The Tension in the Room - by Ray Waddle
“I wouldn’t want to be a straight white man. Not if you paid me. Although the pay would be substantially better.” – comedian Hannah Gadsby
Hannah Gadsby is tired of jokes, the desperate logic of jokes. A successful joke simply requires a set up, then a punchline. It depends on creating tension in the room, then defusing the tension with laughter, she says. But as a lesbian from a small Australian town, she’s been the tension in the room all her life. And the only way to defuse it was to use self-deprecation: She was the punchline. She got laughs at her own expense. It worked, and she became a professional comic. But it was humiliating and did nothing to change society. Now she’s done with that.
With a sweet light touch and smoldering fury, she talks about this in a new Netflix hour-long special called Nanette. The show has become a sensation, a new kind of culture critique, an interrogation of patriarchy, also a takedown of the eager-to-please comedy subculture that merrily accepts the warped sexism in our midst.
Gadsby tells a story: She was talking to a woman at a bus stop when the woman’s boyfriend showed up and got angry because he mistook Gadsby for a man – a gay man. That gets some laughs, on cue. What Gadsby doesn’t say (until later) is that the guy then severely beat her. Nothing funny about that.
She’s using a comedy forum to talk about the dangerous misogyny and homophobia that terrorizes her life and others. She turns to the straight men in the audience: “Power belongs to you. And if you can’t handle criticism, take a joke, or deal with your own tension without violence, you have to wonder if you are up to the task of being in charge. I’m not a man-hater. But I’m afraid of men. If I’m the only woman in a room full of men, I am afraid. And if you think that’s unusual, you’re not speaking to the women in your life.”
It’s disarming to laugh with a comedian who then slowly reshapes the evening into a series of painful moments of truth. Misogyny – “hating what you desire” – is a crippling contradiction, a mental illness, she declares. Picasso disrespected women, but he gets a pass because he was the genius who invented cubism. From there Gadsby ponders the Clinton sex scandal of 20 years ago, and the consequences we are paying now for tolerating a president’s behavior.
“Do you know who used to be an easy punch line? Monica Lewinsky. Maybe if comedians had done their job properly and made fun of the man who abused his power, then perhaps we might have had a middle-aged woman with an appropriate amount of experience in the White House, instead of, as we do, a man who openly admitted to sexually assaulting vulnerable young women because he could.”
This is, I believe, Gadsby’s only mention of American politics in her show, but it touches on a molten source of our turmoil since the 2016 election campaign: a male fear of women seeking power. For decades, the hatred of Hillary Clinton has been intense. It has also been disproportionate. Various studies say lots of men feel threatened by a woman near the center of power because they fear subordination, a loss of status (many traditional women fear the loss of male status too), writes Peter Beinart in The Atlantic, summarizing various research.*** The “precarious manhood” theory says womanhood arrives naturally and permanently, but manhood must be proved and earned and can be lost. Many feel society is getting too feminized. Women in power are judged more harshly than men. Women who deviate from traditional female roles are more likely to be sexually harassed, Beinart writes.
Strange that a comedy show could become a galvanizing platform for truth-telling about gay life and male anxiety. That’s how rare the conversation happens anywhere else.
By the end of Nanette, Hanna Gadsby says she’s angry and has a right to be. But that doesn’t get the last word. She says she doesn’t have the right to spread anger.
“Because anger, much like laughter, can connect a room full of strangers like nothing else. But anger, even if it’s connected to laughter, will not relieve tension. Because anger is a tension. It is a toxic, infectious tension. And it knows no other purpose than to spread blind hatred, and I want no part of it.”
*** Peter Beinart, “Fear of a Female President,” The Atlantic, October 2016, pp. 15-17.