Abandoning Self Deprecation: Reflection of Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette”
When I first stumbled across this hour long comedy special on Netflix, I was expecting to laugh and to delight in the fact that an openly gay woman comedian is getting the recognition she deserves. What I wasn’t expecting was to learn about art history, to be reminded how important self love is, and to see someone be so vulnerable, honest and angry in front of such a large audience, in the midst of her own comedy show.
I loved it because it wasn’t a typical stand up show. She didn’t feel obligated to provide the audience with non-stop laughs, just for the sake of it. She challenged both the viewers in the Sydney Opera House, and the viewers watching at home, to have a much deeper experience. Gadsby undoubtedly incited laughter, but she also held back nothing when tackling the intersectional experience of being both a queer and a woman.
It truly was beautiful to witness her “I’ve had enough” moments as she denounced self-deprecating humor, validated her trauma and her anger, and emphasized the power of stories and of healing, in front of an audience that probably expected her to make fun of the exact things she decided to be candid about.
Jokes are fine, and they can arguably bring awareness to certain issues. But to make light of such serious things, in the form of self deprecation, just wasn’t cutting it for Gadsby anymore. She explained herself by saying that “to be self-deprecating when you’re already someone who lives in the margins is not humility, it’s humiliation.”
Humor is a wonderful thing. In my self love journey, laughter has been healing, and learning to laugh at yourself is a good thing, but if you don’t pay attention to those thoughts, it can become counter-intuitive.
I see humor used as a coping mechanism in a LOT of people, including people really close to me. But when we laugh together, I can see how much it hurts underneath that strong exterior. There comes a point where self deprecating humor, like Gadsby explains, changes from being humble to being self destructive, but for an audience. It works in two ways: in those moments, it hurts less, and you draw attention away from your flaws and onto one of your strengths: your ability to tell good jokes. But all you’re doing is degrading yourself in public as a form of denial and entertainment.
I am not intending to make anyone feel badly about themselves and how they deal with their problems, especially people who battle mental illness. I know self deprecating humor all too well. But I’m not as naturally funny, so I’m typically being mean to myself in private; there are no jokes to fill the air, to make it easier to breathe, to make everyone more comfortable. It’s just me and my pain, and the joke is on all of us who think that we don’t deserve to heal, to take up more space, to keep on living, to have real love, to find success, to reclaim our story. The truth is that we are all worthy beyond measure and powerful beyond our own comprehension, and there’s way too many people ready and willing to make fun of us, so why give them the glory of seeing us continue the job?
I think another thing that happens when marginalized people frequently use self deprecating humor is a denial of our identity. We ARE allowed to take up space, and talk about our problems and our oppression, and be proud of who we are, and HEAL, in spite of a society that wants us to stay broken. We are allowed to speak honestly and make people uncomfortable.
We’ve been forced to feel uncomfortable in our own skin and in spaces that are supposed to be safe for our whole lives, we deserve the right to make those people understand the damage they inflict, to make them feel awkward, to make them sit with their own guilt, and stare trauma right in the face.
Another thing Gadsby inadvertently touched on is the concept of privilege, even within marginalized communities. Not everyone has the luxury of being detached from their identity and their trauma. Not everyone can ignore it, or make jokes out of it and be praised for those jokes. Many LGBTQ people, especially young people, are homeless, or being abused, or being forced back into the closet. It’s a luxury to deny who you are and be disconnected from your story.
That being said, I am completely blown away and incredibly proud of what Hannah Gadsby did on stage. She reclaimed her story, in fact, she fiercely owned it, and she decided to make a radical career change to solidify this personal breakthrough. She recognized that her story is not a joke, not a way for the general public to feel better about their participation in or complicity in systemic oppression, and that her story is important and needs to be heard.
There are many comedians that tackle serious issues, like sexual violence, police brutality and racism, but Gadsby, at certain points, changed her demeanor completely and went in for a strikingly serious approach. The audience was silent and fully attentive. The tensions were high. But, as she basically addressed all the white men in the audience, she said “this tension, it’s yours. I am not helping your anymore, because this tension is what ‘not-normals’ carry inside them all the time, because it’s dangerous to be different.”
I LOVE that. I am not helping you anymore. This tension is yours. This is what we feel all the time. It’s time you carry it too. Thank you Hannah, I hope your healing is a beautiful journey and I wish you so much joy in your next adventures, whatever they are. You have made a difference.