By Bitty Luv Tandon
Lots of moments in Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette made me hit the space bar (perhaps a tad too aggressively) and sigh in an uncomfortable happiness. The first moment came when Gadsby, in all her short-haired glory, points to… all of herself and utters the words ‘lesbian content’. This phrase then goes on to become one of those that garners lots of ha-ha’s, and anyone who has watched Nanette can later share a look — eyebrows raised, accompanied by a sly smile and laugh, ‘lesbian content’.
Perhaps I must decide which Gadsby I must fall in love with first, only because there are so many. I’ve been given Hannah Gadsby the Woman, Hannah Gadsby the Comedian, Hannah Gadsby the Lesbian. But there’s also Hannah Gadsby the Stoyteller who seems to bring all these people together. The Storyteller in this comic show is able to navigate unbearable moments of reality just as easily as she is able to deftly shape this reality into something that is easier to consume. This Storyteller knows when to make viewers laugh, and knows when to make them squirm in their seats because of the raw, uncensored anger within the story. But what really makes my heart beat fast-fast is that she knows all of this, and isn’t shy to use it.
Gadsby takes one moment of humour — lesbian content — and builds on it until there is an unbearable tension between the viewer and the laptop screen, like sand in your clothes after a day in the beach. But unlike yours truly, who sometimes avoids the beach altogether, Gadsby goes in deep, capitalises on this tension and throws the leftover sand in our faces.
In referring to herself as lesbian content — content that must grace the intricate complexities of stand-up comedy and make the viewer chortle with uncontained giggles — she takes the first step in throwing back shame at us. What must a woman do when everything that pieces together her identity can be violently boxed into two words that seem unrelated to each other?
I don’t know which Gadsby I must fall in love with first but I am enamoured. Not only because she has put into words everything that I have been feeling, but because she has done it standing proudly in front of a large audience, in a series of moments of uncontained vulnerability. I stare at my laptop screen until I can stare no more, because for the first time I find myself looking at (and not reading) a woman who seems to be just as angry as I am, who can find it within herself to pull back her anger for a few moments when she wants to.
(Perhaps now I must follow Gadsby’s example and find words to puncture whatever tension I have created.
… But I won’t)
Instead, I will take a moment to quietly denounce stand-up comedy. I watched Nanette only because a friend posted five Instagram stories about it. My faith in the friend prompted some kind of ‘okay, let’s do this, pop culture is important’ moment and I began watching, unprepared for what I was in for. Maybe it made no difference that I was already having a bad day, but when Gadsby began firing shots at people unapologetically, laughingly, cheekily, she seemed to lift me out of whatever rut I had pushed myself into.
I’m wondering now if this rut is in any way related to a warning I received from my sister a week earlier. My Whatsapp glared at me (horror story like) and I read her message, “Papa just asked me if you’re in love with a girl.” Later that day, I went to my father and joked about it. I found in myself an inexplicable need to acknowledge his suspicion. I needed to lay out his accusation in a way that allowed me to deny it, deny what he wasn’t asking. I didn’t have to do much, I realised soon enough. His discomfort was large enough to allow us both the freedom to look away.
So when Gadsby tells us of her mother’s regret in one of the first ‘tense’ moments of the show, I begin to wonder if my parents already know what I am pretending to hide from them. I wonder now, if they found out before I did.
The tension she creates translates into other feelings that don’t always have names, but there is only one way to coherently articulate what I feel predominantly. And I must say it very simply, without preamble: this feeling is gratitude. A gratitude that is large and all consuming; much like gratitude you feel when you realise that you aren’t the only Ranbir Kapoor hater in the world, that you have a friend to share this comradery with in a world of Ranbir Kapoor lovers.
Every time we are told that it is okay to be different, that it is okay to be loud about who we are, I miss the manual that tells you how to deal with the shame that has seeped through before you were told it’s okay, through every consequential moment of one’s childhood. When Gadsby says ‘soaking in shame’, I’m left with the image of someone lying in a bed they’ve just wet. Imagine wetting this bed at the age of 22.
It would be unfair to myself and to my new favourite-goddess-comedian to undersell her brilliant ability to tell a joke and snatch it back from you at her will. I was reminded of a monkey who fought me over a packet of chips I’d bought on my college campus.
(The monkey won)
When she says, very cheekily, ‘we all find out (about our sexuality) in a letter, don’t we?’ I giggled endlessly and remembered my own coming out (to self) moment. My sexuality wala letter arrived in a dream. In this dream, I had fallen in love with a girl I had been talking to very often. My first response was that some brain malfunction had happened, so I tried talking to more boys to reverse the damage.
(It didn’t go too well)
In ending this very brief love affair with Gadsby, I will go back to a question she asks in the beginning. This is a question I’ve been asking ever since I found myself within the confines of the closet — “where do the quiet gays go?”
Before I can look for an answer to this (and Gadsby doesn’t really give me one either), I allow myself a moment to imagine a quieter Pride Parade in which it is somehow possible for us to assert our presence by watching Nanette, drinking chai, and indulging in a delicious pause in conversation. And within the comfort of this pause, I will think to myself, “how lucky are my parents that I’m a quiet gay.”
Bitty Luv Tandon is a student of English who spends more time thinking about what Elena Ferrante might look like instead of thinking about what her dissertation will look like.