ benefit. But here we reach one of the most baffling aspects of Nanette: that Gadsby thinks she must quit comedy altogether rather than tell more jokes, seemingly not considering stand-up that goes beyond talking about oneself. It’s an old example, but my favourite stand-up performance remains Eddie Izzard’s Dress to Kill; Izzard barely has time for mentioning himself, let alone being self-deprecating, in this gold block of comedy that covers everything from WWII to Anglicans to Engelbert Humperdinck. Clearly, there are infinite things to make fun of in this ridiculous surreal nightmarish carnival of a world, even within one-person shows.

Besides, Gadsby’s analysis of comedy is so narrow that it’s hard to believe it comes from a professional in the field. The list of jokes that don’t fit her “setup + punchline” format is very long; parody, improv (stand-up’s even-nerdier cousin), slapstick, impersonations, wordplay, many more. I similarly disagree with her blanket assessment of self-deprecation. By saying firmly that when you’re socially marginalised then “[self-deprecation] is not humility; it’s humiliation”, Gadsby proscribes a neat, universal order of emotional processing. Her formula, based off her own experience, is: you develop humour to cope with a bad situation, and then use it as a pain avoidance mechanism. While this obviously holds true for some people, it’s the biggest cliché about comedians in the book. It is also a strange attempt to universalise something as weird, subjective and wide-ranging as humour.

Gadsby’s experience of emotional repression isn’t everyone’s story; sometimes self-deprecation comes after the hard part of processing pain or anger. After arguments I’ve had with loved ones, self-deprecating humour has, at times, helped repair the situation and bring us back together. Don’t cry because it’s happened, laugh because it’s over, I suppose. Nor is self-deprecation always a sign of abject self-loathing, even for marginalised people. Sometimes, it’s just the freedom to notice when one has been a bit of an idiot, and then move on. In this way, small doses of self-deprecation can be healthy, as a semi-enjoyable check on one’s ego. It seems like Gadsby is emerging from the worst kinds of self-deprecation, which is a genuinely good step to take—but no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Gadsby’s formula of emotions also implies that humour is somehow fake, a cover for our ‘real’ convalescent selves lying beneath, which need to be liberated from it. (Never mind that many jokes are dead serious about their points.) In this sense, Nanette feels like the latest iteration of what I call ‘Big Sincerity’, a sort of mandated emotionality that peaked (hopefully) with Upworthy and Humans of New York. Where Big Irony mocks its critics for caring about anything, Big Sincerity accuses them of not caring enough. What do you mean that Nanette didn’t make you cry – what’s wrong with you? Sincerity is not, of course, an emotion, but commodified sincerity only allows for various forms of solemnity. It’s no wonder that weird memes, often at the forefront of comedy, are becoming increasingly surreal as a coping mechanism for both fascism and the Tumblrisation of hard feelings.

Of course, Gadsby is right that comedy is not always a good way to express trauma. However, as many have wearily pointed out, comedy is meant to be funny. Those who were disappointed that Nanette wasn’t funny are dismissed as shallow, as not ‘getting’ why watching tragedy is actually good (read: better, more honest—practically healthier). More insultingly, we get lumped in with those who think comedy should ultimately be a comfort for the powerful. Hardly. Even within mainstream comedy, Michelle Wolf and Stephen Colbert’s performances at different White House Correspondents’ Dinners took potshots at power, while still being funny. The issue with Nanette is how Gadsby and her fans think her own comedic limitations are the fault of the entire genre.

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People form many of their intellectual ideas out of personal experiences, which they draw out into broader social critiques. While this doesn’t make them inaccurate, it’s easy to overgeneralise. Noting this when it occurs in Nanette is part of taking women’s art seriously, by treating Gadsby as an ordinary person whose opinions can be legitimately debated. She is allowed to be wrong about things; the public doesn’t have to divide into camps of uncritical praise vs. utter condemnation.

Ultimately, Gadsby is one stand-up comic, not the voice of a generation. The current need to pick lone voices as stand-ins for political movements ironically ensures that pieces like Nanette will probably circulate endlessly, in a world where progress never moves beyond ‘starting a conversation’. Marketised feminism means fans can label ‘revolutionary’ for screening Nanette alongside Louis C.K. Meanwhile, Gadsby’s paycheck inducts her into the un-critiquable Sisterhood Inc, whereby any of her less powerful critics can be accused of undermining the feminist movement. We applaud as she leaves (and then returns to) the stage, because it is worth it to have momentarily felt a feeling.