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Nanette: Devastating and Prophetic

I don’t often have enough time to watch a full-length movie or comedy special. By the time evening rolls around and the kids are in bed, the house is relatively (emphasis on relatively) tidy, garden tasks are completed, and my partner and I are sitting together on the couch, I usually have just enough energy to read a few pages of a novel before my eyelids droop. As many friends remind us, my partner and I are in that season when ‘the days are long and the years are short’. These days, the days feel particularly long.

We were surprised to find ourselves with a free evening and the energy to enjoy a film together.

But on a rainy night a few weeks ago, we were surprised to find ourselves with a free evening and the energy to enjoy a film together. We had both heard good things about Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, a new Netflix comedy special. Friends had called it both ‘challenging’ and ‘hilarious’ and ‘necessary’. Why not? We pressed play, and settled in.

I was not ready for what I encountered.

I don’t want to give too much away about Gadsby’s Nanette. I began watching with little sense of what was coming, and I think my experience was the better for it. Nanette is part comedy special, part history of how ‘women and queer people like her get treated, dismissed, and silenced’ that is ‘lacerating in its fury’, as The New York Times put it.

It is also an art history lesson, an excruciatingly honest personal history of trauma, and a devastating critique of the systems of power and privilege that condone violence and silence voices from the margins. Wired magazine put it well in its headline: ‘We Need to Talk About Nanette’.

I was not ready for what I encountered.

Another comedian, Tig Notaro, said “Nanette should be required viewing if you’re a human being.”

I won’t say too much about the content of Nanette. Other writers have done that well enough – like here, here, and here. I want to write about why I needed Nanette.

Early in the special, Gadsby outlines comedy 101: comedy rests on building tension and providing resolution. But Gadsby refuses to offer resolution to the tension she builds. As she says, ‘I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor, and I don’t want to do that anymore. Because do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.”

'I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor, and I don’t want to do that anymore.' 

Gadsby refuses humiliation, and instead chooses the path of prophetic furor and vulnerable truth-telling. It reminded me of the honest furor and artful truth-telling that we find in the prophet Hosea or Ezekiel. I needed that furor and truth-telling, though I didn’t realize it when I pressed ‘Play’ on my laptop. I thought I wanted an evening of thoughtful comedy and cultural critique. What I got was a punch to the stomach. A soul-affirming punch to the stomach. But a punch to the stomach nonetheless.

Gadsby dismantles the systems of privilege and power that push some voices to the side and condone – knowingly or not – violence against those who are already vulnerable. But she does it so honestly, so personally, that I had to fight the urge to look away at times. I didn’t ‘learn’ about the plight of queer folks, I felt their experiences in my gut. I didn’t ‘learn’ about what it was like to grow up gay in a community that  resented my existence or a woman in a room full of men, I felt it. Gadsby forces the viewer to feel difficult things, to inhabit difficult stories, so deeply and powerfully that it can feel like too much to take in. I found myself watching through tears more than once.

Gadsby forces the viewer to inhabit difficult stories.

Some of those tears were for the pain in Gadsby’s story. Some of them were for the tragedy of our world. But most of those tears were tears of anger and confusion at my own story: anger at my ignorance of the extent of others’ pain, and confusion about my own privilege, confusion about how I can go about repenting and moving forward in a good way.

After Nanette finished, my partner and I sat in silence. After a few minutes, she wanted to talk about it. I found myself at a loss for words. I still do. All I can say is: I needed Nanette, for ‘out of the mouth of an Australian comedian Thou hast ordained wisdom.’

[Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash]


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