* Note: in the years since the release of Nanette, Hannah Gadsby has come out as genderqueer, and now uses they/them pronouns. Any quotes here that use prior pronouns have been changed accordingly. **
I’ve wanted to write about Hannah Gadsby for years. Yesterday, I told myself today is the day I do it. The only problem: I hadn’t watched Gadsby’s latest Netflix special, and couldn’t recall if I’d seen Douglas, their follow-up to Nanette, the “anti-comedy” special that bored its way into the zeitgeist in 2018 like a trepanning drill: intent, presumably, on exposing the rotten core of comedy, letting disinfecting sunlight shine upon an industry that had fed off of Gadsby’s pains for far too long. Not only was comedy to blame, Gadsby took aim at the cause it was a symptom of: misogyny. Homophobia. Wouldn’t I, a gay woman, relate? Wouldn’t it be a powerful testament to my personhood, to the personhoods of all who are not cisgender, straight, white, male, thin, able-bodied, etc etc etc? After all, we were two years into Trump, two years of “you can do anything you want, grab ’em by the pussy,” when #MeToo was still a powerful tool to wield against powerful, horrible men.
I watched it, sitting on my bed with my laptop open in front of me. I paid attention, I nodded, I teared up, I barely laughed. Then I left my apartment and went down the street to meet a friend outside a bar for a drink. I told her that I’d seen Nanette.
“I just watched that!” she perked up her eyebrows and shook her head slow, as though having witnessed an atomic bomb. “It was so good, so powerful.”
I nodded once, and then, without thinking, replied “Yeah. I kinda hated it.”
The most memorable, oft-quoted line from Nanette is when Gadsby describes their experience as a comedian telling self-effacing jokes about their lesbian identity and “irregular” body. “It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.” The phrase hovers in the air of the Sydney Opera House. You can hear a few people go “Mmmmm,” which is the exact noise I heard middle-aged women make when watching Hidden Figures in a movie theater whenever something acutely racist would happen. It’s an mmmmm meant to be sympathetic, to say “so true, so so true,” that Mein Kampf tweet:
Gadsby continues to share their admonition of comedy, of men, of a world that doesn’t accept them, and we shake our heads, “Mmmm,” so we know we disagree with what Gadsby has experienced. It’s easy to do, as Gadsby offers it on a platter at our feet, standing onstage at the Sydney Opera House and on millions of computer screens, calling it vulnerability.
This is not meant to discredit Gadsby’s experiences, nor to belittle the extremely fucked-up experiences of queer people, of women, of nonbinary people. The world is cruel, and the cruelty protects men, white men, straight people, the able-bodied and neurotypical, the rich. The system is wrong and should be dismantled. In nearly every way I agree with Hannah Gadsby.
After Nanette was released on Netflix, the backlash was predictable: woke trash, man-hating nonsense, ugly ugly ugly. Here it was, the patriarchy that Gadsby so bravely critiques, showing its ass. Gadsby was quick to point this out, in an early version of Douglas they reminisce that “You know what I see when I use the C-word? People who wanted me to know that Nanette wasn’t funny. I hate to do statistics, but they were all men.” I would not call Gadsby a cunt, but I also wouldn’t call Nanette funny.
Indeed, Gadsby seems to be immune to constructive critique of their groundbreaking work, even though a work as large and impactful as Nanette ought to have its share of feedback that questions Gadsby’s effectiveness, points to inconsistencies, questions if their interpretation of big concepts like comedy is as correct as they believe. Ever since coming out as someone who kinda hated it, I’ve only come across a few online pieces that agree with me — to the extent that I’ve wondered if I’m actually, really in the wrong, if there’s a busted quality about me that can’t empathize with Gadsby’s brutal life story. Why is it so hard for me to go “Mmmmm?”
“It’s not humility, it’s humiliation.” I come back to that line, over and over, and I rage at it. I didn’t feel seen by those words; I felt as though my mother had looked at my outfit and said “Why would you wear that in public?” How short-sighted is it to call self-deprecating humor either humility or humiliation? Is it really the fault of comedy that Gadsby felt compelled to only tell jokes at their own expense for the entirety of their career, pre-Nanette? Is it true that, as Gadsby lays it out, any comic of marginalized status is humiliating themselves onstage? That if I, a lesbian, told a joke about lesbians, I’m debasing myself for the benefit of straight men?
Ironic, then, that Gadsby doesn’t seem to spend much time talking about anyone else — not women, not other trans or nonbinary people, not even the gay community in general (in Nanette they share a disdain for Pride, noting that they identify as “tired,” a sentiment that we all share by now but also, Hannah, the parades are good actually). In his review of Douglas before it went to Netflix, the New Yorker’s Hilton Als wrote:
“white-male critical voice is the one that really matters to [them]. The idea that a black gay writer like me would come from New York to see and appreciate [their] performance doesn’t figure into [their] sword-wielding: you can’t make sweeping statements if you allow for subtleties and shifting demographics. … Gadsby holds you in an emotional choke hold through much of the show: if you don’t like the material, you’re one of them.”
Nanette struck me neither as an act of transgressive rage nor of shocking vulnerability. It was an act of weaponization, to take on all of comedy (whatever that means) and dump out the traumas of Gadsby’s life, to say “look what you made me do.” To argue against this is to be a hater, a misogynist, to be on the side of the men who have brutalized Gadsby throughout their life. Or, as Yasmin Nair succinctly writes in a long, biting critique of Gadsby:
Gadsby is not a particularly good standup comic, and owes [their] current success not to the quality of [their] routine but to the enormous amount of liberal and left guilt [they have] managed to awaken, the crashing waves of which drown out any critique of [their] politics which straight people in particular — still in power everywhere — will not make for fear of seeming homophobic.
It is radical, of course, to show the truth of queer pain as it is. To not fear dishonesty, to be vulnerable. Nanette, I am sorry to say, embraces the narrative that we can only be empathized with because of our traumatic lives; that we are a pitiable mass who must be exempt from the cruelty of having to tell jokes about ourselves to hide the pain, and nothing else is shared as truth. There is no queer joy, no euphoria. Life is pain, comedy made it worse at the behest of patriarchy, and Gadsby is done, thank you very much. “I am leaving comedy” they say, lying, onstage at the Sydney Opera House after touring with Nanette for a year. “Mmmm.” says the Opera House, applauding.
To get back to it: I have wanted to write about Gadsby for a while, share my gripes and groans as eloquently as I could, but a lot of things have happened since I first sat on my bed and watched Nanette, namely that there have been two more Hannah Gadsby Netflix specials, and I couldn’t remember if I’d seen Douglas, and I certainly hadn’t seen their recent special, Something Special, which came out nary a week ago. It seemed only fair, if I were to really dunk on Gadsby, that I ought to be more complete in my knowledge: and, after all, maybe Nanette was a fluke. Maybe Gadsby was actually very, very funny.
So this afternoon at lunch I turned on Douglas. Thirty minutes later I turned it off, feeling extremely generous and tolerant of Gadsby’s bullshit.
This time they’re in LA, which Gadsby uses to flaunt their success: “I never knew I’d be big in America!” They then recap how groundbreaking and important Nanette was (they ask the audience who hasn’t seen the special, and when a few folks cheer they reply “well what the fuck are you doing here?” (that is not an exact quote, I am not putting the program back on to get exact quotes I’m not sorry)). They lament being “fresh out” of trauma, as though that’s what people want from them, “If I’d have known how popular trauma was, I’d have budgeted my shit!”
Gadsby uses cuss words like a fifteen year old; never effectively but with distracting emphasis.
If Nanette succeeded because Gadsby thought that wielding their trauma was an act of radical subversion, Douglas is Gadsby gleefully recapping just how subversive they think they are. Gadsby opens with fifteen minutes of exposition, explaining how the show will go — a vibe that sours in half that time — and calls themselves clever. “You’ll say ‘oooh, that’s clever!’, which I am.” They somehow guarantee that the audience will forget all this foreshadowing — that we will have forgotten the promised Louis CK joke, or still be shocked at their autism diagnosis. The audience claps along, “Mmm” now replaced with an emphatic “Mmmhmm!,” especially when Gadsby explains that they will be “needling the patriarchy.” It’ll be delicious, this needling, that will turn into a “jousting lance” by the end of the show, ooooh you’ll love it, unless you’re a man! They use “straight white man” several times in the opening bits; “America is the straight white man of the world,” for example, the needling sharp enough to knit a pussy hat. There’s an anecdote of a man telling them to smile at the dog park, Gadsby noting that men in the audience might not understand why that might annoy women, despite being men who have chosen to go see feminist stand-up comedian Hannah Gadsby in 2019. Several minutes are spent explaining a part of anatomy called the “Pouch of Douglas,” named after the scientist who found it. “Men need to do so little to be remembered!” declares Gadsby, the audience whooping and “Mmhmm!”ing. A needle sharp enough to sew a tote bag, indeed.
It goes on like this for a while, hence my early switching away to something else: Gadsby in a tailored suit, explaining that patriarchy is bad, actually, that men in power have abused it, actually. I left before the extended “art history” lecture part, an unwelcome gimmick. I’m sure it was clever, I’m sure the audience whooped, I’m sure that I missed out on great conversations where the person in the middle declares “did you know Raphael was a fucking asshole?” and the surrounding room would go “Mmhmm!”
Maybe you read that last section and felt confused. “But Meg, I thought you disliked it when Gadsby wasn’t sharing joy or happiness. Wouldn’t this be better?”
Douglas is not a departure from Nanette, it is a continuation of it, the second location of a date that isn’t going very well. Douglas cashes in on Gadsby’s persona of the traumatized lesbian, the gay truth-teller, no longer angry but vindicated. They are smug, a word which here refers to unearned pride, unfair advantage. Gadsby would use it to describe straight white men, “smug” is the straight white men of emotions, something like that.
There is a cutsey-ness to Gadsby’s schtick that could be misconstrued as playful or joyful — their book is subtitled “a memoir situation,” they use words like “chuffed” “I’m fresh out” “cheeky” “rule of thumb” “heaps” “ye olde paintings,” pronouncing it “Van Gofffffff.” It could be a symptom of Gadsby’s British diaspora existence (Britain being the home of “timey-wimey” type phrases), but to me it always comes off as a means of disarming, of being clever with wordplay, all the creativity and cringe of a man who owns several swords tipping his fedora. You see, Gadsby? I hate men too. But I’m good at it. I can be specific. Any white man can tell you to smile, only one ever told me that he was worth dating because he wiped his dick after he peed. And you know what? It was disgusting, but it was sort of endearing. It was complex, even as I hated it.
There’s a new Hannah Gadsby special, Something Special (called that because they didn’t know what to name the special so they landed on “something,” presumably because “a special situation” wasn’t available) and though I’d wanted to give it a shot just in case (fool me three times), at the top of the trailer Gadsby says “I have dragged you through a bit of my shit over the years, but it’s time for some payoff.”
No, god damn it, I won’t go through this again. I won’t go through a comedian telling me what they’re saying, telling me how I’m feeling about it, predicting the outcome of my experience. Hilton Als said that Douglas “makes a party out of self-absorption,” and he’s right. For all the times Gadsby maligns the patriarchy for requiring marginalized people to trauma-dump in order to be valid, that exact act is precisely what made Gadsby valid. It is why they are taken seriously, why they are pitied and given multiple Netflix features and get to go on the Emmys and deliver the shocking revelation that sometimes good men do bad things and that they need to step up.
It’s the reason Gadsby is co-curating an art exhibit called “It’s Pablo-matic” (ugh), which is being presented at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art — a phrase that encompasses almost everything wrong with Hannah Gadsby. When asked why they’re curating an art exhibit at a major gallery till openly associated with the Sacklers, Gadsby’s response is meandering and noncommittal:
I’m doing a show at the Brooklyn Museum. There’s one Sackler on the board. We vetted this. Apparently, they’ve separated their earning streams from the problematic one. I mean, take that with a grain of salt. Doesn’t matter what cultural institution you work with in America, you’re going to be working with billionaires and there’s not a billionaire on this planet that is not fucked up. It is just morally reprehensible.
This is the world we’ve built, particularly in the U.S. and it’s like, how do you do anything here without corrupting yourself? I feel like it’s impossible. I feel sick about it. Not just this particularly — but you go through the motions. Again, if you want to change the conversation, do you take yourself out of the conversation to change the conversation? It’s murky, isn’t it? I don’t have an answer. But also the exhibition is about Picasso and I really, really want to stick one up him.
Revealing, that this self-appointed canary in the coal mine of misogyny, who claims that Picasso’s paintings would be worthless without his name, who hates Picasso passionately (and perhaps other men, though the only artists Gadsby seems to know about are Picasso, Van Goffffffff, and a few Renaissance chaps (they make a joke about the Ninja Turtles being named after painters in both Nanette and Douglas)) would suddenly embrace moral complexity. They may not believe in Death of the Author, but perhaps Death of the Pharmaceutical Executive isn’t too far off. “I was assured that they’d separated from the opioids strain,” Gadsby says, a phrase that means nothing.
Earlier in the same conversation, when asked why they would continue a financial relationship with Netflix even after being critical of the platform, Gadsby replied “If you want to change the conversation, you still have to be a part of the conversation.”
To be fair, Gadsby isn’t wrong: shit is complicated. The people and things that shape the world are often monsters, even when we love them. And yes, often one finds oneself trying to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. There was a time this was widely seen as good, actually: the era of girlboss feminism, of more female CEOs — a type of feminism so entrenched in capitalism that it’s a joke now, at least on the Left.
It was a kind of feminism, to put it plainly, that was just starting to turn sour when Nanette came out. We have changed, but Gadsby stayed “in the conversation,” a place at the table all their own.
So no, I don’t dislike Hannah Gadsby for the same reason their “haters” do. That’s their word, not mine: they compare themself to Taylor Swift. I don’t want to be a hater; the Hannah Gadsbys and Taylor Swifts of the world love haters, haters are another universe that revolves around them.
I dislike Hannah Gadsby for what they represent, what they insist on dragging into the present and into the future: empty objections to oppression, shirt-slogan feminism, trauma as performance, performance as trauma, trauma as profit. I dislike their half-baked, repetitive, unedited jokes, their smugness when their massive audience of straight people (for their work is truly for straight people), replies with whoops and claps and Mmmmm and Mmhmm. Gadsby can keep them. The rest of us deserve more.