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"My story deserves to be told," Hannah Gadsby says in her Netflix special Nanette. "My story has value." That sentiment was proven true last summer, when Netflix released Nanette, an instant cultural sensation. The New York Times called it "the most discussed comedy special in ages." NPR ran a piece called "The 'Nanette' Phenomenon." It was a true breakout moment, and it's no surprise that Gadsby is now nominated for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special at this year's Emmy Awards.
With Nanette, Hannah Gadsby uses the stand-up special format to attack the very concept of comedy. And while the competition is tough -- she's up against Queen Bey herself -- giving the trophy to Hannah Gadsby and Nanette would be a truly remarkable moment for queer folks like me.
Nanette begins by giving the audience what we expect in a comedy special: jokes. Gadsby does about 20 minutes of stand-up about homophobia in her home of Tasmania, the distance she feels from the broader LGBTQ community, and coming out to her family.
But then, slowly, things start to shift. Gadsby hints that she's been thinking about quitting comedy. The reason, she says, is that she doesn't want to participate in the required self-deprecation. She keeps telling jokes, but they have a harder edge. Her exasperation reaches the surface, and she starts to go on the offensive. In one bit, she stumbles on her words repeatedly, unable to contain her disgust with the "hysteria from you gender normals." She goes at straight white men too, noting sarcastically, "they're such good sports."
There's anger building in Gadsby, but she reassures the audience that these are all "just jokes, just banter." She explains how jokes work: The comedian creates tension, then releases tension. She explains that this works because jokes do not have endings. They only have a beginning and a middle. Setup, punch line. No ending.
As Nanette continues, Gadsby's stories get longer, more personal. The anger builds until, right in the middle of her comedy special, she quits comedy. Why? Because she has a story, and she wants it to be heard. And if jokes have no ending, then comedy cannot be the medium through which she tells her story. For the remainder of Nanette, Gadsby becomes a storyteller, telling tales consumed by decades of rage, shame, and humiliation. She discusses mental health, homophobia, misogyny, violence against women and LGBTQ people, the brutality of the gender normal, and to illustrate them all, Picasso.
I won't recount the details of these stories. If you haven't already seen Nanette, for goodness sakes, do so, and discover them for yourself.
Instead, I'll tell you what Nanette means to a queer viewer like me. You see, Hannah Gadsby and I have a bit in common. We both "took a long time to come to terms with our sexuality," resulting in part from the shame we felt from our homophobic upbringings. We both belong to that little-tolerated category, gender nonconformers (I prefer Gadsby's "not normals"). And as not normals living in a world dominated -- sometimes violently so -- by the gender normals, we both have suffered the consequences of being, again in Gadbsy's terms, incorrectly gendered.
That's a tense space to live in. I've found it constantly exhausting, both physically and emotionally. Such a tense existence, Gadsby explains, aided her success as a comedian: She's been finding ways to release tension since she was a child. Learning to release tension was necessary to her survival.
Learning to break the tension created simply by existing, this is a well-honed skill for so many LGBTQ people. Coming out later in life, like I did, I thought I was prepared for life outside the closet. I expected pride, and there was some. But more, there was shame, embarrassment, humiliation. I felt like a joke, a punch line -- not a participant in a complex story.
Which is to say, I was all tension. No relief. Gadsby says, "This tension is what not normals carry inside of us all the time." But what kind of life are we -- am I -- living by simply surviving in tension?
And that question, that reality, is what makes Nanette so beautiful and so stinging. What Gadsby proposes, what she unloads on the audience, is a radical experiment in queer storytelling: what happens if I stop breaking the tension? What if I stop letting you off the hook, giving the "normals" an escape hatch? Breaking the tension enables homophobia, misogyny, violence. "This tension," she says, "it's yours. I'm not helping you anymore."
With those words, Nanette became the ode to queer resilience that I was waiting for. "What I would have done to hear a story like mine," she says, and in her quivering voice I heard and understood that my story, like all stories, has value. Some are harder to hear than others, but those are the ones that need to be told the most. And if those stories are going to be told, we have to leave the jokes behind and embrace what endings we find. We have to let the tension live, as uncomfortable as it might be. Because without tension, our stories disappear.
Rewarding Nanette at the Emmys won't eliminate any of the forces working against LGBTQ people in the world. But it will champion one of our finest storytellers who taught me an enduring, important lesson: It's not my job to break the tension.
Leigh Finke is a media producer and writer from St. Paul, Minn.