Essays

Hannah Gadsby’s Exquisite Performance In Calling Out Artists Who Abuse Their Power

It is up to consumers of art to ensure that Nanette‘s contribution to the #MeToo discourse does not get put on one metaphoric shelf while abusive artists persist on another, heroism preserved.

Hannah Gadsby in “Nanette” (2018) (screenshot via YouTube)

Seventeen minutes into her new Netflix special, titled Nanette, Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby announces her decision to leave comedy: “I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor, and I don’t want to do that anymore,” she says. “Because do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.”

In this exquisitely structured performance, Gadsby, who has a degree in art history, stands to force an unexpected reckoning in the comedy world, the art world, and beyond. She unpacks the tricks of the standup trade, reflecting on the ways in which artists and comedians often reinforce, rather than challenge, entrenched power structures and oppressive cultural narratives. Her performance could change the game for the comedy genre’s limited framework. If The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling was a revelation, Nanette is a revolution.

Gadsby grew up in Tasmania, where homosexuality was a crime until 1997, and where some 70% of her community believed homosexuals were subhuman pedophiles. She learned to hate homosexuals well before realizing she was one. “You don’t get to just flip a switch on that,” she says in Nanette. “You internalize that homophobia, and hate yourself … soaking in shame.”

As an adult, every joke about coming out reopened those wounds, preventing resolution. “Punch lines need trauma because punchlines need tension, and tension feeds trauma,” Gadsby says. Her exceptional control of such tension, she claims, derives from her lifelong sense that she is the tension.

Hannah Gadsby in “Nanette” (2018) (screenshot via YouTube)

Gadsby confesses in Nanette that she is unsure what she will do next. “My CV is pretty much a cock and balls drawn under a fax number,” she quips, while lamenting the lack of job opportunities available to an ex-comedian with an art history degree. But art history has taught her all she needs to know about her place in the world: “I don’t have one,” she says.

Gadsby’s thoughts on trauma and art history merge in a powerful reflection on her own experiences with abuse and on the abusive behavior of some of history’s powerful artists, such as Pablo Picasso, who had an infamous sexual affair with a 17-year-old girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter. “Picasso said, ‘It was perfect, I was in my prime and she was in her prime,’” Gadsby says. Picasso’s behavior is often framed as evidence of his magnetism and unbridled passion, despite the fact that, in France in 1927, corruption of a minor was a crime punishable by imprisonment. At one point, Picasso moved closer to a children’s camp that Walter attended, and would pull her away from pool activities to a cabana for sex. “Our mistake,” Gadsby notes, “was to invalidate the perspective of a 17-year-old girl because we believed her potential was never going to equal his.”

Marie-Thérèse Walter in 1927 from the book Picasso: Creator and Destroyer (1988) by Arianna Huffington (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

The New Yorker recently deemed Nanette the perfect comedy performance for the #MeToo movement. But it is up to consumers of art to ensure that Gadsby’s contribution to the #MeToo discourse does not get put on one metaphoric shelf while abusive artists persist on another, heroism preserved. Artists who abuse power should, at minimum, carry a big asterisk next to their names in books, classrooms, and museums. Great art alone does not justify the actions of abusive and morally corrupt men. If Picasso’s cabana series, painted between 1927 and 1938, is inspired by the sexual abuse of a minor, that should be included in contextual descriptions. What institution would be so bold? Why is the notion of including such contextual information considered bold in the first place? Do the creative contributions of an abusive artist somehow offset the damage he does? Picasso once said that women were “goddesses and doormats,” which, as Gadsby points out, echoes art history’s lose-lose dichotomy of women represented as virgins or whores. Gadsby’s critiques of both comedy and art history demonstrate that these respective disciplines, the institutions that uphold them, and the audiences that consume them often leave marginalized people with few desirable opportunities to be heard.

Pablo Picasso, “Portrait of Marie-Thérèse in Red Beret” (1937) (from the book Picasso the Real Family Story (2004) by Olivier Widmaier Picasso (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

“I love angry white man comedy. It’s so funny, it’s hilarious. They’re adorable. Why are they angry? If they are having a tough time, the rest of us are goners,” Gadsby jokes. Several times in Nanette, she critiques the male voices that dominate comedy, punctuating the tension with comments like “just jokes” or “lighten up,” appropriating the average comedian’s default, flippant response to accusations of bigotry or offensiveness. In just two words, Gadsby illuminates how, since time immemorial, men have gotten to decide who is pathological. Just ask Zelda Fitzgerald or Vivian Eliot, who died in mental institutions, where they were placed by their husbands. You know who owns their written work today? The estates of the men that discarded them. Even women artists who retained their own creative legacies are often still overshadowed by men. For example, the books of Martha Gellhorn, the famous American war correspondent and Depression-era journalist, can be found next to her ex-husband Ernest Hemingway’s novels in your local library. She published before she married Hemingway and after they divorced, yet her story is now a subtitle to his. As Kate Zambreno wrote in Heroines, “the patriarch decides on the form of communication. Decides on the language. The patriarch is the one who rewrites.”

In the last 10 minutes of the special, Gadsby addresses the men in the crowd: “Fellas, you don’t have a monopoly on the human condition … the story is as you have told it. Power belongs to you and if you can’t handle criticism … without violence, you have to wonder if you are up to the task of being in charge.” She continues: “I’m afraid of men. If I’m the only woman in a room full of men, I am afraid. And if you think that’s unusual, you’re not speaking to the women in your life.”

Her argument recalls James Baldwin’s 1968 appearance on the Dick Cavett show, in which Baldwin said:

“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel…I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions…I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me — that doesn’t matter — but I know I’m not in their union…I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to. Now this is the evidence…You want me to make an act of faith…on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”

Like Baldwin, Gadsby suggests that, if a voice is only heard when it expresses self-hate or opposes self-interest, then it is no voice at all.

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