Hannah Gadsby's Nanette, Trauma as Humor, and Epistemic Responsibility
This essay examines the question of whether trauma has a non-exploitative place in marginalized comedy. It analyzes this question through the lens of Hannah Gabsby’s 2018 Netflix performance, Nanette, and explores two questions: (1) if marginalized trauma in the context of comedy extends the traditional framework for evaluating comedy and (2) if audiences are responsible for being “good consumers” of traumatic narratives from marginalized performers. To do this, this essay considers three analyses of Gadsby's Nanette offered, respectively, by Rebecca Krefting, Peter Moskowitz, and Fury. It argues that a new framework for thinking about marginalized trauma in comedy ought to start with the responsibilities of the audience and suggests that we can begin to think about what this means by looking to Lorraine Code's concept of "epistemic responsibility."
In 2018, the streaming service Netflix hosted Australian comedian, Hannah Gadsby’s, one-woman show, Nanette. Gadsby delivers a unique and transformative performance that both pushed the boundaries of stand-up comedy as well as the extent to which a performer can hold an audience accountable for what they choose to laugh at and why they are comfortable laughing at all. As a gender non-conforming public figure, Gadsby reads both herself and her performance as a story of inclusion, i.e., a recognizably diverse body who gets to tell a public story, and exclusion, i.e., a recognizably diverse body who must minimize and/or diminish that story as the price of inclusion. Gadsby tells many stories during her performance in Nanette. For example, early into the performance, she humorously discusses a time where she was mistaken for a man by another man and threatened for talking to the man’s girlfriend. Upon discovering that Gadsby is a woman, the man backs off. “Oh, sorry!” he exclaims, followed by “I don’t hit women.” And now the audience is allowed to laugh at both the man’s mistake and, presumably, at Gadsby’s failure to live up to the heteronormative status quo. That is, the joke invokes the assumption that “women are women and men are men” and identities that fall outside of this gender binary are merely fodder for jokes. Only later in the performance as Gadsby retells the joke do we, the audience, understand that this was not the full story. In the full story, the man realizes his mistake, calls Gadsby a “lady faggot,” and brutally assaults her. She explains as much to the audience:
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 (Olb and Parry 2018).
So what are we to make of this telling and retelling of the same experience within the context of the performance? For Gadsby, it serves as a test of sorts. “I decided to see how people would react to a story that I have made funny--but also reveal that it isn’t really a funny story, “ she notes, “That is what Nanette is--to show how much you have to adapt in order to make an audience laugh” (Krefting 2019, 166). In her performance, Gadsby explicitly analyzes the cost of “adapting” in order to tell one’s story versus being able to tell one’s story with dignity. She repeatedly expresses the need to quit comedy because “punchlines need trauma” and making jokes out of trauma is not cost-free:
I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor and I don’t want to do that anymore. 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. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or anybody who identifies with me. If that means that my comedy career is over, then, so be it (Olb and Parry 2018).
As American Studies scholar, Rebecca Krefting rightly puts it, “For Gadsby, comedy as performance practice has problems. It encourages self-deprecation, which she insists doubles as ‘humiliation.’ It also forces comics to generate humorous resolutions to any tension created, which can function to diminish the serious nature of social critique” (2019, 166).
Some critics argue, however, that we ought to ask if Gadsby is “doing comedy” at all? Or is she delivering a type of meta-comedy commentary? Or is she merely trafficking in trauma? Krefting suggests that we may be able to situate Gadsby’s Nanette within an extended framework of feminist comedy studies by amending the framework to capture the politics of performance as opposed to focusing on women’s personal empowerment. This is because the idea of personal empowerment is challenged by the real-world, social, political, and material conditions in which Gadsby, and other marginalized performers, find themselves in off-stage. As Krefting claims, citing comedian Laurie Kilmartin, “the moment a female comic steps offstage, her power dissipates. She is a woman, again” (2019, 168). Instead Nanette may point the way for new feminist analysis of comedy that can “account for the diverse ways people produce, perform, and consume comedy” (2019, 170).
However, not all of the reviews of Nanette have been good reviews and not everyone sees the use of trauma in the context of humor as transformative as opposed to opportunistic or inappropriate. Peter Moskowitz argues in “The ‘Nanette’ Problem” that Gadsby uses trauma primarily for entertainment and not enlightenment. Unlike “real” transgressive comics, they argue, Gadsby uses trauma for the purpose of making her “straight, cis viewers feel comfortably woke” (Moskowitz 2018). And writer, Fury, argues that Gadsby’s “performance of trauma” enables a kind of “emotional tourism” that “undermines [her] attempt to hold privileged viewers accountable” (2019, 46). Fury further notes: “Gadsby’s pain is now a product, suspended in time and easily downloadable. It makes me sick to think of the power this gives straight people. They, too, can now play god with her; to press pause, rewind and make her perform suffering for them whenever they like” (2019, 46).
In this essay, I take seriously the question of whether trauma has a non-exploitative place in Gadsby’s comedic performance. First, I consider Krefting’s argument that Gadsby’s use of trauma in Nanette may open up new feminist analyses of comedy where marginalized comedy can serve less as a source of empowerment than as a public place for thinking about the “networks of power that reproduce social inequalities and perpetuate masculinist comic traditions” (2019, 170). Second, I consider the related claims by Moskowitz and Fury that Gadsby’s performance is problematic because it renders queer trauma superficial and fails to hold the audience accountable for that trauma. They both argue that audiences ought to be held responsible for the pain and trauma shared during comedic performances by marginalized artists. They should not be made comfortable and they should not be able to look away so easily. To this, and lastly, I suggest that audiences do have an epistemic responsibility to be “good consumers” of marginalized comedy. Using Lorraine Code’s conception of “epistemic responsibility,” I suggest that audiences are morally responsible for the content of their beliefs and thus are responsible for understanding the socio-political origins of the traumatic experiences relayed in the context of marginalized comedy. To put it plainly, if you are going to laugh at the jokes, and bare witness to accounts of trauma, then you need to understand the framework of experience that gives rise to the joke, or the traumatic experience, in the first place.
Feminist scholars have long discussed the role of women’s comedy in subversive politics and critiquing the status quo. As Alison Fraiberg notes in “Between the Laughter: Bridging Feminist Studies through Women’s Stand-Up Comedy,” “feminist critics who study women’s comedy in general have emphasized its subversive potential” (1994, 319). Fraiberg, like Krefting, cites the work of Nancy Walker and Regina Barecca who claim, respectively, that women’s comedy often presents a “subversive protest” against the real, lived experiences of power inequality for women as well as a way for women to “reflect the absurdity of the dominant ideology while undermining the very basis for its discourse” (1994, 319). This is achieved, at least in part, by juxtaposing real-world versus staged, or rhetorical, marginality where “performing marginality positions women’s comic performances as emancipatory and oppositional” (2019, 167). However, as Krefting argues echoing Gadsby, “the optics of stand-up comedy--an individual commanding everyone’s attention--inflates the amount of power women actually have and ignore ways that performing comedy may negatively affect a woman’s self-worth” (2019, 167). One could argue that this negative aspect pertains not only to women but to all performers with marginalized identities. The power that may be conferred by the stage and by the attention of the audience is deeply temporal and often fails to reflect the real-world power relations that dictate life beyond the stage. It is this real-world power differential that limits the transgressive power of marginalized comedy.
Consider the description that Jessie Lafrance Dunbar, gives as to why the African-American comedian, Dave Chappelle, left his wildly popular Comedy Central television show in 2005. Dunbar describes this controversial move - marked by the abandonment of over $50 million dollars in pay - through Chappelle’s interview with talk show host, Oprah Winfrey. Dunbar explains Chappelle’s growing discomfort with his television show through the experience of a white employee laughing at a comedy sketch involving a pixie in blackface:
This employee, Chappelle asserted, was laughing at rather than with him. Although he intended the mark of blackface on the pixie to denote a physical representation of the N-word, it quickly became apparent to Chappelle that “the way people use television is subjective”...his employee chose to accept the stereotype of black inferiority that the pixie represented rather than reading the pixie as an indictment of racialized systems of oppression” (2017, 79).
Similar to Gadsby’s critique of the alleged power of the stage, here again the stage obfuscates real-world power inequality. More than that, it turns the pain and trauma of racial discrimination and racial oppression into pointed and uncomfortable laughs. As Chappelle has noted on many occasions, it was ultimately not clear that his mostly white audience was laughing with him or at him. We can see the limitations of subversive comedy not only in terms of what the audience laughs at but also in terms of what those laughs mean for the person telling the jokes. For Chappelle it meant walking away from the stage, from lucrative pay, and from an environment that bordered on de facto minstrelsy. For Gadsby, it means considering leaving comedy in order to tell her story without resorting to self-humiliation.
Krefting argues that the transgressive power of marginalized comedy is limited by both the form itself as well as by the external realities that dictate who gets to participate in the production and dissemination of comedy as a whole. Because the “deployment and reception of satire is gendered and raced,” she claims, “satire is a tool most successfully wielded by the powerful” (2019, 99). Thus it is critical to assess the power structures that shape who gets to be onstage, who controls the venues, and who the audiences are for the most popular comedic performances. That said, this type of analysis does little to address whether the use of pain and trauma in marginalized comedy, be it Chappelle’s pixie in blackface or Gadsby’s account of assault, is appropriate in the first place. Audiences have applauded Gadsby’s courage and have sympathized with Chappelle’s concerns about racist tropes, but what should an audience do with these confessions within the context of humor? What are they responsible for? As Krefting aptly notes, “there are ways that satire, because it bends to the humorous, mitigates personal responsibility” (2019, 98).
Writer Peter Moskowitz argues that Gadsby’s use of trauma is problematic because she is too eager to let her audience off the hook for what they are laughing (or not laughing) at. That is, she mutes the question of audience responsibility. Moskowitz claims that Gadsby is too reluctant to tap into real anger (“I have a right to be angry,” she says, “but not to spread it”) and too quick to deny that self-deprecation can be a tool for communicating one’s pain (“It’s not humility. It’s humiliation”) (Olb and Parry 2018; 2018). They argue that Gadsby blunts the force of her social criticism by making her comedy too polite and maneuvering her trauma into an easily digestible, and thus easily forgettable, form for her audience. How, they insist, is this any different from humiliation? “I don’t see how reliving your trauma on a stage is any different than ‘humiliating’ yourself for comedy,” they write, “both are exploiting personal tragedy for an audience” (Moskowitz 2018). For Moskowitz, it is the “reliving” of trauma without the anger, without the holding power to account, that is the most problematic issue with Gadsby’s comedy. They imply that the use of trauma uncoupled from anger runs dangerously close to respectability politics. Gadsby appears to police marginalized voices by claiming that anger is toxic and even those who can “position [themselves] as a victim” have no right to spread it (Moskowitz 2018). “Gadsby completely lets her audience off the hook,” they claim, “transforming justified queer rage...that is often ignored by the mainstream press and the rest of society...into a fault within herself, and by extention all of us” (Moskowitz 2018). Moskowitz argues that marginalized anger deserves to be heard and not minimized for the comfort of others:
As a queer person, I want my anger to be heard. I believe my anger constructive, even if it’s self-deprecating, and even if you don’t get it. By telling us we need to challenge our anger, sublimate it into love and understanding lest we destroy the world, Gadsby is not challenging her audience, she’s challenging her fellow queers to be more respectful, more civil, to display our pain in ways that cis, straight people can appreciate... (Moskowitz 2018).
Fury’s article on “trauma tourism” also takes on this concern with the potential superficial role of queer trauma in Nanette. They argue: “It is no coincidence that Nanette - a show driven by [Gadsby’s] own trauma - is the show that has captured the eye of the mainstream...this type of content is a form of ‘trauma tourism’ that [audiences] have been trained not to question….” (Fury 2019, 46). Although Fury does not share Moskowitz’s skepticism about Gadsby intent, or their skepticism about Gadsby’s refusal to use anger as a device, they do share the same concern about the ability of her performance to hold audiences to account. Fury argues that it is the televised medium as opposed to live performance that allows the audience to effectively tune out: “Instead of Gadsby commanding a room, her power is reduced. Straight audiences can ‘sneak away’ from her show without suffering the shame of a thousand eyes on them as they slink up the aisle” (2019, 46). They argue that this makes for a sad but familiar spectacle of queer trauma. Audiences have come to expect that queer narratives end in pain, violence, and death, so much so Fury notes, “that the phenomenon has been dubbed the ‘bury your gays’ trope” (2019, 46). Both Moskowitz and Fury accuse Gadsby’s Nanette of trafficking in queer pain, of letting straight audiences temporarily “play” inside marginalized trauma, and more importantly, of letting audiences off the hook for that pain at the end of the day.
Although I agree that audiences need to be held accountable for how they consume marginalized trauma in comedy, I disagree that Gadsby has dulled or muted that trauma in order to service her “comfortably woke” audience. Gadsby repeatedly states that she needs to tell her own story. “You learn,” she claims, “from the part of the story that you focus on” (Olb and Parry 2018). In Gadsby’s telling and retelling of jokes - the first time to extract a punchline, and the second time to recount painful stories - this process is made explicit. Recounting her trauma becomes an act of rebellion because it turns the focus of her comedic delivery away from the traditional object of comedy, audience laughs, and reorients the performance around her need to tell her story on her terms. The audience becomes almost secondary to this aim. This is Gadsby’s way of telling her audience - telling us - that her pain does not belong to them. And neither does her anger. This is why, at moments during her performance, she claims that she is unwilling to deliver the emotions that the audience appears to demand. We are conditioned to have displays of vulnerability in comedy relieved by laughter. When Gadsby tells the story of her assault, and later, her violent rape, we are denied a punchline and we are not invited to share in her anger. But this is not because she seeks to entertain us or provoke us with her trauma. Public catharsis can be self-directed and self-restorative in its own right and it can (and clearly does) have a valuable role in comedic performance. “I don’t want to unite you with laughter or anger,” she claims, “I just need my story heard” (Olb and Parry 2018).
But perhaps Gadsby is also right that the traditional framework for comedy cannot account for her non-traditional use of trauma onstage. “If that means that my comedy career is over,” she insists during the show, “then, so be it” (Olb and Parry 2018). However, that may tell us more about the limitations of audiences than it does about the limitations of comedy. This further reinforces the claim made by Moskowitz and Fury that the audiences’ role in consuming marginalized trauma is problematic. But how do we, as audiences, become good consumers of marginalized trauma in comedy? I would argue that being a good consumer of marginalized trauma in comedy begins with being responsible for what we know and choose to believe about the lived experiences of marginalized people. It is not enough to laugh at a joke or listen to an account of a traumatic experience. To participate in public performance, and particularly performance by socially, politically, and economically marginalized people, we owe the experience our best efforts at deeper understanding.
Feminist philosopher, Lorraine Code, argues for a “responsibilist” approach to epistemology where the knower and the world-to-be-known are both epistemically significant. Responsibilist approaches move away from traditional analytic epistemology and its focus on the criteria for knowing “objects of knowledge,” or what Code refers to as “S knows that p” epistemology, and focuses on someone’s object of knowledge (1993, 17-18). In order to “know responsibly,” or “know well,” we require more information than the conditions that cause a knower to accept or reject a particular proposition, p (1987, 27). Knowing well demands that we consider who we are and how we have been shaped into the knowers that we are. In this sense, knowing well becomes an intellectual virtue in the vein of Aristotle. It implies that we as knowers have some conscious control over our “modes of cognitive structuring” and thus must be responsible for what we choose to believe and why we choose to believe it (Code 1987, 51). Our intentions, motivations, and behaviors are all subject to analysis - as is our epistemic character. Thus if we choose to engage superficially with Gadsby’s trauma, it is not a reflection on Gadsby’s performance, so much as it is a reflection on our willingness as audience members to familiarize ourselves with the violence and oppression that LGBTQ+ and gender nonconforming people face on a daily basis.
Thinking through the lens of epistemic responsibility allows us to reorient the criticisms put forth by Moskowitz and Fury away from Gadsby’s delivery and/or the offensive tropes that guide popular depictions of queer characters and toward audience responsibility. Stephen A. Smith, citing Gary Fine, describes the dual nature of comedy as a force that can either reinforce or subvert dominant social norms. That is, the other side of comedy as subversion is comedy as a tool to “maintain social control through ridicule to enforce norms and punish deviance” (Smith 1993, 51). But I would argue that we cannot lay all of this power at the feet of comedic performance or comedic depictions. Comedy is mediated by audiences, or by a “thinking public.” Looking at it this way, it fails to matter whether Gadsby delivers her story with righteous anger or not, or if she is “too polite” or not, or if the medium allows audiences to “sneak away.” To be epistemically responsible in this case means that audience members need to hold ourselves accountable for understanding the punchlines, stories, or traumatic narratives that we consume. Krefting suggests that satire, because it is humorous, may weaken our responsibility to analyze the content of the satire, but that is only if we think of humor as something that is involuntarily extracted from us and of which we can claim no responsibility.
Perhaps the argument goes something like this: humor is the aim of comedy and the state of “finding something humorous” is an involuntary dispositional state. We do not have control over involuntary states, so we do not have control over what we find humorous, thus to assess the aims of comedy, i.e., the stimulus that evokes humor, misses the point of comedy itself. (Consider that we could construct a similar argument about trauma.) However, if the goal of comedy, and trauma within the context of comedy, is only to elicit this involuntary state, then the content of the comedy would not matter. But clearly it does matter. There are events and experiences that evoke humor that we do not laugh at. There are complicated situations and loaded contexts where humor is deemed not just inappropriate but wrong, e.g., during a severe emergency situation or while one is trying to perform a professional duty. Comedians do not merely extract humor from audiences, humor is mediated by the audience itself. That is why during some of the most painful moments of Gadsby’s Nanette no one laughs. I think that Krefting is right to claim that we need a new framework for thinking about the transgressive power of marginalized comedy. But in this new framework we need to turn the lens to the consumers of comedy, the audience, and ask them to think clearly and unironically about the following question: “What are you laughing at?”
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Moskowitz, Peter. 2018. “The ‘Nanette’ Problem.” The Outline. August 20, 2018. https://theoutline.com/post/5962/the-nanette-problem-hannah-gadsby-netflix-review
Olb, Jon and Madeleine Parry, dirs. Hannah Gadsby: Nanette. Netflix Productions, 2018. https://www.netflix.com/watch/80233611.
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