Reviews, Screen, TV

Nanette review: Hannah Gadsby’s brilliant Netflix special is going to set fire to the internet

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To say that Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix comedy special Nanette leaves a lasting impression is to put it very, very lightly. I’ve watched this extraordinary show twice, on both occasions fighting back tears in its final minutes, struck by a range of emotions: shame, shock, consternation, compassion, something resembling hope for a brighter future. Taking the audience on a deeply personal journey that is controlled masterfully – with the precision of a scalpel and the impact of a chainsaw – ‘comedy’ as a description of Gadsby’s performance barely begins to cut it. ‘Special’ is a little better.

It is rare to watch an hour of stand-up and come away thinking: this is one for the ages; this will be remembered. In terms of cultural contexts, it’s impossible not to recognise the long history of the gay rights movement and the short history of #MeToo as informing the bones of Gadsby’s at times furious, gooseflesh-raising production.

It is told – to use the comedian’s own words – with the strength of a broken woman who has rebuilt herself. Among other accolades, Nanette was joint winner of the prestigious Edinburgh Comedy Award at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and winner of the Barry Award at the Melbourne Comedy Festival.

“I’ve built a career on self-deprecation,” she says, but “I simply will not do that anymore. Not to myself or anybody who identifies with me.”

The Netflix talent scouts in the audience were presumably, like the rest of us, trembling and tearful at the end of it, keen to give the Tasmanian-born performer a world stage. By god, does she use it. When Nanette lands on the streaming giant on June 19, watch it set fight to the internet, and wait for Gadsby to be embraced by feminists as a spokesperson for her generation.

The comedian grew up in Tasmania. Or as she calls it: “the little island floating off the arse end of Australia,” which is “famous for its frighteningly small gene pool.” She jokes about how, in general life terms, she “doesn’t lesbian enough.” There are numerous ‘being a lesbian in a backwater’ gags before Gadsby arrives at the conclusion that such humour is degrading. “I’ve built a career on self-deprecation,” she says, but “I simply will not do that anymore. Not to myself or anybody who identifies with me.”

There is something of an irony here, in that the start of Nanette relies on the very kind of comedy its creator denounces. Later, Gadsby will say she no right to spread anger because it leads to blind rage – at the end of the angriest monologue I have ever heard in a stand-up routine. At first glance Gadsby oscillating between invoking anger and speaking against its use could feel like hypocrisy, but even her lighter material (i.e. a bit about babies in headbands) reveals the show is built around contradictions, which she ingeniously digs into. She also shares culpability with the audience, making us partly responsible for the impact of her own material. Gadsby coaxes us into laughter and drives us to anger, before gently reprimanding us for laughing and schooling us about the cost of being angry.

Gadsby reveals the true target of her material: not just the patriarchy, but its biggest beneficiaries: straight white men.

A bit about what she considers the weirdness of gendering babies leads to analysis of the colour blue, demonstrating Gadsby’s knack for spotting contradictions – the kind all around us in daily life, so rooted in our ‘normal’ experience that they have turned virtually invisible. Innocuous observations about how blue is a calming colour, and yet the hottest part of the flame, get pushed aside when – about 25 minutes in – Gadsby reveals the true target of her material: not just the patriarchy, but specifically its biggest beneficiaries: straight white men.

On this subject she is unequivocal and brutal. The performer lays – occasionally with caveats – blame at the feet of straight white men for most of society’s ills. In an alternate world, and perhaps at some point in the future, the term ‘straight white guy’, used the way Gadsby does, would be accepted as a pejorative based on a person’s skin colour and sexual orientation. Here and now, it is a way of criticising the dominant power structure. So when Gadsby jokes about straight white blokes for the first time in history being ‘a sub category of human’ she is by anybody’s definition punching up.

Nanette oozes emotion, like a raw and weeping wound, but has the strength of a great mind and a canny comedian behind it.

The comedian takes audiences on a revisionist rollercoaster history lesson. High art is “bullshit,” she explains, arguing that “the history of western art is just the history of men painting women as if they’re flesh vases for their dick flowers.” On mental illness and Van Gogh: “This romanticising of mental illness is ridiculous…It is not a ticket to genius, it’s a ticket to fucking nowhere.” Gadsby condemns fellow comedians for making Monica Lewinsky the butt of their jokes at the time of the Bill Clinton affair, rather than doing what they ought to have done, which is recognising the then-President’s gobsmacking abuse of power.

The comedian’s devastating conclusion is a kind of inverted confession booth. Where the performer once felt distraught about her private life and sexuality, “soaking in shame” while she was in the closet, she now, as an adult, understands she had nothing to be sorry for and channels all these pent-up feelings into a white hot, blistering performance. Nanette oozes emotion, like a raw and weeping wound, but has the strength of a great mind and a canny comedian behind it. Perhaps our feelings toward Gadsby after watching this brilliant show can be summarised in a word: bravo.

Nanette launches on Netflix on June 19

42 responses to “Nanette review: Hannah Gadsby’s brilliant Netflix special is going to set fire to the internet

  1. “In an alternate world, and perhaps at some point in the future, the term ‘straight white guy’, used the way Gadsby does, would be accepted as a pejorative based on a person’s skin colour and sexual orientation.”

    Oh please. It already is.

    I’ve given a hundred bucks every time Razer asks but Buckmaster’s efforts have put an end to that.

    1. Indeed. I am a heterosexual bi-curious white female and i rather hear another female of my kind opine on white heterosexual male power or heterosexual girl desire or whatever.
      We should show tolerance and understanding towards all, including ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ groups. And we should be equally critical of all regardless of ‘group’ if they behave aggressively, deceitfully or intollerantly.
      I love standup and will watch this show. Hopefully she is much more nuanced than the quotes and description imply!

  2. Whao just whao.

    I finally get it. We must protect every single minority group on the planet while hating every aspect of the straight white male. It’s funny that pushing the tolerance bandwagon down everyone’s throat means expressing extreme intolerance for the group that is credited with every evil and ill ever to befall the Human Race – the straight white male.

    It’s strange in that in every other social group her lesbianism would be unthinkable – try expressing your lesbianism in an Aboriginal or Papua New Guinenan setting and you would be rewarded with a spear through your head. Try screaming about women’s rights to the Arabs or Africans or Indians and you would soon find yourself beaten almost to death, shoved in gaol and forcibly expunged from your community. Instead of being thankful she displays nothing but hatred.

    I’m confused!

    1. It’s the fashion lately to expel the evils of the white patriarchy, no wonder she got her own Netflix special. Here’s hoping the world is just going through a brief period of madness.

      1. Confused yeah maybe however you maam seem to be staying up too late. You need to take a bex and have a good lie down!

    2. Another comment from a middle-aged white guy.

      Did you watch it? The last thing you could accuse Hannah Gadsby of being is one or two dimensional.
      There’s a whole network of points in there. Yes, and it’s driven by well-founded rage against the horrible abuses she’s been subject to. Abuses founded in homophobia and violence against women. And unfortunately not rare occurrences today.

      She admits she is having a go at white blokes, and earlier she also says she doesn’t hate men.
      It’s not really about us, it’s about the impacts on her and other people like her.

      If you have watched it, I suggest re-watching.

    3. It’s quite simple. It’s about power, and the abuse of that power. Over centuries and centuries. As a beneficiary of straight white male power, it seems it is difficult for you to perceive that.
      And rather than lapse into cultural ‘whataboutism’ as a thinly-veiled and pathetic attack on Gadsby’s sexuality, perhaps you could celebrate that this society has extended rights as part of the democratic project. Unless you just want to ensure that straight white males always stay at the top of the heap, every heap.

    4. I don’t think that you do get it, if you expect women in general and lesbians in particular to be “thankful” for the right to be heard!

    5. Wow, Paul. You are VERY confused. Most of the assertions in your post are factually incorrect. The racial groups you mention all have groups for non-heterosexual people. Gay people manage to get together without telling, evidently.

      You missed the point of Nanette. Are you a straight white man. by the way? Your “head in the sand” attitude suggests you just might be.

  3. I look forward to seeing ‘Nanette’. Hannah Gadsby is without a doubt, one of the most intelligent comic talents Australia has given birth to (can’t help myself) in recent times. She’s not only insightful, she’s highly motivated to illuminate all our hypocritical stands against x. y. z. Bring it on!

  4. I’m a little reluctant to pass judgement on something I havent seen yet – but comedy is going to get pretty narrowly focussed if the old chestnut of self-deprecation is removed and any targets other than straight, cis, white men is seen as “punching down”.

    I like Ms Gadsby’s work so will watch the special in due course, but hope that its a bit more nuanced than the excerpts quoted in this review.

  5. Like any brilliant piece of art, this took our breath away, made us stand up and take note, demanded answers while simultaneously posing difficult questions and quite rightly made us collectively weep. Husband and 3 teen girls and I have your story safe with us, Hannah. We will speak to it regularly and fondly.

  6. “Gadsby reveals the true target of her material: not just the patriarchy, but specifically its biggest beneficiaries: straight white men.”
    Imagine replacing “straight white men” with Jewish men / Africans / clever Asians etc. How is it acceptable to target any group simply based on a generalisation? I’m all for outrageous cutting humour but why can’t we apply to the same standard to every gender / race / sexual orientation?

    1. Perhaps you’ve missed the last several centuries of world history whereupon the groups you mentioned have, not only not been the ones with all the power but the ones victimised by that power – that of straight white (European) males. Do organised slavery, pogroms, the Opium War and The Holocaust, inter alia, ring any bells? Consequently, your attempt at moral equivalence is intellectually flawed and morally bereft.

      1. Surely a great contributor to the historical mistreatment of marginalised groups has been agenda-driven innacurate stereotyping. It will not help now, and your entertaining it demonstrates a glaring deficiency of nuance and ciritical thought.

    2. You didn’t listen to her. Straight white men abused her as a child, bashed her as a teenager, and raped her as a woman. And NO STRAIGHT WHITE MAN STEPPED UP TO HELP HER! Got it now.?

      Thanks Hannah. Please don’t go.

      Czaba Etcel (I’m a gay white girl)

    3. Was it perhaps something to do with straight white men in her home state of Tasmania wanting to keep the law that made gay sex a criminal and jailable offence? And perhaps it was because she was a childhood victim of sexual abuse by a straight white man? And when she was seventeen a straight white man bashed her and bashed her in public and nobody – no straight white men – or anybody – just watched and no one came to her aid? And later, in her early twenties two straight white men decided to rape her -TWO straight white men!

      Just a few insignificant events in a woman’s life, revealed in an hour-long Show? And where are the straight white men posting here who show a glimmering of understanding of the lifelong damage those experiences do to the recipient of that violence? Some of you seem more concerned about paying for a ticket to a StandUp Show you didn’t like much that affirmed the courage of a wounded, marginalised woman who claims her own healing.

      You just don’t get it. t has to do with your humanity – or lack of it as Hannah observes. I agree with her. Pull your socks up!

  7. I watched Nanette last night, not knowing what to expect. For nearly the entire hour I had tears of laughter alternate with tears of pain streaming down my face. This had to be perhaps one of the most intelligent and feeling standups I have ever seen! Women NEED Hannah. The marginalized NEED Hannah. The World NEEDS Hannah. I understand why she wants to leave comedy, but it makes me sad to think of losing a voice who holds so much potential for speaking the truth for those who remain silent. Forget about “please like me”. Hannah, you are absolutely LOVABLE. – A new fan from Massachusetts, USA

  8. As a straight white male, I have to say I was totally “knocked out”and even moved to tears by this brilliant show. Even though I think of myself as a quite liberal, progressive kind of guy, I felt pretty shaken and started wondering how even a lefty type like me may still have to get rid of some patriarchal ways of thinking. I will watch the show again, it’s simply too good and too important.

  9. As a straight white man I feel the audience would have been better entertained and better served if she murdered all the straight white men in the audience. In any case I suppose if you’re the lesbian version of Hitler people will declare it a new art form. Whatever that was it wasn’t comedy. A call for suicide bombings maybe?

    1. Yes, it got fairly confronting and went beyond comedy to being a polemic,but a powerful, compelling one. So you can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. From your response, I’d say you’re still part of the problem.

    2. A mirror upset you, did it? Exactly why she did it. Read what the women say on this site. Maybe you are still blind to their truth.

  10. Hannah Gadsby’s show is the most powerful observations of Australian society, I have ever seen. Thank you Hannah you have the most courage of any human i have ever witnessed. As a 50 year Australian woman who grew up in a misogynistic home, apologising for my existence- i have had enough. And i am quite happy to lay blame at the feet of those who control power whether its the rupert murdochs if this world or the major political parties. I have had enough of white man’s dogma. Time for change. Thank you Luke for an excellent review.

  11. Where is the tolerance being shown amongst all groups of society as I certainly didn’t witness it when I saw Nanette? The attack on ‘straight white men’ was offensive to me & I am a woman. I live in a house filled with white men & teenagers who feel bombarded with the constant barrage of messages from society that they are a part of the problem & that they don’t belong. Try explaining this as a mother to your teenage sons when we want to ensure that all young people feel that they are welcome in society & not the focus of of other’s prejudices & intolerance. The part of Sydney that I live in has a high teen suicide rate & the disdain unleashed during Nanette on our fathers, sons, brothers & male friends is misplaced. Why does the quest for quality mean that we diminish one group to exalt the other? Stop the gender wars & focus on those in society who wield real power (the rich & powerful) & then we will see equality.

    1. The problem is that most of those “who wield real power” (the rich and powerful) are in fact straight white men!

    2. She does not “diminish one group” = presumably the straight white men, because in our culture, women ARE already diminished, and diminished by the patriarchal society we live in. Perhaps you have not noticed the way it is for so many women. Maybe you need to pull your socks up too.

  12. Thanks Luke for this great review – because of it I watched Nanette on the weekend with my straight white husband and it had us both laughing and bawling on the couch. To those commenters on the “whataboutism” path, I’m curious whether you watched it and STILL felt compelled to say you feel hard done by or that the world is going to shite because Gadsby was able to so eloquently air her take on her life…

  13. Well, it took a couple of attempts but I got all the way through it. I’m so glad I didn’t see this at the Opera House – my straight white partner and I wanted to go but didn’t have a babysitter at the time. It would have been so disappointing to go out expecting a night of comedy and then be subjected to this. So much venom, misdirected towards all straight white men, particularly those who had paid money to see her. Laughs few and far between.
    I do hope that Hannah found it cathartic and can get back on track – whatever that track might be in the future.

  14. I watched this. I think the review is generous. It struck me as a standup routine that became decreasingly funny. I did not find what she had to say especially novel or insightful.

  15. Thanks for the excellent review. Today I have a phone date to talk about “Nanette “ with my daughter and her wife and this week I’m meeting with a lesbian couple whose marriage I attended recently to discuss “Nanette”. Gatsby has us thinking and talking about power, marginalization and comedy’s structural limitations. I found it a tour de force.. unsettling, shocking, tragic and also funny. In reading the comments I’m struck with how personally people feel about a perceived attack on the straight white male. As a straight white female happily married to a straight white male for 44 years, ongoing conversations about the effects of patriarchy on our thoughts, feelings and behaviors have been essential for growth and understanding both as individuals and as a couple.

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