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Black and white picture of stand-up comic Hannah Gadsby. She has short hair and wears dark glasses.
CategoriesPerformance and SexualityReview

Nanette: Of Universality and Difference

What is performance if not a tool of reclamation? What is reclamation if not a radical, political act of speaking back to power, of challenging the forces that oppress you and of expressing your righteous rage, indignation and protest?

In Nanette, an hour-long Netflix special that transcends the very notions of stand-up comedy, written and performed by Australian comic Hannah Gadsby, these forces of reclamation, protest, and rage culminate to form a darkly hilarious but heartbreaking diatribe against patriarchy, heteronormativity, violence and marginalisation. Gadsby, a lesbian comic who declares herself “gender not-normal” during the course of the show (since she doesn’t fit a feminine ideal), has been writing and performing for over a decade, and Nanette is a swan song of sorts, before she, in her own words, “decides to quit comedy”. Her reasons for this open disavowal of the very performative form she exhibits are offered through the course of Nanette, and are as poignant as they are thought provoking.

It’s no secret that comedy has been, and continues to be, a largely male-dominated performance art. Though the very object of humour and satire is to subvert norms and to question prevailing structures, too many cisgender heterosexual men have appropriated the form to further misogynist, homophobic stereotypes. But women – be it Joan Rivers in 1950s America or the likes of Aditi Mittal and Sumukhi Suresh in present-day India – have sought to challenge this male dominance in various ways, by both highlighting the fact that women too can be funny, as well as by challenging patriarchal authority. Gadsby too, does the same in Nanette, not just challenging the hierarchies within the form, but also railing against the way the world perceives her, and puts her into certain boxes because of how she performs both her gender and sexuality.

Comedy, for her, replicates the same forces of marginalisation she experiences in the real world, and her musings on why she should “quit comedy” stem from here.

In Nanette, Gadsby relates an anecdote about one of her first stand-up bits, which had been all about her coming out story. She narrates how, in presenting her coming out story in an embellished, comedic form, she was inviting her audience to laugh at it. In the process, she had converted a deeply personal experience into mere performance, adding exaggerations and funny narrative elements until the depth and value of the actual lived moment, which had been laced with tension and complexity, was reduced to overly simplified self-deprecating humour. And this is exactly what Gadsby realises, after twenty years of being in the profession of comedy, and it is the very thing that drives her disillusionment with the form.

When you are at the margins, your self-deprecating humour is no longer just that. It stems from a self-loathing that is the product of decades of struggling with your sexuality and the subsequent marginalisation you’re put through because of it.

Watching Nanette as a queer feminist in urban India – although, admittedly, a femme queer, as opposed to Gadsby – I was repeatedly astonished at how much I could relate to it. Though occupying a starkly different socio-cultural milieu from that of Gadsby, though having an entirely different set of struggles, both because of our separate geographical locations and the separate experiences with both femininity and queerness, I still felt like Nannette was my story too in a lot of ways. The self-loathing Gadsby talks about is a consequence of the internalised homophobia drilled into us by our respective homophobic environments. Gadsby grew up around people who considered gay people “immoral”, and so did I. In both of our cases, we were taught to consider same-sex desire as something “unnatural”, and as a result, ended up considering our own desires and our own identity as despicable. I too embody the same self-loathing she does, a self-loathing I often play off in the form of self-deprecating humour, which does nothing but make me all the more vulnerable.

The first time I came out to a friend, I made a joke. It was something silly, on the lines of the “no homo” memes that often go around the Internet, but I was terrified on the inside. The joke was a way of smoothing over the process, to make my very heterosexual friend comfortable with the idea of me being “different”, of having desires beyond the heteronormative. It’s the same thing Gadsby did – turning a very personal process of expressing and coming to terms with one’s sexuality into a “performance”. She made it part of a comedy routine, and I made it into a personal joke; but we both used humour that was born out of a deep sense of shame, because we had no other way to reconcile with our sexuality.

Nanette has been as much of a success here in India, as it has been worldwide. Multiple people, as part of multiple feminist publications, have written about how it made them feel less lonely, how it echoed their own rage and disillusionment with their experiences of being marginalised, and so on. And perhaps, its power lies in its universality.

Barely a month after I saw Nanette, I saw Pramada Menon’s excellent hour-and-half long stand-up performance, Fat, Feminist and Fiftyish. Though her performance was more of a reflection on growing older, on achieving a position of both subjectivity and objectivity as a “fiftyish” queer woman, her performance too had echoes of the same anxieties as Gadsby’s: the pressures of constantly performing both one’s gender and sexuality for the outside world, the ridiculous norms and expectations that are imposed, and the marginalisation associated with these norms. And how, with time and maturity, Menon has come to realise the futility of performativity itself. She recounts two anecdotes that are eerily similar to what we find in Nanette:  one, of her being mistaken for a trans person by an Uber driver, and another, of her having to constantly dodge questions about whether or not lesbians “always think about sex” (i.e, whether they’re constantly “performing” their sexuality). Gadsby, too, talks about often being mistaken for a trans man, and also talks about how even within the lesbian community, she isn’t considered to be performing her lesbianism enough (to the point that once, a queer woman had told her that her show didn’t have “enough lesbian content”). “I’m not really good at lesbian,” Gadsby says at one point.

Menon is someone who belongs closer home: she is queer and feminist and so am I, and I more-or-less occupy the same social, economic and cultural milieu as she does. And to see in her performance resonances with what Gadsby talks about is what solidifies my belief that Nanette is not just a single story. Menon may not have as much expressed active rage towards oppressive systems as Gadsby, and Menon may not disavow the very form of comedy like Gadsby does, but essentially, there’s an interconnectivity between their stories – not just between their stories, but my story too.

And this interconnectivity is of our “difference” from the norm. The different ways in which we, as queer women in a heteropatriarchal world reconcile ourselves with our internal understandings and external performativity of our gender and sexuality.

Towards the end of Nannette, Gadsby talks about this “difference”, and how the world often eviscerates anything or anyone that dares to be different. It is this fear of being penalised for our “difference” that makes us try to perform the seriousness of it away. It makes us want to tell jokes to let it register more easily. Sure, the humour is subversive because it is an active challenge to the cis-male-dominated sphere of comedy, but it is still coming from a place of internalised homophobia, shame, and self-loathing that is not easy to defeat.

But Nanette makes us want to defeat it. It tells us to revel in our differences, wherever we are located – geographically, culturally, economically, socially – and to embrace its power, because it is the very thing that connects us. With embracing the difference within us, we can challenge the pressures of performativity that society imposes, and can finally be ourselves. Embracing our difference is what will not only ultimately stop the performances of self-deprecating humour at the expense of our sexuality, but will also help reclaim this very humour and turn it into the tool of protest it was always meant to be.

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