In an interview with Indie Wire recently, Hannah Gadsby ripped into the now-disgraced comedian, Louis C.K.: “He’s a joke now,” she said, “and it is important to keep making that joke.” This, in A very large nutshell, is the essence of Hannah Gadsby’s comedy – time’s up fellas, the joke’s on you! While, I am not the biggest fan of Nanette, I recently went to see Hannah Gadsby’s latest comedy show, Douglas, in New York City. The parts of Nanette that I loved were the relentless pressure on white men to “pull their fucking socks up,” the critiques of gay pride (“the pressure on my people to express our identity and pride through the metaphor of party is very intense”), the quick dismissal of the rainbow flag (“very shouty”), the exasperation with white male rage (“what have they got to be angry about”) and the attempts to reveal the absurdities of white patriarchal logic.
The parts of Douglas with which I was less enamored were the dog references, all of them, and the homilies and life lessons collected from around the edges of comedy – “Punch lines need trauma because punch lines need tension, and tension feeds trauma.” Punch lines need trauma? Hmm, not sure, but maybe comedy in general does. Or how about: “we think it’s more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with.” Or: “Ignorance will always walk amongst us because we will never know all of the things.” In other words, the pedagogical impulse is strong in Gadsby, sometimes too strong, you could even call her “dogmatic” (that is my one and only dog joke, I promise): “I need to tell my story properly because you learn from the part of the story you focus on.” This sense that we should learn something from Gadsby perhaps interrupts the humor and the ‘gazing into the abyss’ moments in the show more than I would like (“I believe we could paint a better world if we learned to see it from all perspectives”). In fact, the really effective pedagogical moments in Gadsby’s show come from her ability to wrap audiences around her finger, to pull us to the brink of hilarity one minute and drop us down into the plough of despond the next. I like that she drops us into those deep holes without promising rescue, I appreciate that pleasure is not her only objective, and I love that she is still angry.
Gadsby’s show, Nanette, was a surprise hit last year on Netflix and it has garnered her thousands of fans (including celebrities, like Emma Thompson) and not a few detractors. The fans loved Gadsby’s open repudiation of the stand-up comedy genre and they were moved by her brutal honesty about what it is like to grow up gender-queer in a small place – Tasmania in her case. Her detractors, most popularly Hilton Als in The New Yorker, felt emotionally manipulated by some of her work and saw not a truthful performance but a performance of authenticity. Fans laughed and they cried; detractors claimed Gadsby was not even funny. So, what is the popular appeal of Hannah Gadsby and should we be suspicious of it? Is she a TERF (a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) as some have claimed (and the term is used promiscuously online to signify everything from a 70’s cultural feminist to a transphobic parent to, apparently, a lesbian comedian) or is she, like Alison Bechdel, one of the very few butch artists to access mainstream success? Is her stand-up wholly original or just a new take on a very formulaic genre?
So just to get the obvious stuff out of the way – yes, Douglas is funny and brilliant. No, you do not laugh at every line because that is not how stand-up works. Is Gadsby a TERF? Well, not in terms of arguing for essential womanhood, nor in terms of bashing trans women, nor in the sense of investing in women-born women spaces. But, she has a TERF-y focus on the harm done by men to women and a tendency not to place that harm in larger context involving race and class. No, I do not think Gadsby is a TERF, but how about a BARF – Butch Autistic Radical Feminist? Is she really autistic? This is another question thrown about online. As she says in Douglas, Gadsby’s autism is self-diagnosed. In the show, she lists the symptoms of autism as: an inability to read social cues, a struggle with intimate relations, a preference for a cup of tea over a sex party in a dungeon, a tendency to lose her temper and “blow up like a puffer fish” when angered, emotional limitations. I am not an expert on autism, but I am an expert on butches and can I just say that the symptoms for autism in Gadsby’s case and the characteristics of old-school stone butches bear an uncanny similarity!? Gadsby’s autism is “real” inasmuch as she experiences it as a set of debilitating symptoms. But, it is also by now a large part of her very lucrative public performance.
Finally, on the unfair critique front, is Gadsby boring, unfunny or a trauma queen? No, no and maybe. I think it would be very hard to say that a stand-up comedian who keeps most of her audience on the edge of their seats for nearly two hours is boring. And while, I often find comedians funny but rarely laugh out loud during a show, I laughed out loud during Douglas several times and the audience around me was often in stitches. As for the trauma queen or, in this case, king – yes, Gadsby is quite enamored with her own trauma – “punchlines need trauma.” And sometimes, the problem with trauma is that it has a telescoping effect, making it hard to see around one’s cone of pain, hard to relativize your struggle, hard to see the world beyond it. As Hilton Als wrote in his gentle take-down of Gadsby: “Gadsby, in her work, espouses a kind of puritan-minded radicalism in which someone else is always to blame for how messed up she feels. But isn’t that messed-up feeling life? And what about other lives? What about the millions who have it worse, who are fighting to survive?” Ok, not so gentle, but Als hits the mark on what is missing from some of Gadsby’s riffs – namely, the ability to situate her trauma in relation to the trauma of others and the “messed-up feeling” that we call “life.”
When I was in Tasmania recently, indeed, I met several wonderful butches, butches who, like Gadsby, felt traumatized by the homophobic environment of a place that did not repeal its anti-homosexuality laws until 1997! These other butches (“my people,” Gadsby might say) gave a context for Gadsby and she suddenly seemed less unique, less like a rare bird in the wild and more like a solid member of a fairly robust species. Tasmania is a place knee-deep in trauma but not all of it attaches to queers. Indeed, white queers in Tasmania can easily be placed within another national context, a different inflection of “my people,” and in relation not to a punch-line but what is called there “the black line.” The National Museum of Australia explains, that when European settlers arrived in Tasmania in 1830, the native population fought back against the occupation of their land. In response, the museum notes with no hint of condemnation: “Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur ordered thousands of able-bodied settlers to form what became known as the ‘Black Line’, a human chain that crossed the settled districts of Tasmania. The line moved south over many weeks in an attempt to intimidate, capture, displace and relocate the remaining Aboriginal people.” This “black line” was basically a genocidal project and part of what was called the “Black War.” The colonists sought to eliminate Aboriginal people from their own land and by 1847, only 40 native people remained. By 1876, they were all dead.
This is a grim history, a deeply traumatic history, and it is one from which all white people in Tasmania have benefitted. And I don’t link Gadsby’s show to this history simply to force a trauma comparison. Rather, the world view of the settler colonial both informs Gadsby and is an important part of the ideology that presumably she wants to shatter. And so, the fact that this history plays no role in her show, means that we get a snapshot of homophobic Tasmania but no sense of the carnage that laid the foundations for decades of settler colonial violence and for this particularly brutal form of national homophobia and toxic white masculinity. Remember, it is Gadsby who says: “I believe we could paint a better world if we learned to see it from all perspectives.” One wants to answer that there’s a pretty big perspective missing from the picture she paints.
Trauma in Gadsby’s world then is real but possibly much more layered and multi-faceted than she lets on. And, on account of this, the strength of her show – her take down of white men – might also be its weakness: her targets, it seems, are only misogyny and homophobia but colonial racism is nowhere to be found. This is in part the critique launched by Hilton Als. In his widely circulated review of Gadsby’s Douglas, Als, complained that Gadsby’s shows only play to and in anticipation of the white-male critical voice. He comments: “The idea that a Black gay writer like me would come from New York to see and appreciate her performance doesn’t figure into her sword-wielding.” Als goes on to accuse Gadsby of lacking nuance, of “puritan-minded radicalism,” and of sounding like she is “spewing undigested Andrea Dworkin.” These are tough critiques especially lodged within an even harsher evaluation of the whole show as “solipsism masquerading as art.” But, Als nails something about what is missing from the show and what might be lost by this exclusive, blinkered take on homophobic violence.
If Gadsby’s trauma makes her short-sighted, her autism, as she proposes, allows her to see patterns where neuro-typical people see only disorderly displays of power. And her queerness offers her a refuge from heteronormativity and therefore space from which to diagram misogyny and sexism. Some white queers and feminists may deeply appreciate the takes on white masculinity and patriarchy but many audiences of color may feel their limitations. Part of the responsibility for Gadsby’s myopia falls squarely on her own shoulders, but part of it, and this is the part that Hilton Als ignores, emerges from the nature of stand-up comedy itself – and here Gadsby can be commended for wanting to quit a genre that forces her to base her humor on constitutive exclusions and offers pleasure only by asking that your pleasure come at the expense of others. But she can also admired for taking the genre and twisting it away from its hetero-white male roots and turning it into a platform for a queer feminism that alternates between cheeky and rageful.
What is funny depends upon perspective and humor draws some audiences in even as it cuts other audiences down. And so, while Gadsby lets loose on her unabashed man-hating, straight women comedians often target the indignities of heterosexuality or the inadequacies of their male partners. And Black male comedians, such as Dave Chappelle, regularly attack white masculinity and white power in their comedy, but, they also find humor in homophobic material on swishy gays and pushy transgender women. In the Chapelle show I watched there were about 17 rape jokes for example.
Punchlines need trauma, says Gadsy. Maybe they do. Comedy is a violent sport and the field is littered with blood and guts at the end of many of the best routines. All too often, self-conscious comedians like Gadsby and Chappelle tell us, the laugh is hard won through sacrifice, caricature, erasure and simplification. Gadsby recognizes this and finds in comedy an analogue to her art history training where she was led through the history of Western art only to find out that this history is actually just the trajectory of white male gazes – to wit, naked women abound: “Art history taught me, you know, historically, women didn’t have time to think thoughts. They were too busy napping, naked, alone, in the forest.” Art requires naked, empty women. Masculine stand up has tended to require abject queers and transgender people. And so, some feminist stand-up requires its own roster of dead bodies, mostly male. Gadsby lets Picasso stand for the white man she comes to slay: “I don’t like Picasso. I fucking hate him. I really– I just– He’s rotten in the face cavity. I hate Picasso! I hate him!” Staving off the inevitable charges of man-hating levied at lesbians, she comments: “All my life, I’ve been told that I’m a man-hater. I don’t hate men, I honestly do not. I don’t hate men. But… there’s a problem. See, I don’t even believe that women are better than men. I believe women are just as corruptible by power as men, because you know what, fellas, you don’t have a monopoly on the human condition, you arrogant fucks. But the story is as you have told it. Power belongs to you. And if you can’t handle criticism, take a joke, or deal with your own tension without violence, you have to wonder if you are up to the task of being in charge. I’m not a man-hater. But I’m afraid of men.”
When she steps out of the magic circle of comedy here, leaves out the punchline and instead descends into a rant, Gadsby, believes she is leaving a shitty genre behind. But in fact, ‘the love it and leave it’ mode she performs IS the genre. Other comedians like Dave Chappelle for example also struggle with the choice of whether to perform comedy or to walk away from it. And so the very piece of Gadsby’s show that audiences found so incredible – her claim that she was leaving comedy – is in fact part of the struggle that all comedians who are not white and male must face. The appeal of Gadsby then is not her moral sense of needing to walk away from comedy nor her pedagogical lessons that are used to justify her continued use of the genre. Her appeal is simply this – she is a fucking brilliant stand-up comedian no matter how much she may deny it and like Dave Chappelle she takes a white man’s art and uses it magically to deconstruct the genre and in the process to remake it!
Indeed, watching Gadsby’s Nanette and Dave Chapelle’s Age of Spin back to back recently I noticed how much they have in common: Gadsby and Chappelle are both angry comedians. Chappelle and Gadsby also feel, and often reject the burden of having a community for whom they speak and a mainstream audience whom they believe needs to hear their shit. They both telegraph where the show is going: at the start of Douglas, Gadsby warns that she will eventually tell a Louis C.K joke, but that it will come so late that the audience will have forgotten it is coming. Chappelle, on the other hand, warns his crowd that he will have four stories O.J. before the show is over. These forewarnings offer clever internal scaffolding for the comedy routine and serve as rhetorical breadcrumbs for the audience picking their way through the routine. Chappell and Gadsby both veer between stand-up routines and canned lectures – Chappelle has material on World War 2, colonial emasculation, civil rights and Gadsby has mini lectures on the representation of women, art history and queer politics. Both mention Bill Cosby.
The point is, Gadsby is not so original in terms of the form of her stand up but nor is she unique in her ability to pinpoint the problems with the genre. Chappelle’s rape jokes serve exactly this purpose. In the Age of Spin, a routine that has been heavily critiqued for perceived misogyny and homophobia, Chappelle recounts pitching a potential super-hero movie to a Hollywood type. The premise is that the super-hero can only access his super-powers by touching a woman’s pussy. But, the guy in question is too unappealing to get such access and so, at a critical moment, he has to force himself upon a woman in order to save the world. He asks the audience to decide whether the rape is justifiable: “That’s the dilemma” he says, “Because he rapes, but he saves a lot of lives. And he saves way more than he rapes, and he only rapes to save. But he does rape.” The rape here is a kind of metaphor for comedy – is it ok to save people by using violence or to entertain them by trashing others? Gadsby turns the rape joke and the question it asks around. And this is where her anger is so powerful. She asks whether it matters to his legacy that Picasso fucked an underage girl:
“Let’s make art great again, guys. Picasso fucked an underage girl. And that’s it for me. Not interested. “But cubism… We need it.” Marie-Thérèse Walter. She was 17 when they met. Underage. Legally underage. Picasso was 42, married, at the height of his career. Does it matter? Yeah. Yeah, it actually does. It does matter.”
The rape might be justified for Chappelle if it serves the greater good. The legacy must go for Gadsby if it involves questionable sexual ethics. Both Chappelle and Gadsby are fundamentalists, both try to destroy the genre within which they work, both labor to reveal the messy innards of comedy, its deep secrets and its incredible power and violence. Both return to the genre like a lover who cannot leave but who also cannot stay away.
Hilton Als felt left out of Gadsby’s show, unaddressed and invisible. And, I can honestly say that lesbians and trans men do not exist for Chappelle. But this too is how comedy works – the comedian speaks from a location, the comedian makes jokes at the expense of others and therefore needs an other (“take my wife…please”) to lambast. That other, until Gadsby, was rarely the white man. At the end of Nanette, Gadsby says: “To the men in the room… who feel I may have been persecuting you this evening… well spotted. That’s pretty much what I’ve done there. But this is theater, fellas.” This is theater fellas, she is saying, it is not real life. In real life you are still king of the hill, so loosen the fuck up and learn how to take a joke! Gadsby and Chappelle are unique in their love/hate relation to the genre of comedy, their mastery of a form that they must destroy and their overt commentaries on the violence that mastery requires. “Sadism demands a story,” wrote Laura Mulvey decades ago in another feminist essay dedicated to the destruction of pleasure. And whether you follow Gadsby down the chute of her trauma or applaud Chappelle for turning a rape joke back onto the audience, you leave the show convinced that the show is well and truly fucked and that the show must go on. And here we arrive at the flawed genius of Gadsby – she is not politically pure, she too racks up as body count in the gladiatorial contest to make strangers guffaw, but she finds humor in her own rage and even as she delivers the death blow: “Pull your fucking socks up!” She finds an opportunity for a cheeky moment of self-awareness: “How humiliating. Fashion advice from a lesbian!” Then back to the meta narrative: “that is your last joke.” But it wasn’t, it isn’t and we know in the end that she was just joking and the show, dogs and all, will go on.