Updated: Jul 23, 2018
If comedy is “the art of tension diffusion,” as Hannah Gadsby puts it, it’s a different sort of “tension diffusion” she's after – the art, and act, not of alleviating tension but of spreading it. Where to?
When I’m lonely I sometimes seek solace in standup comedy, and Netflix is happy to provide. And so it was that last Monday I watched Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s show, Nanette [spoilers ahead]. It was fun, until it wasn’t, becoming sober, grim, infuriating, frustrating, and thoroughly thought provoking – in short, I loved it. And now, as usual, I can’t help but wonder, what it all means.
Pablo Picasso, Maya with her Doll, 1938
[Maya, Marie-Thérès's daughter, named her doll Nanette,
and one could imagine Gadsby knowing that...]
As Nanette lingers, the laughs dwindle. This inverse proportion can serve a death blow to any typical standup comedy, but Nanette is not your typical comedy show. In fact, it might not be a comedy show at all. This realization may subvert our experience of Nanette – its appeal and potency lie partly in the surprise: we do not expect the dramatic twist it takes halfway through. But shock-effect aside, and I imagine at least some viewers already know where they’re heading, Gadsby’s messages are important, and go beyond any genre-defying “theatre” (which is how Gadsby herself calls this show).
The Missing Piece
We don’t expect the dramatic twist, but ominous signs are there from the start. Gadsby explains: “I named it [the show] at around the time I’d met a woman called Nanette, who I thought was very interesting, So interesting… ‘Nanette,’ I thought, ‘I reckon I can squeeze a good hour of laughs out of you, Nanette, I reckon.’ But... turns out, no.”
It’s funny (and of course, a written script cannot convey Gadsby’s rich presentation), but the pain is hidden in plain sight, with a hint of anger (in a later interview, Gadsby said she felt Nanette looked at her like she’s “scum of the earth”). We’ll hear no more of Nanette, but the alteration between laughter and anger will become manifest.
Gadsby imparts the art of laughter: “A joke is simply two things, it needs two things to work. A setup and a punch line. I make you all feel tense, and then I make you laugh, and you’re like, ‘Thanks for that. I was feeling a bit tense’.” Releasing tension is what it’s all about, and better together: “Laughter is very good for the human. ‘Cause when you laugh, you release tension… It’s even better to laugh with other people because laughter is infectious. You stand to release more tension when you laugh with other people.”
Nanette might be a social event, but it’s a personal matter for Gadsby, as for many comedians who ridicule their pain to dull it. “I’ve been learning the art of tension diffusion since I was a child,” she tells us, “it was a survival tactic.” And for good reason. Tasmania, Gadsby’s island homeland, features a “frighteningly small gene pool” alongside mass homophobia: “Homosexuality was a crime – and a sin.”
That’s enough to crush any young girl who sinfully steps outside the bounds of what is socially normal, and divinely right. Gadsby amusingly recalls when a guy threatened her for hitting on his girlfriend only to realize she’s a woman and go, “Sorry, I got confused. I thought you were a fucking faggot... trying to crack on to my girlfriend.” As a child, Gadsby, now proudly lesbian, found comfort in the televised pride parade, though that too may not have been a perfect fit: “‘Gosh. Don’t they love to dance and party?’ I used to sit there and watch it and go, ‘Where... where do the quiet gays... go?’”
Off to make comedy, perhaps. But no more. “I built a career out of self-deprecating humor… and I don’t want to do that anymore,” Gadsby says, “Because do you understand what self-deprecation means from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.” For Gadsby, I think, humor is no longer a humble way to tame the shame; instead, by turning pain to entertainment, comedy plays into the norms that created that sense of shame to begin with. In particular, Gadsby acutely feels that that shame wasn’t about what she does, but about who she is. “I didn't have to invent the tension. I was the tension,” she tells us, and it has devoured her sense of self, and self-worth:
I didn’t come out to my grandma last year because I'm still ashamed of who I am. Not intellectually. But, right there, I still have shame… What you do is you internalize that homophobia and you learn to hate yourself. Hate yourself to the core. I sat soaking in shame... in the closet, for ten years. Because the closet can only stop you from being seen. It is not shame-proof. When you soak a child in shame, they cannot develop the neurological pathways that carry thought... you know, carry thoughts of self-worth... Self-hatred is only ever a seed planted from outside in.
Gadsby concludes: “It is time... I stopped... comedy.” What, then, if not that? She takes a cue from her mother, who, in retrospect, dared look at her own shame, and guilt, telling Hannah: “The thing I regret is that I raised you as if you were straight. I didn't know any different. I am so sorry. I knew... well before you did... that your life was going to be so hard. I knew that, and I wanted it more than anything in the world not to be the case. And I know I made it worse, because I wanted you to change because I knew the world wouldn’t…”
But Gadsby seems determined to help change the world by changing – not who she is, but how she deals with the world. “I need to tell my story properly,” and that means stepping, yet again, out of bounds. If a joke has two parts, ending with a punchline, a true story has another, third, part: preserving the tension, serving the punch – right to our face. This is the missing piece in the puzzle of her life, and Gadsby wants to place it firmly, funny or not.
A “callback,” Wikipedia taught me, is “a joke that refers to one previously told in the set… usually used at or near the end of a set, as the aim is to create the biggest laugh at the end of a comic set.” Gadsby calls back not for laughs, but for pain, and anger. “Do you remember that story about that young man who almost beat me up?” She asks us. It was a funny story, but – and because it was – incomplete:
I couldn’t tell the part of the story where that man realized his mistake. And he came back. And he said, “Oh, no, I get it. You’re a lady faggot. I’m allowed to beat the shit out of you,” and he did! He beat the shit out of me and nobody stopped him. And I didn’t... report that to the police, and I did not take myself to hospital, and I should have. And you know why I didn’t? It’s because I thought that was all I was worth. And that is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate. And this tension, it’s yours. I am not helping you anymore.
“You,” that is – mainly men, that “sub-category of human” who has appropriated power and should bear responsibility for abusing it. Could this accusation itself become a cause for soaking [men] in shame, giving [women] permission to hate them? Gadsby says she does not want that, at least the latter part. “I’m not a man-hater, but I’m afraid of men… Because it was a man who sexually abused me when I was a child. It was a man who beat the shit out of me when I was 17, my prime. It was two men who raped me when I was barely in my twenties.” It’s not misandry (hatred of men) but androphobia (fear of men) which breeds, and feeds on, Gadsby’s anger. If comedy is “the art of tension diffusion,” as she puts it, it’s a different sort of “tension diffusion” Gadsby is now after – the art, and act, not of alleviating tension but of spreading it. Where to?
Dick flowers and Sunflowers
Gadsby, yet again, ventures into an unexpected terrain – art. “The history of western art is just the history of men painting women like they’re flesh vases for their dick flowers,” she sums up, “art history taught me there’s only ever been two types of women. A virgin or a whore…”
Facetious and troubling, which I guess is precisely what Gadsby has in mind. Is this really what art’s all about? (and why just western art?) I wonder if Gadsby, who graduated in art history, wrestled with her demons most acutely in this domain – where creative beauty has indeed been dominated by men, often objectifying women.
It is also here that she allows hatred, individuated, in: “I don’t like Picasso. I fucking hate him,” for his own hatred – of women: “Picasso suffered... the mental illness of misogyny,” which is all the more sickening “if you’re a heterosexual man. Because if you hate what you desire, do you know what that is? Fucking tense!”
Too tense, perhaps, for Picasso, who once said: “Every time I change wives I should burn the last one. That way I'd be rid of them. They wouldn't be around to complicate my existence. Maybe, that would bring back my youth, too. You kill the woman and you wipe out the past she represents.” And sure, the dude invented Cubism, freshly combining multiple perspectives in a single painting, but as Gadsby sharply asks, “Any of those perspectives a woman’s?”
On his affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, seventeen when they met, Picasso said, “It was perfect. I was in my prime, she was in her prime.” Gadsby retorts by stating the (should-have-been) obvious: “A 17-year-old girl is just never, ever, ever in her prime!” There you go, she bitterly sums, “the greatest artist of the twentieth century… Let’s make art great again, guys.”
Still, while we darkly paint Patriarchy on our canvas, drawing a connecting, misogynistic, line between Picasso and Trump, perhaps we should state another obvious, that “nobody’s perfect,” that Picasso did not end up burning his wives, that he and Walter may well have been passionately in love, that Walter, for Picasso, “saved his life,” and, well, helped him move beyond Cubism…
Lydia Gasman, a renowned Picasso scholar, details his burst of vengeful, sometimes virulent, words, concluding that Picasso’s “philosophy of revenge as a sacred restoration of justice evolved from a philosophy of love. He hated, because he loved.” Could this misogynist also love, not just himself and his work? Picasso felt so. He describes his relationship with Marie-Thérèse as the “veritable and concrete history of a peerless love, fresh like a rose in the rosebush smiling to the sun,” believing they embody the “most perfect image of the infinite/I live in her and she lives in me.” He writes to Marie-Thérèse: “I am so content of belonging to you, so much to you— whom I love so much—my friend.”
“Power and money, art is always there,” Gadsby notes, but whatever we may think of Picasso’s affair with Marie-Thérèse, there was also love and beauty – diffusing tension (both ways) – as she inspired some of Picasso’s most penetrating paintings [for example, Picasso’s Girl before a Mirror, we featured in a recent post].
Pablo Picasso, Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, 1932
Overall, is objectifying people, men and women alike, truly such a heinous crime? We all do it occasionally, whether we admit it or not, not least in sex and art (including the art of laughter). We occasionally do it to ourselves as well (selfie, anyone?). The trouble is not an occasional objectification, but its potential context – a constant dehumanization. What makes a selfie morally permissible (though troubling in other respects), is that we choose to turn ourselves, for that brief shutter speed, into our appearance – into things, often “sharing” with others those objects to showcase our subjects: here is me seemingly having fun – see what a fun person I am... When we photograph others, paint them, take pleasure in them – if they choose it, reason it, act upon it, and take responsibility for it – such objectification may manifest, not annul, human agency and autonomy. Take freedom out of the equation, and objectification becomes dehumanization. Painting a willing, naked, woman, is one thing; going about treating women as if they exist for my pleasure is quite another. Trouble is, the former can encourage the latter.
True, the more powerful may well be more prone to this slippery slope, but the powerless may be also tempted to turn others, and themselves, into things. Gadsby firmly asserts “I can position myself as a victim,” but “I am not a victim.” And that’s important, since a culture of victimhood is a culture of (self-)dehumanization. The etymology of “victim” as “a creature killed as a religious sacrifice” is telling; a victim has no choice, it’s a (dead) thing. But (living) humans always have a choice. This is why I find Gadsby’s matter-of-fact statement, “homosexuality’s clearly not a choice,” troubling: Human sexuality is (also) a choice. Homosexuality is not wrong, let alone sinful, not because one cannot do otherwise, but precisely because one has every right to pursue her sexual freedom, alone, and with others who follow their freedom.
We may readily doubt whether Picasso followed that path of mutual freedom, and for Gadsby it’s a good enough reason to discard his art. But she doesn’t seem to like it that much anyway: “How about you take Picasso's name off his little paintings and see how much his doodles are worth at auction? Fucking nothing! Nobody owns a circular Lego nude, they own a Picasso!” Perhaps so, but is that an indictment of Picasso’s work or of the capitalist state of the art?
Well, beauty in the eyes of the beholder and all that jazz, but Gadsby and I are on the same page when it comes to Van Gogh. Whence the grace and delight of Sunflowers? Gadsby dismisses mental instability as a possible wellspring of creativity [an ongoing matter of debate], instead arguing that “perhaps we have the sunflowers precisely because... Van Gogh medicated” [a cool, but weak, theory].
Still, if patriarchy disqualifies artists, and their work, what shall we do with Vincent, who sometimes expressed less than full-fledged feminist views in his moving letters to his brother, Theo, writing, for example, that “women do not always show in their thoughts the energy and elasticity of men, who are disposed towards reflection and analysis.” And (yet?) in another letter he writes, “I cannot live without love, without a woman. I would not value life at all if there were not something infinite, something deep, something real. Every woman at every age can, if she loves and is a good woman, gives a man, not the infinity of a moment, but a moment of infinity.”
The Vanishing Point
But what moment can, and should, a woman give herself – and this world? A moment of laughter, perhaps, but of the better sort. “Do you know what should be the target of our jokes at the moment?” Gadsby asks, “Our obsession with reputation. We’re obsessed. We think reputation is more important than anything else, including humanity.” But comedians have failed the task becoming equally obsessed with appearance, Gadsby says, mentioning Bill Cosby (but not Louis C.K.), and bleakly sums: “I will never flourish. But this is why... I must quit comedy. Because the only way... I can tell my truth and put tension in the room is with anger.”
Shall we then substitute standup fury for standup comedy, re-enacting the Two Minutes Hate (in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), against the enemies of the gender? In one of the most poignant, and astute, moments of the show, Gadsby disavows such intentions:
I am angry, and I believe I've got every right to be angry! But what I don't have a right to do is to spread anger. Because anger, much like laughter, can connect a room full of strangers like nothing else. But anger, even if it’s connected to laughter, will not... relieve tension. Because anger is a tension. It is a toxic, infectious... tension. And it knows no other purpose than to spread blind hatred, and I want no part of it.
I was moved, but equally wary, by these words. Gadsby seems painfully aware of how dangerous the act of anger can be, and yet, she has reenacted Nanette again and again (the Netflix show is not a one-time thing). It may well be for the best – let the anger linger; it can be cathartic, as Gadsby herself discovered: “When I started performing it, I was a lot angrier. I think it was part of the grieving process, for a while I was genuinely distressed. Near the end I’ve learned to be emotional without being distressed. I think I reached a point of emotional maturity near the end of it.”
But to reach that maturity, Gadsby’s three-part-story desperately needed a fourth part, another missing piece, moving beyond anger…
I don’t want to unite you with laughter or anger. I just needed my story heard, my story felt and understood by individuals with minds of their own. Because, like it or not, your story... is my story. And my story... is your story. I don't want my story defined by anger. All I can ask is just please help me take care of my story. Do you know why we have the sunflowers? It's not because Vincent van Gogh suffered. It's because Vincent van Gogh had a brother who loved him. Through all the pain, he had a tether, a connection to the world. And that... is the focus of the story we need. Connection.
And Gadsby is brave enough to connect, perhaps even half-heartedly reconcile, with the one she hates: “ironically, I believe Picasso was right. I believe we could paint a better world if we learned how to see it from all perspectives, as many perspectives as we possibly could.”
I couldn’t agree more. Picture yourself two lines that run parallel in real life (say the lines of a railroad) and watch them converge ahead of you. In perspective art, this convergence on the horizon is called “a vanishing point.” If the art of laughter and the act of anger converge, it’s that connection point, that horizon, that we should seek.
But the convergence runs deeper than this. Perspectivism is not a one-way street; it ought to involve all human participants. Margaret Atwood famously commented, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” If she’s right, Nanette shows why there’s so much inter-gender fear and fury going on these days. But early on in the show, still in the fun part, Gadsby tells us the most simple, beautiful, fact: “Did you know human men and human women have more in common... than they don’t? Did you know that?”
We ought to know. We should hold on to that deeper convergence, the furthest vanishing point, lest we let it truly disappear.