“Nevermind,” the bollocks, and “Nanette”: a short history of cultural sea-change.

When I was a young teenager, I saw the Sex Pistols play their final show at Winterland auditorium in San Francisco. Some twelve or so years later I saw the band Nirvana debut songs from their second album Nevermind at a small club in the same city. Both times I knew exactly what I was seeing when I saw it: a rip in the cultural zeitgeist being torn out right in front of me. And when I saw “Nanette,” the Netflix comedy special starring Hannah Gadsby in an hour long monologue recorded at the Sydney Opera House, I felt that feeling again.

No no, it’s not Nanette, it’s Hannah Gadsby

Let me be clear. Like Hannah Gadsby’s mother, I don’t like standup comedy. (Like me, she thinks it’s “too shouty,” she told a talk show host.) Nor am I naturally drawn to LGBTQ narratives (though I like to think I am on their side). “Nanette” is different though. If you can’t find some way into its perspective, than there’s something seriously wrong with you.

I came to “Nanette” cold, without any preconceptions, and it’s a good thing I did, since after I finished watching it, I read a few articles about it, and they all reduced it to a rehash of its best jokes and an overall summation that it was about a gay woman’s trauma the hands of the straight world. Honestly? I’d never have turned it on if I’d read those things, raves or not.

Here’s the thing about “Nanette” though. Despite its grim subject matter, it’s the most uplifting thing I’ve seen in the past two years, and the only thing I’ve seen that gave me hope for a non-Trumpian future. And I must not be alone in thinking that, because this is how great it is: the tweets about it are so universally positive that one talk show had to change their regular feature, in which celebrities read nasty comments on their act aloud, from “mean tweets” to “sweet tweets.” Imagine how good a thing has to be for that to happen. That’s like world peace/curing cancer/James Bond good. It’s like The Simpsons good.

That’s why I think “Nanette” is the Sex Pistols of this era, the Nirvana, or the Elvis, or the Beatles. She is, not to be too twee, like Picasso inventing cubism, and as in that case and the others I mention, it’s not because what she’s saying hasn’t been said before. The Sex Pistols copied the New York Dolls, Nirvana copied the Pistols, and Picasso was steeped in impressionism and African art. So it’s not her message that’s new, it’s the way she said it and where that has driven it into the public’s consciousness.

In 1964, the same year that both the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act were brought to law, Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message.” What he meant was that ultimately it’s not the content of a message that is significant, it’s the method by which you receive it. In other words, it’s not what happens in a room lit up by a light bulb that matters, it’s that the room is lit up at all that is making a difference; whatever it was, without the light bulb, it couldn’t have happened. Similarly, what makes “Nanette” so powerful isn’t that it is telling us that men have silencing women and that gender politics is a powerful tool of oppression — we’ve known that for ages — but that it was said on Netflix. At this singular time in our history, the embrace of “Nanette” on an instantaneous media platform that encourages re-watching, indicates a sea-change in the zeitgeist that cannot be overestimated.

Culture always takes a long time to change. There are people who still routinely use the N word, who don’t understand the importance of the Sex Pistols and Nirvana, and even some who don’t get Picasso. But their existence doesn’t lessen the impact of those artists, and the “Nanette” effect will be the same: unassailable. From now on, whenever a man says, “all she needs is a good shagging,” or, “you’re too sensitive!” or, “But I was just joking!” about scenes of non-males being humiliated, a growing number of people will shake their head and roll their eyes with disgust. To blame a victim of sexual assault is going to become the gesture only of boors and crackers, a signal of mental or moral deficiency. I say it, and I would know: Nevermind, the bollocks, and “Nanette.”