The blistering truth of Nanette and what it means to us
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week it is about stand-up comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette
As this column reaches its first anniversary (it began on print on 12th July last year and appeared online a day before that), I cannot think of a better day and way to move forward than to talk about the 'anti-comedy' act that has taken the world by storm. Australian stand-up comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette had been recommended to me by everyone who’d seen it and uniformly applauded by critics across the world. I watched it last night and write this even as I follow the arguments being made in the Supreme Court of India in a bid to scrap the oppressive and draconian Victorian inheritance of Section 377. Gadsby talks about the damage it can do to your very being, growing up in a homophobic society that soaks a child in shame. Where she’s from, Tasmania’s bible belt, homosexuality was de-criminalised in 1997. As we look to scrap 377, Nanette is not only an urgent need for our society for telling us the effects criminalising a natural act has on people, but also for showing us that it is not the expression of homosexuality that is full of hysteria and noise, but our enforcing of heteronormativity that is. "There is too much hysteria from you gender-normals. You’re the weirdos… Calm, down gender-normals. Get a grip… How about we stop separating the children into opposing teams from day dot?"
In Nanette, Hannah Gadsby prods us to think about gender, sexuality, identity and even comedy. Her statement about men not having "a monopoly over the human condition" in response to women are just as corrupt, to me is what makes it so appealing. What’s normal and what gaze defines this normal is largely defined by privileged men (straight, white where she comes from). The onset of #Metoo and voices rising against this 'old normal' has been a long time in the making. This column too is a response to the gaze that normalises and privileges the male gaze as if that is the only one that matters.
In her routine, Gadsby talks about allowing identity to go beyond gendered norms and clichés. She says she identifies as 'tired' and prefers naps and the sound of her tea cup returning to the saucer over loud parties. Challenging what’s expected of her, and facing 'feedback' from other lesbians that there isn’t enough 'lesbian content' and 'opinions' from men who give her unsolicited ones after her show… she pushes the audience, all of it, outside of its comfort zone. "Trauma feeds tension," she says and that tension is key to comedy. She releases the tension and the anger that comes with it, before announcing to the world that she chooses stories (that have a beginning, middle and end) over comedy (which has a setup and a punchline) to reach more people henceforth. She comes to the conclusion that laughter is not the medicine.
The biggest take away from Nanette for me, and what I consider to be Gadsby’s finest contribution to our popular culture is her questioning of men’s opinions, especially on women’s art. Much the same way Alison Bechdel with her Dykes to Watch Out For changed the course of feminist cinema criticism (Bechdel’s comic strip first came up with this rule: It must have at least two women, who talk to each other about something besides a man), Gadsby’s new show gives us a new moral compass to view art from. Be it Picasso’s, Woody Allen’s or Weinstein’s. It also gives us what we always knew but didn’t know we wanted to hear, said in this manner. With righteous anger that punches down patriarchy with the quip: "There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself", asking privileged men to pull up their socks and telling them their opinion is no longer the only one that matters.