"There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself!" Hannah Gadsby defiantly proclaims in her comedy show Nanette. Yes, you should "run, don't walk" to your nearest couch to catch the acclaimed Netflix special. It was recorded at the Sydney Opera House, which, although only a six-hour flight, is culturally light-years from Tasmania, where the queer, brainy 40-year-old misfit grew up. It wasn't until 1997 that the island decriminalized gay sex, the last Australian state to do so.
So, imagine the combination of fear and courage it took the gawky 17-year-old Gadsby to talk to a girl her age at a bus stop. The comedian uses the story as part of her live routine, but with a twist: She goes on to explain how the encounter ended -- with a brutal beating by the girl's boyfriend. His rationale for assaulting Gadsby, who was not out, not even to herself, at the time: "It's not OK to hit girls, but it is OK to hit a 'lady faggot.'"
No one intervened.
If only the young Gadsby could have time-traveled to 2018, when she's drowning in attention and opportunities for a politically subversive show that examines the misogyny and homophobia she experienced, the ways that trauma bleeds into every cell, and the reasons she needed to tell the tales she'd obfuscated in jokes. In a one-hour whirlwind, Gadsby nimbly deconstructs stand-up comedy as she performs it, and explores how fans are complicit in pushing artists to relive trauma on stage, even when it is part of their act.
However transformative the experience, there is a cost of living aloud, especially for trauma survivors. "Over time it was cathartic," Gadsby acknowledges. "People being emotionally affected by my story was something I've never experienced in my day-to-day world, so, in a convoluted way, yes, cathartic, but each performance was also grueling and devastating."
Much like Tig Notaro's stand-up special on facing illness and the death of her mom, or Adrienne Truscott's skewering of rape culture, Gadsby's show-within-a-show can feel disquieting. She digs into our relationship to power and the ways in which violence, misogyny, and homophobia stem from it, and asks questions that force us to reflect on our own conditioning. "Why is insensitivity something to strive for?" she asks in her show, before adding, "It's my sensitivity that has helped me navigate a very difficult life's path."
But she is not reactive as much as responsive, and her experience as a comic pays off with measured proposals. Gadsby says she can no longer sandwich her pain between punch lines or sugarcoat harsh truths. Stand-up provides incessant levity and she won't, as she dryly puts it, "babysit" the audience with jokes, even if she does sprinkle Nanette with quips. "I make no attempt to relieve [or] make it any easier for the audience," she says, shortly after taping a segment for The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon. "I changed that."
On Fallon, Gadsby renounced a previous threat to "quit comedy," although her immediate priority, she said, was to take a nap. She deserves one. Her schedule, subject matter, and vulnerability as a performer must be exhausting.
"I made a very conscious choice to be very present in the material I'm delivering because I was breaking the contract with the audience," she says. "It would have been irresponsible to an audience to phone that content in." On stage her compassion is palpable. "To take better care of the experience of the audience, I could not protect myself," she says. "In order to go through that each show, as I did, meant that we got to share it."
While she draws on her own stories, Gadsby is quick to offer multifaceted revelations about culture. A former art history major, she eviscerates Picasso for his affair with the 17-year-old Marie-Therese Walter. Like Walter, Gadsby's life was irrevocably altered at 17. Like Picasso, Gadsby can paint a textured portrait, and reveals how Cubism offered her a formidable lens into how numerous points of views co-exist. Her greatest strength as a writer is the ability to distill many truths into a single vision; she merely wants to add a female point of view.
Gadsby is keenly aware of the irony of her newfound popularity, given that she devotes much of the show to caution against our seductively dangerous tendency of deifying artists, including comedians, who sustain a violent or unjust system while earning credit for dismantling it. She is taking her fame with a pound of salt. While she says she is trying not to pay attention to the hoopla, she admits that "the show took on a life of its own."
Few mortals can weave stories as expertly, but Gadsby is very much human. Towards the end of Nanette, she asks the audience to acknowledge our shared vulnerability by reminding us, "Please take care of my story." It seems the least we can do with this gift.
Photography by Jill Greenberg Grooming by Molly Greenwald