Netflix’s ‘Nanette’ and the Importance of Uncomfortable Conversations

If you don’t feel welcomed by Hannah Gadsby’s new Netflix special, that’s not an invitation to leave.
Nanette Hannah Gadsby
By  · Published on July 10th, 2018

If you don’t feel welcomed by Hannah Gadsby’s new Netflix special, that’s not an invitation to leave.

A few weeks ago, an Austin non-profit held a conversation regarding male allies in the workplace. The panel – three men, one woman, ranging in experience from team leads to heads of human resource departments – led a wide-ranging conversation on the subject of male allies, but it was a rare misstep in the conversation that served as the evening’s most revealing moment. In a rare off-book moment, the moderator asked his male panelists how they came to feel welcomed as an ally in their communities, and one panelist politely – but firmly – shot the question down. “As a man often entering spaces where I’m meant to listen, the question of ‘welcomeness’ is almost secondary,” the panelist responded. “I need to take criticisms and just listen. If I’m not feeling welcome, that’s not an invitation to leave.”

The current heavyweight champion of conversations that may make men feel unwelcome is undoubtedly Nanette, the popular Netflix special from Tasmanian comedian Hannah Gadsby. Gadsby’s special could be described as many different things – an attack on comedy’s sacred cows, an intensely personal exploration of the relationship between jokes and self-worth, a challenge to male comedy fans to rethink their position at the center of comedy’s universe – but the one word that keeps surfacing in culture writing is ‘honest.’ In Nanette, Gadsby shifts from a traditional comedy set into something more, an exploration of why the need to turn the events of her life into a series of punchlines has her rethinking comedy as a career. Gadsby’s assertion that she needs to quit comedy forms the crux of the special, and while the humor never goes away entirely – it is, first and foremost, a stand-up routine – she doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to talking about herself.

The single most important element of Nanette is Gadsby’s rejection of the limitations of comedy when it comes to personal identity. This is something that many media and cultural critics have discussed ad naseum since the comedy special crept into the mainstream in the last week. In an article for BuzzFeed, Shannon Keating praised the special for “speaking to queer women — and, I think, anyone of a marginalized identity — about how we handle the delicate cargo of our own stories, which depend so much upon who hears them, and who understands what’s really at stake when we tell them.” At Slate, Rachel Withers argued that Nanette reveals why “the medium of stand-up is ill-equipped to deal with stories like hers—deep traumas that left lasting damage. It simplifies them, forcing them into a restrictive format.”

The crucial element here, the one highlighted in almost every article you’ll read about Nanette, is that comedians are often compelled to put their own narrative in service of the entertainment of their audience. Their personal traumas – painful coming out stories, sexual assault, and the kind of casual homophobia queer women like Gadsby experience throughout their formative years – should be valued as more than just a vehicle for the amusement of strangers. Nanette almost feels like the marriage of academic writing on comedy and a comedic set itself; Gadsby makes her audience comfortable through the trappings of a traditional comedy set and then pulls the rug out on them, challenging the men in particular to question the form and function of their entertainment. As a result, the audience’s discomfort throughout the special is tangible, a series of pregnant silences that betray how thoroughly Gadsby has upended the comedian/audience dynamic.

And here is where the conversation about male allies comes into play. In the weeks since Nanette dropped on Netflix, the praise for the special – which still dominates the conversation, don’t get me wrong – has also given way to a slight backlash from men who think that the special just wasn’t that funny. Scroll through Twitter or Reddit and you’ll find plenty of people who are willing to admit that it’s fine, it’s just not really comedy; they would prefer we describe Nanette as an indie TED Talk or some kind of public speaking event due to the lack of conventional humor in the set. The cognitive dissonance in this should be obvious to most – men are rejecting an unconventional standup special because it takes men to task for rejecting anything that breaks with their idea of convention – but Nanette also reinforces the importance of participating in conversations, even if it’s just as a listener, when your ‘welcomeness’ is not a priority.

Supporting the women and non-binary people in your life isn’t something you get to do entirely on your own terms; sometimes it means listening to something like Nanette and understanding why you’re being singled out as part of the problem. It’s impossible to hear Hannah Gadsby’s comedy routine and feel particularly welcome as a straight white dude, but like the panelist said, not feeling welcome isn’t at all an invitation to leave. If comedy is your thing, there are countless hours of specials on Netflix for you to choose from, but disengaging with Nanette because you don’t feel like it’s specifically talking to you does a disservice to your efforts at being inclusive. You don’t need to love Nanette – you don’t even need to like it – but if you’re willing to start the special, you owe to yourself and those around you to at least see the difficult conversation through and hear Gadsby’s arguments as to why comedy can often do more harm than good for the people on the stage.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)