Story Pile: Nanette

First things first, the ‘review’ such as it can be made for a product like this. Nanette is a Netflix comedy special by Hannah Gadsby. If you have Netflix, you have access to this.

It’s really quite good.

I’m going to go into why it’s so good, and specifically address some complaints some people have about it, in a moment, but if all you’re wondering is if this particular voice was going to tell you it’s good, there you go, that’s what you got.

It is what I would describe as ‘Content Warningy’ – that the subject matter goes to some dark places, including frank discussions of mental health, internalised homophobia, slurs, assault, and sexual assault. There is some good news of sorts, though, because if you’re the kind of person who checks for content warnings, and these warnings discourage you from watching Nanette, it’s okay, because Nanette’s power and message are probably not necessary for you.

What I do want to talk about here is the response to Nanette, specifically the complaints from those places of artistic and cultural insight, Youtube Comments and online review sites. I want to address a criticism, of sorts, and, in the vein of Nanette, I want to talk about it in a roundabout yet extremely harsh way.

I make card games? One of the games I’ve had in mind for a while now is this game called Worse Than Hitler. The joke of the game is that ‘worse than hitler’ is a phrase we use hyperbolically or lightheartedly, and the game itself would be pitch black, because the game idea was to play a bit like blackjack, where you’re flipping cards off a deck and seeing all these other, ‘lesser’ genocides committed by other countries, that we all like to ignore, because as a culture we have the comforting blanket of Hitler and Stalin’s genocides to point to. Even Hitler did it, I mean, he talked about how the genocide of the Indigenous people of North America was proof that given a little bit of time, nobody would care about his genocide of the Jewish people.

I find this idea interesting and compelling but I routinely find people resistant to the idea of it, not to whether or not they’d acquire it, but whether or not such a game should exist. It’s a question of what’s appropriate, a question about what the form is allowed, or even capable of doing.

It always seems like nonsense to me. It seems nonsense to me to tell me that games, this format of media, is just cut off from certain topics, that there are serious topics that games shouldn’t be bringing up, because, what? Why?

The idea of a game where Australian genocides of our indigenous people is put, numerically and in terms of impact, in contrast to the horrors of the Holocaust, would make people uncomfortable? Good? We should be?

That’s the kind of concern at the heart of these media forms. People often mistake ‘I like how this makes me feel’ with ‘this is how this media should be used.’ We’re a bit past it when it comes to things like film and books – those forms have graduated to being ‘serious’ enough, but when it comes to other forms, we still tend to view a form’s successes as being a form’s shape.

I was raised in a deeply fundamentalist church – a cult, basically – and one of the things this environment did to me was limit in every way possible, the media I could participate in. There were parents seriously arguing with one another about whether or not it was appropriate to let kids see toothpaste commercials. We were cautious about supermarkets because they played pop radio.

In this space, there flourished a form of media that you might have heard of – Christian Media. Christian pop, Christian country, Christian kids’ programming, and Christian comedy. There are a lot of Christian standup comedians and they mostly just record albums for sale in the Christian networks. They do this, because they want to make sure that all the media around you reflects these controlled values. They do it, because they know that this stuff is part of what gives you ideas.

On Free Delivery, Steve Geyer, a Christian Comedian, talks about how comedy lowers your defenses, about how when you’re laughing, you’re vulnerable, and that’s when he can deliver the message that ‘Jesus loves you,’ and you’re more likely to listen to him. It’s the same idea. It’s the same message at the core of Nanette – that comedy can be used for things, that comedy has power, that the storytelling of a standup lets them create a reality for you and you participate in it and go along with it for a time.

Like all media.

A book is a series of symbols you look at that help you create a false memory of an experience that never happened to you that can in many cases lead to vivid hallucinations. Media is powerful. Media helps us shape our lives, it helps give us ideas for normal and it can give us names and phrases that encapsulate how we feel so we can return to those feelings and feel them again when we are sad or we are lonely or when we are angry.

One of the complaints about Nanette is that it’s ‘not funny’ or it’s hectoring or lecturing, in which case I don’t know what to tell you. Humour is all about the subversion of expectation and if you got up and somehow expected the punchlines from what Gadsby was saying, hello and thank you for your attention, Ms Gadsby, I love your youtube channel. Still, if you didn’t find it funny that really just says something about you, and if you found it lecturing…

Well yeah.

That’s part of what it is. It’s holding you, the listener, in a position as someone who doesn’t know something, who doesn’t understand something, and then it is explaining that to you in a way that’s easily processed. If you were not prepared for the ideas Nanette explains to you, then you needed that lecture. If you reject what you’ve heard, that’s on you, but it certainly isn’t something comedy can’t do.

Through this all, though, through these messages, these ideas, about what is or is not acceptable expressions in media, about what media can or can’t do, I know what it can do. I know what it’s achieved, where it’s hit me, I know the things that have, from ridiculous sources, shaped me into an adult, what have been important to me even as the authorities over me have suggested they shouldn’t be. The people who own the world, who handed us a zeitgeist have done so after having told their parents that no, Bob Dylan is really important, Dad, and they just don’t get it, and spent their lives telling us as we grew up that media like Transformers and Barbie and Ska Music wasn’t real culture, that we should look to stuff that resonated with them for good lessons.

They’re wrong, and they have always been. What matters to you matters to you and that’s enough to make it matter.

And what we take away from these works, from this art, is what matters to us.

For me, the simplest message of Nanette, the idea I think I will carry with me a long way away, is this simple phrase, an invocation to respect the ability we can grow and change and the things we excise from the past in the name of our own comfort make us weaker and more foolish.

Hindsight is a blessing, stop wasting my time.

Also also, if you’re like me and you found the midsection in Nanette, where art history and a knowledge of it was made the centerpiece of some really interesting jokes, Gadsby has an entire Youtube channel with a bunch of those videos and you should go check them out!

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