I Can’t Stop Thinking About This Quote from Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette

I used to be the “funny one” but Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special made me rethink how I use humour

Meaghan Wray
Hannah Gadsby in Netflix's Nanette standup special, wearing a blue suit jacket with black lapels and tilting her head back and smiling at the mic

(Photo: Ben King/Netflix)

When I first heard about Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette, I thought it would just be another typical standup routine that I could flick on in the background while I swiped through Instagram. But I quickly realized that the Tasmanian comedian’s one-hour set seemed to narrate my own experiences, helping me understand them in a completely new way. Within the first few moments, my phone was down and my interest was piqued. 

Nanette started streaming on June 19 and I watched it more than a week ago, yet I find myself continuously coming back to it; back to Gadsby’s story, her genius wit and the vital message. Gadsby’s Netflix special, which was filmed at the Sydney Opera House, takes surprising turns, seamlessly fluctuating between hilarious comedy to critical evaluations of the world as it stands today, touching on everything from the #MeToo movement and art’s misogynistic history to her disdain of modern day comedy.

As Gadsby shares her heartbreaking experiences of sexual trauma and abuse, she says something that has been stuck in my mind ever since: “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.” There was a heavy silence in the audience, and I held my breath with them. There it was: Permission to be broken and permission to rise from that place of grief, stronger than before. This quote hit me in the heart, and made me rethink the ways I’ve told my own story, and how healing demands vulnerability. 

For a long time, I knew I was somewhat “broken,” but I didn’t believe there was strength in that. In her set, Gadsby talks about how facets of her being, like growing up queer in a small town, made her a target for ridicule. For me, it was being singled out because of my body fat percentage. I felt resigned to be the child—bullied for my weight, my appearance and my interests—who could never fully recover. My story starts in Grade 4 with name-calling and cyber bullying through MSN messenger. As my peers and I aged, my bullies got more cunning. Sometimes, they followed me on my walk home, taunting me from behind; other times, they tossed mean notes at my face during class.

I am a cis gender straight woman and I am not a professional comedian like Gadsby, but as I watched her special I realized we both used humour to cope with the abuses we endured. I went through much of my life being “the funny one.” In elementary school I never felt comfortable in tight clothing, so my typical school OOTD—regardless of the weather outside—was a pair of soccer shorts and an oversized Gap hoodie (I had them in literally every colour). One particularly chilly day, an older boy and sarcastically asked, “Why are you wearing that in the winter?” I quickly retorted, “I’m too fat to wear anything else.” We laughed briefly together in agreement—and it was very clear we were doing so for different reasons—but at least I’d beaten him to the punchline.

In retrospect, I was using humour to protect myself. If I could make the joke first, then he couldn’t get the satisfaction. It’s similar to the kind of comedy that Gadsby says she hates. In the Netflix special, she explains that stories have a beginning, middle and end, but jokes, on the other hand, have just a set up and a punchline. “I feel like, in a comedy show, there’s no room for the best part of the story, which is the ending. In order to finish with a laugh, you know, you have to end…with punchlines,” says Gadsby. She goes on to explain how she has a really great relationship with her mother now, after a heartbreaking experience coming out of the closet, but in her jokes she never tells that part. As I watched her explain this, I recognized how true that was for my own life. The tragedies that colour many of our stories aren’t funny when you consider their full trajectories.

Nanette, which has won multiple awards at comedy festivals around the world, resonates because it’s real. What Gadsby shows in the Netflix standup special is that our stories, as they are, are compelling enough—they don’t need to be peppered with humour or humiliation. “I used to be very apologetic and self-deprecating and that worked for me,” she told HuffPost editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen. “After doing it for about 10 years, I began to see it was eroding my sense of self…I wanted to get better at life, but comedy suspends you in a perpetual state of adolescence and you have to be a bit of a loser.” I wasn’t exactly taking my comedy act on tour, but my use of humour kept me suspended in a similar state, and being truly honest—like Gadsby was in her special—was a path to recovery for me. Once I stopped making jokes out of my pain, I was able to actually process it and begin to heal.

And Gadsby’s ability to cut through the BS and present the raw truth is resonating with viewers beyond myself.

Nanette is a blueprint for dealing with trauma and shame, and doing away with self-deprecating humour. Maybe for a while, like Gadsby, my own way of grieving what was done and said to me was through laughing at myself, poking fun at my traumas and telling stories with a little more flair than was really there. In Nanette, the 40-year-old comic presents a pure and simple antidote: There is no shame in our truths. When I heard Gadsby say, “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself,” I realized that there is power—not simply punchlines—in my story. I may be a “broken woman,” but I’m in the process of rebuilding myself, and thanks to her, I know there is strength in that.

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