Hannah Gadsby Makes It Plain

Instead of going to church this Sunday, I watched Nanette, and it stirred my soul. 

Many habitual viewers of stand-up specials have been flummoxed by the show’s strange genre—by the way it starts with laughter and ends with tears—but for anyone who has preached or sat through sermons, it follows a very familiar form. First you warm up the congregation with stories and chuckles; then you challenge them by condemning their sins; and finally you break open their hearts with your own hard-won testimony, and call for them to meet you at the mourners’ bench. 

In divinity school they taught us to preach the sermon we needed to hear, because others would need to hear it too. That is what Hannah Gadsby has done.

I needed to hear her sermon, I realized, because I am so fucking sick of “feminist” comedy that is about mildly curvy straight white gender-conforming girls’ sense of entitlement to be considered sexy by men, or about their pain when they aren’t—as if the end goal of feminism is, e.g., a slightly broader (literally!) range of white girls getting hit on by celebrity athletes or lusted after in focus groups. This is a kind of comedy that depends on racism and sexism and heterosexism, because the obsessive focus on these particular white girl feelings is so much of what is so wrong with the world in the first place. This “feminism” is fully complicit with Access Hollywood tape misogyny. It is saying “Don’t call me ugly and don’t ignore me! Locker room talk about me too!” 

I benefit every day from the relative protection of being a mildly curvy straight white gender-conforming woman, and I know that any feminism worth fighting for can never start or end with me. I’ve had a safe and lucky life compared to Hannah Gadsby. I have a very different relationship to anger and trauma. But like her I am living in a misogynistic world that sometimes threatens to break me apart, and she is preaching the word I need to hear. She carries proof in every psychic scar of the truth that more of us need to claim: Men’s applause will never save us. Men’s approval is not the point.

Gadsby doesn’t turn to art history in order to make an argument that more body types should be considered hot. She is not angling for a more capacious male gaze. Instead she is fighting fiercely for soul survival, not just for herself but for everyone else—the ability to break through frozen pain and shame into a fuller story. And, on a visceral level, she wants vulnerable people to be safe from terror and violence and needless suffering. Safe from being shattered in the first place, and able to mend if they have already been broken.

The close-ups of teacups that frame her message, the lovingly-filmed rituals of coming back home, recall the opening routine of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a show memorialized as a form of ministry in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? These domestic routines take on a sacramental quality. Gadsby quietly settles her cup in its saucer and cuddles her dogs on the couch. Mr. Rogers changes into his comfortable shoes, or washes his feet in a tub of cool water and invites his neighbor to join him. Such practices of bodily consolation are a sensory antidote to bodily violence. They make manifest the messages of vulnerability and resilience that are moving people to tears in the time of Trump.

What’s especially awful about this awful time, as Gadsby implicitly testifies, is not simply that violent people are in power, but that an overwhelming number of the people surrounding us are perfectly happy that this is the case. In such a perilous situation, it is pointless to keep trying to placate and please.

All her life, Gadsby has been making jokes as a desperate kind of emotional labor to protect herself from the threat of violence, but now that she is in her prime, she has rebuilt herself, and she is going on strike. She is remaking the genres of stand-up and sermon, and the truth is reverberating in her voice, and in our hearts, and in the world.

Briallen Hopper is editor of KtB, and author of Hard to Love: Essays And Confessions (Bloomsbury, 2019). She teaches writing at Queens College, City University of New York, and holds a PhD in English from Princeton. Learn more at her website, www.briallenhopper.com, or follow her on Twitter @briallenhopper.