This Little Miggy Stayed Home: I Need to Talk About Nanette

Monday, July 09, 2018

I Need to Talk About Nanette

I hope everyone has had time to watch the amazing comedy special Nanette by Hannah Gadsby on Netflix. If not please, please make time to watch it. First, as a comedy special it is hilarious. But it's so much more than comedy. This is a deeply thought out commentary on humanity, violence, identity and what it means to live in the margins.


For those who have seen it, welcome. I've been wanting to unpack this show a little and thought I'd attempt to do it now. I've seen this show 2 times in its entirety and I've gone back to watch several parts of the show again and again.

The brilliance of Gadsby's show is how she weaves her story together, starting with comedy and slowly building to an ending all the while circling back to the same themes over and over again. It's like a french braid, she loops back to the same patterns, adding a just little more bulk each pass over. She manages to deconstruct comedy and illuminate humanity's unbreakable link to art at the same time and somehow she makes you laugh along the way. That is until she makes you cry.

Living in the margins and worth
Gadsby talks about about being "a little bit lesbian" as a teenager in the 90's in Tasmania where she was raised and where homosexuality was outlawed until 1997 and how those formative experiences have affected her all her life. As she says, she was "soaked in shame." My favorite thoughts about this theme are when she declares that she will no longer do self deprecating humor, because when you already live in the margins self deprecation isn't humility, it's humiliation.

She also tells a joke about the time a guy thought she was a "faggot" coming onto his girlfriend. Which is funny because it makes no sense. (Gay men aren't attracted to women.) And when he realizes she's a woman, he says he can't hit women and backs off. This joke takes a more serious turn later when she tells the rest of the story. That the man realized his mistake, realizes that she's a "lady faggot" and that he can beat her up and he does.

"He beat the shit out of me and nobody stopped him. I didn't report him to the police and I didn't take myself to hospital and I should have. But I didn't because that's all I thought I was worth. That's what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate."

That idea of "soaking a child in shame" was a punch in the gut and a wake up call. I know I've been complicit in this, maybe not directly, but indirectly, particularly with regards to my faith tradition (I'm LDS/Mormon). The ripple effect that homophobic thinking can have on a person, on a group of people, is devastating. I'm not sure how to rectify this yet--how to separate my personal views from my faith tradition, how I can take a stand within my faith, etc--but my eyes were definitely opened. I want to do better. I need to do better. 

Separating the art from the artist
Gadsby talks a fair amount about artists like Picasso and her formerly favorite comedian Bill Cosby and the fact that we can't and shouldn't celebrate their art when they themselves are such horrible human beings. (I actually didn't know what a jerk Picasso was before listening to her set.) Like many people I've had a hard time drawing this line. I loved The Cosby Show and if it were still in syndication I might have a hard time clicking away--in part because it wasn't just all Bill Cosby. A lot of great people came together to make a great show. So that particular example is complicated a bit, But what about this, last year in Paris we went to the Picasso museum... would I have avoided it if I knew than what I know now about him? It wasn't until Hannah brilliantly made the following correlation that I really understood the seriousness of this of not separating the art from the artist.

"What about their humanity? These men control our stories and yet they have a diminishing connection to their own humanity, and we don't seem to mind so long as they get to hold onto their precious reputation.... to be rendered powerless does not destroy your humanity. Your resilience is your humanity. The only people who lose their humanity are those who believe they have the right to render another human being powerless. They are the weak. To yield and not break, that is incredible strength."

Yes. These men who rape and exploit diminish their own humanity and yet they are the ones who get to tell our stories? Whoa. I think not. We cannot let those who have willingly parted ways with their own humanity be the ones to tell our stories. That is why we cannot, must not, separate the art from the artist. What do you think? Do you agree? Do you feel a new level of commitment in whose art you will or will not support? What about Presidential elections?

Power, Gender and Diversity
Diversity. That word carries a lot of weight these days. So many of us in the world value diversity in one form or another--race, gender, sexual orientation, size, ability, religion--which is a good thing, but my worry is that people are starting to tire of hearing about the importance of diversity and it seems as though the pendulum is swinging back the other way (ahem, Trump) and that is something we should all strive to resist. One way to do that is to share our stories, which is what Hannah does so brilliantly and beautifully. After sharing the story of her getting beat up she says that he did that to her not just because she was gay but because she wasn't feminine. She goes on to explain,

"I am incorrectly female. I'm incorrect. And that is a punishable offense. And this tension is yours. I'm not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like because this tension is what not-normals carry inside of them all of the time because it is dangerous to be different... I don't hate men, but I wonder how a man would feel if they would have lived my life. Because it was a man who sexually abused me when I was a child. It was a man who beat the shit out of me at 17 (my prime). And it was two men who raped me when I was barely in my 20's. Tell me why is that OK? ... It would have been more humane to take me out to the back paddock and put a bullet in my head if it is that much of a crime to be different! I don't tell you this so you think of me as a victim... I tell you this because my story has value... 'You destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents.' I will not allow my story to be destroyed. What I would have done to have heard a story like mine. Not for blame. Not for reputation, not for money, not for power. But to feel less alone. To feel connected... Diversity is strength. Difference is a teacher. Fear difference, you learn nothing."

One of the reasons I was so drawn to this special was because of her talk of difference and being a "not-normal." I have seen the tension of being a "not-normal" up close and it is something I am desperately fighting against. Fortunately these days most people with disabilities are seen with compassion--often masquerading as pity, but still--more than they're seen as "freaks" or a part of humanity we want to hide. However, there is still a lot of discomfort, misinformation and ultimately exclusion in regards the disability community. And of course many, many marginal groups experiences this same painful reality. Difference is a teacher. That sentence alone brings tears to my eyes. YesYesYes. Difference IS a teacher, diversity IS strength.

Only when you fear those differences, and act on those fears (violence, rape) do you learn nothing. And worse than that, you render another human powerless and separate yourself from your own humanity. 

It all connects. It is all woven together.

The main way we learn about diversity--because none of us can experience ALL the diversity--is to listen to other people's stories. There is a lot of great comedy out there that carry messages about civil rights, diversity, and feminism. Messages that we can learn from. But comedy has it's limits, which is why Hannah's Gadsby's transition from 2-part comedy (set up and punchline) to 3-part storytelling (a beginning, a middle and an end) is why this show will stay with you long after the laughs wear off.

Thank you for not wasting my time Hannah Gadsby.

What did you think? Have you been thinking about this show as much as I have? Those were the things that most stood out to me, what stood out to you? Did I miss something? I'm also well aware that these kind of (for lack of a better term) "pop culture moments" often have a counter side that many of us may not have seen in being swept up in the initial moment--is there something about this message that rubbed you the wrong way? Something you think Gadsby got wrong altogether? As I said before, I think this was brilliant. I want everyone to watch this special. Please, tell me what you thought. 


  1. I thought it was so, so, so excellent and lived up to all the great things I had read about it before watching. I thought it was interesting that it stayed with me a lot longer than my husband. I guess I shouldn't be surprised since he doesn't know what it's like being a woman and sometimes fearing for your safety, etc. Yes, she's so brilliant and brought up so many amazing and important points.

    1. Yes--I think there is a point of it being more meaningful to women, than men on the whole, unless you're a man who is a part of a marginalized group. I watched it and then had my husband watch it with me the second time. As we started watching I thought, "Oh no...I hope he doesn't take this as some sort of personal 'you need to watch this because you're an ignorant straight white man!'" (At the same time, I DID want him to watch it because he's a straight white man. Ha!) But really I want everyone to watch it. He also thought it was powerful and deep on so many levels. He even said he wishes it was typed out so he could read it over and over again to really catch all the meanings and connections. I'm not sure if he's thought about it as much as me--probably not--but I was glad he was moved. And perhaps he thought about it a little more than the average guy as we also viewed this show with the running parallel in the back of our minds of homosexuality to disability and therefore her message feels that much more personal. Just a thought. Glad you loved it.

  2. Hey! I loved loved loved it! I learned so much, she is so captivating even when I didn't lagh that hard at ehe beggining, but I kept nodding at everything she said. Like when she said she has to quit comedy because the way she knows comedy diminish her struggle. I've been thinking about that myself, about how we tray hard to make all kind of things to change whats wrong with society but yet we are still laughing about the same jokes. The same macho, stereotypes, racist jokes told many times by the victims themselves. I think we must change comedy too. Stop and reinvent comedy o focus it on something else. Thanks for sharing.

    1. "we tray hard to make all kind of things to change whats wrong with society but yet we are still laughing about the same jokes. The same macho, stereotypes, racist jokes told many times by the victims themselves." Yes--good point. Comedy is a great social barrometer to see where we're REALLY at a society.

  3. I am still thinking about it, days later. I agree that the last sentences were heartbreakingly beautiful and resonant. "Difference is a teacher. Diversity is strength." I want to be better and do better. I want to expect more for myself and from myself.