In honor of LGBT Pride Month, Netflix has a new crop of gay documentaries, lesbian romances, and transgender manifestos. On Friday, I favorably compared Netflix’s new gay teen rom-com Alex Strangelove to the recent major-studio movie Love, Simon.
Today, hopefully I won’t talk you out of watching Australian lesbian comic Hannah Gadsby’s amazing standup special Nanette.
I’d never heard of Hannah Gadsby. All I knew before watching her Netflix special was Entertainment Weekly listed it as the “Must Watch TV!” event for Tuesday night. Inaudibly faint praise to be sure, but I’d already finished my current book, and I couldn’t sleep.
I immediately grooved with Gadsby’s pleasant but surprisingly generic humor about lesbians, Australians, and conservative rural upbringings. She further twists the combination by revealing she grew up in an evangelical fundamentalist community in Tasmania, during an era when most of her neighbors enthusiastically supported the state’s law criminalizing homosexual sodomy.
The humor in Gadsby’s longstanding standup act came from the usual cracks about dour feminists, clueless relatives, and lesbian dating. For example, the show’s title, “Nanette,” was the name of a woman Gadsby thought would provide a lot of comic material, none of which turned out to be funny enough to make it into the show.
Gadsby also described her long history of meeting gender-stereotyping males, and their varied reactions to encountering a mannish woman. She re-tells the oldest joke in her act: When Gadsby was seventeen, she met a charming young woman in a bar. After returning from the washroom, the young lady’s jealously enraged boyfriend accosted Gadsby because he thought she was a guy hitting on his girlfriend. He was relieved to discover Gadsby was just another woman.
Midway through her act, Gadsby announced she’s planning to give up her successful comedy career. She’d grown weary of relying on self-deprecation and put-downs as the basis of humor.
Unfortunately for her future financial prospects, however, Gadsby uselessly majored in art history. She demonstrated her facility with both art and comedy through an extended riff on Cubism, post-impressionism, mental health, and the tragedy of Van Gogh. (I love accents where they pronounce the painter’s name as “Van Goff.”)
Eventually, Gadsby zeroed in on Artist-of-the-Century Pablo Picasso’s breathtaking misogyny, and our collective complicity in it.
Soon Gadsby admitted she’d told her last joke of the night. Instead, she moved on to full-time consciousness raising. In particular, she turned up the heat on almost half of her audience: the straight white men sitting next to their girlfriends and wives.
Other than me, all the other males in my family are straight white men and boys. Each is sensitive and woke. (Even my nine-year-old son Oliver, on a good day.) But like Gadsby’s silenced audience, my father, brothers, nephews, and son enjoy a measure of privilege that was never fully available to me, or to my mother, daughters, and nieces. Or to lesbian Hannah Gadsby growing up in rural Tasmania.
As a society, we can only grow the pie so much; ultimately social capital is a finite resource, allocated in a zero-sum game. Much of the recent damage to American institutions comes from the anxiety of “haves” who demonize the “have nots” that threaten their continued dominance and unearned privilege.
I suppose I should muster up a bit of sympathy for the overwhelmed Trump voters I’ve met. But Gadsby reminded us we should be reaching out instead to the victims of shame and oppression. Gadsby acknowledged that like so many of us, she turned to comedy as a coping mechanism. Nevertheless, after a couple of decades of telling jokes about humorless lesbians, she recognized being a comic had paralyzed her emotional development. As I observed in my Gay Netflix Review of Alex Strangelove, the closet is a powerfully destructive instrument for denial and repression. But wounds can heal. After working through the impact of various early-life traumas, Gadsby finally achieved some major personal breakthroughs.
Instead of categorizing lesbian haircuts, today Gadsby channels her simmering rage. She no longer feels comfortable repressing her feelings. Yet she worries about the impact of unleashing her consciousness-raising anger on unsuspecting audiences. (Recognizing a kinswoman, I knew I was watching powerful Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy unfold on stage under the guise of performance art. Just like writing blog essays. Don't try this at home, kids.)
Gadsby ended the evening by returning to her oldest joke, about the jealous boyfriend who was relieved to discover she wasn’t a man after all. Now Gadsby finally told the truth. Immediately after the boyfriend’s epiphany about gender-stereotyped appearances, he had a second realization: a lesbian had been talking to his girlfriend. So he followed Hannah Gadsby out of the bar and beat the shit out of her.
Seventeen-year-old Gadsby couldn’t bring herself to seek treatment at hospital, because shame told her she deserved the beating. Two decades later, she finally can testify about the true horrors of the closet.
Here’s a link to a recent New York Magazine interview with Gadsby about her show, comedy, and anger.
This week marks the 49th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and the birth of the modern LGBT civil rights movement. Today you could have marched in riotous Pride Parades through any of the top-tier American cities, like New York, Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco. (Lower-tier communities like Portland, Salt Lake City, and Bellingham can’t compete in the major leagues, so they hold their pride celebrations on other summer weekends.)
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the newest generation of LGBT folk as they enter the world at this exciting time. Partly it’s my recent exposure to some formidable queer youths. Partly it’s my curmudgeonly freudenschade, as I mutter about how these young whippersnappers should have to suffer like the rest of us. Partly it’s the recent performances by Vancouver Men’s Chorus of our show “Gays of Our Lives,” which included some tearful remembrances, as well as a lot more gender-bending dancing than our staid conductor can usually handle. Like Willi, I have been doing this work for a long, long time.
Fortunately, It Gets Better, and It Got Better.
Nevertheless, it’s still hard. Kids come out at ever younger ages, and they can observe role models and representations that were unimaginable in my day. But even if the shaming voices of society and religion were stilled – which is definitely not the case, and not just in Tasmania and Utah – each LGBT youth today would still have to navigate adolescence and adulthood as an outsider.
Happy Pride to one and all. Join us as we build a beautiful city – out of the closet, beyond shame, where we can embrace our past and future as authentic individuals and healthy communities.