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The Great Gadsby

Nanette on Netflix is a highly charged anti-comedy that questions which way our jokes swing

brunch Updated: Jul 21, 2018 21:40 IST
Rehana Munir
Rehana Munir
Hindustan Times
Nanette,Netflix,anti-comedy
A lot of Nanette revolves around art history – Gadsby’s college major(Photo Imaging: Parth Garg)

As I write this, a Supreme Court hearing on Section 377, that criminalises homosexual acts, has recently concluded. The bench has reserved the matter for judgment. Homophobia is a very real danger to people who deviate from the heteronormative ideal (that promotes a heterosexual orientation and lifestyle to be the gold standard) even in countries with progressive legislation on the matter. Being a lesbian is perhaps one of the least desirable of all identities, even for women in open same-sex relationships. (While bisexuality is a dark planet that spawns despicable aliens.) And then there’s the matter of masculine-presenting queer women and the discrimination and hostility that they especially face. A masterfully constructed “comedy” special on Netflix by Australian comic Hannah Gadsby explores these inter-related subjects – and implicates much of its audience – with terrifying intensity.

Humility and humiliation

At a little over an hour, Nanette is not an easy watch. If you’re queer, it’s a deeply moving emotional experience that echoes all-too-familiar fears and traumas. If you’re not, it’s likely to hit you hard with its unabashed anger and indignation. Most stand-up acts release the tension they create with laughter, as the comic herself says in the show. This one chooses not to. One of many moments that left me gasping was when Gadsby says she’s done with being self-deprecating: making jokes about her already marginalised (masculine-presenting female) identity would be an act of humiliation, not humility.

In our highly charged political climate, where reactionary attitudes are everywhere, this struck me as particularly insightful. Making jokes about your own marginalised identity in India in 2018,whether it be economically-disadvantaged, Dalit, Muslim, queer or even female, you run a similar risk. Scratch the surface and the humour could betray a deep fear of the prevailing power structures. Humour can both preserve or upset the status quo created by oppressive ideologies. Gadsby’s momentous show asks us to question which way our jokes swing.

The troubled genius

A lot of Nanette revolves around art history – Gadsby’s college major. She puts the great (male) troubled artists under the scanner. A psychiatrist she once consulted told her that mental illness serves the purpose of benefitting creative artists. She pulls this damaging idea apart, citing the example of van Gogh. His Sunflowers, she explains, were the result of a kind of medication that heightens the perception of the colour yellow – he was seeking help for his mental condition, not basking in it for its creative bounties. Van Gogh’s relationship with his nurturing brother is what contributed to his genius, not mental illness, she believes.

Of Picasso she is less complimentary. Gadsby launches a spirited attack on the father of Cubism, especially his relationship with his underage muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Along the way, she directs her rage at other celebrated men – from Bill Cosby to Woody Allen – making the point that mere talent can never condone unconscionable behaviour. A separation of the man from the art is impossible for Gadsby. F**k reputation, she says eloquently at one point. An apt tagline for the #MeToo movement.

Laughter is not the best medicine

Nanette often delves into the life of Gadsby, who was born in provincial Tasmania that decriminalised homosexuality only in the 1990s. Through the piece, the comic references her struggles with her identity, something she says she is still ashamed of because of internalised homophobia. Her mother is an important character in the show, and her evolution gives us hope. But perhaps the most transformational aspect of Gadsby’s heated monologue (stand-up doesn’t quite cut it) is her questioning of humour as a cure for trauma. She says it’s not, and that it’s time for her to tell her story “properly”. For this she must shake off the defence of laughter. Even at a comedy show.

This is radical. For generations, queer people everywhere have had to deal with the ordeal of coming out, and then trying to fit in. Gadsby says she’s done trying. That she doesn’t identify as lesbian or trans but as “tired”. That if the straight white male watching her show feels persecuted, that’s perceptive. (Replace straight white male with straight upper-caste male in our context.) Gadsby once got the feedback that one of her shows didn’t have enough lesbian content. “I was there on the stage the whole time!” she says in her defence. If Gadsby actually leaves comedy as she says she wants to, she will forever be remembered for an exhilarating show that transcended the boundaries of comedy and achieved a rare and empowering oracular quality.

From HT Brunch, July 22, 2018

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First Published: Jul 21, 2018 21:08 IST