“Indelible in the Hippocampus”

Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette and the Tradition of Women’s Satire

Laughter is powerful, and it’s often touted as the best medicine. But as we know all too well from the recent news cycle, the power of laughter is far more complicated than that. “Indelible in the hippocampus,” as Dr. Blasey Ford would say, is the laughter of men aimed at the women they abuse, and the laughter used to doubly mock the women who speak up. Laughter can be a site at which power strengthens and finds its numbers, moving from the powered, aiming downwards. Laughter can show us who has power—and who doesn’t.

Laughter can also, however, be used as an affecting and effective tool of resistance. When comedy mimics generic jokes and then turns these jokes on their heads, it transforms into critical satire. This kind of laughter satirizes not only those who wield laughter as power in systems of inequality and cruelty, but also the conventional forms in which they do so.

Hannah Gadsby’s one-hour comedy special, Nanette, did just that. Gadsby’s special, which premiered in June on Netflix, begins with a lighthearted comedy bit about being an introvert who often finds herself uncomfortably pressured to express her identity as a lesbian through the “metaphor of party.” Halfway through her special, Gadsby launches into a scathing critique of hero worship, of male comedians who have assaulted women, and of the masculine form of stand-up comedy jokes. Stand-up comedy, she observes, feeds on trauma: an engineered build-up of tension followed by a punchline. In this way, Gadsby—though she announces she’s quitting comedy in Nanette—claims her position in a long tradition of female satirists who use conventional genres as a vehicle to enact critique of the power structures that create those very forms. Satire here is different from comedy; it is not about punchlines but about critiquing conventional narratives.

And it is a tradition that rose among women writers in the eighteenth century, an era that saw a surge of female authorship. As women, these writers knew they were being watched. They were expected to conduct themselves within the strictures of modesty, a complicated category that scholar Ruth Yeazell has described as the paradoxical expectation for young ladies to have minds that were unconscious (of their bodies, of their sexualities, of their physical existence in the world) but also instinctively conscious regarding men. This, of course, put female writers in a precarious position. Writing a story was unladylike because, for a woman, writing her own story entailed asserting herself as a thinking, speaking subject. As a body (and a body of text), the woman writer could be deemed too visible, too lewd.

So what to do? In her debut novel, Evelina (1778), Frances Burney gave us one answer: write a novel, but write it slant. Evelina exemplifies a satirical technique used by women writers in the period. It employs conventional narrative modes—romance and the epistolary novel—to relate episodes between its heroine and men, episodes that are repeated later with darker, more threatening tones in order to critique male entitlement and men’s consistent refusal to acknowledge women’s personhood.

In one instance, a man repeatedly asks Evelina to dance, ignoring her refusals until she panics and lies that she is previously engaged, at which point he interrogates her about her fabricated partner. Evelina initially laughs off this and other encounters like it, but as the novel progresses, these encounters become darker and more Gothic. Evelina barely escapes a number of genuinely dangerous situations. She conveys all of this to readers via letters to her (male) guardian. This epistolary mode encloses the dark content within a conventional genre, a decision that allows Burney to voice her critique of men while also affirming Evelina’s respect for male authority. The epistolary mode also allows Burney to incorporate contrasting scenes together into one narrative and to thereby create a story that observes and delineates right from wrong, a story that reclaims a female gaze so that it may look outwards.

Over 200 years later, Gadsby’s show offers similar juxtapositions. She tells us a joke she used to include in her stand-up about a stranger mistaking her for a man and threatening her for flirting with his girlfriend. We laugh at the man’s ignorance and nod in agreement at the disbelieving tone with which she recounts the experience. In the latter part of her act, however, Gadsby tells us the true ending to that story: that man beat Gadsby up after realizing she was a woman. He verbally abused her with derogatory, homophobic slurs and severely injured her physically. By revisiting a joke premised on her trauma and her true account of living as a gay woman, Gadsby accomplishes two remarkable things. She delivers to us a full story that enacts her critique of what she has called the masculine genre of stand-up comedy, adding a crucial, tone-shifting chapter she had once omitted, and she shows us how she has grown as the author of her own story into someone who no longer wants to be the object of laughter but, rather, an honest, speaking subject.

Such a tonal shift from the conventional and lighthearted to the outraged also helps us to discern differences between sensitive and insensitive characters: the heroines and the villains. Burney’s Evelina observes that those around her with titles and money treat her like a prop because she is a disenfranchised young woman. “Is it not very extraordinary,” she asks, that people who have privilege “can put me in situations so shocking, and then wonder to find me sensible of any concern?” Here, Evelina recognizes that those who have power develop conventions that exclude and invalidate her as one without sensibility, a word related to emotional awareness and consciousness. These characters regard Evelina as emotionally vacant, and thus without personhood, fair game for various kinds of discomfort and even abuse. Yet, throughout the novel, Evelina is the primary speaker, and she is clearly angry at their treatment of her, obviously awakened to the world and its power structures.

Gadsby issues a similarly outraged cry to her audience. She says that the most common piece of criticism she receives is to “stop being so sensitive”—an imperative that for her often comes from men, often delivered via a scream. Gadsby responds, with boldness and heat, by claiming that her sensitivity is a “strength” that has helped her navigate “a very difficult path in life.” Instead of dialing her emotions down, Gadsby reclaims emotionality in the second act of her show, shouting into the microphone, assuring the audience that, yes, she is angry.

Both Burney’s Evelina and Gadsby express their frustration that emotionality—the lack of it or the excess of it—is mobilized to write them off. And yet both women prove more sensible—in the eighteenth-century sense meaning sensitive—than the people around them. Although Burney and Gadsby speak from the margins in different eras and in different situations, their sensibility enables them to observe abuse and creates their respective artistic responses—Evelina and Nanette—with which audiences can connect.

In Burney’s novel, some of Evelina’s letters are addressed to her friend Maria, another woman who has just entered society. While Evelina must hide her more enthusiastic reactions to being in the social world when she is writing to her male guardian, to Maria she can go on at length about the novelties she has experienced. Her writing here is less polished, more liberated. She exclaims to her friend, “I cannot but lament to find myself in a world so deceitful, where we must suspect what we see, distrust what we hear, and doubt even what we feel!” The novel never provides us with Maria’s responses. Perhaps, we the readers are to stand in for Maria, Evelina’s equal and true confidante. In her letters to Maria, Evelina’s narrative turns outward, breaking a fourth wall, giving readers the responsibility of keeping Evelina’s secrets, the responsibility to carry out her wish for a less deceitful world in which we can trust our feelings and validate others’ stories.

Nanette is Gadsby’s story, but it is also interwoven with the stories of women she names and includes. (The very title is the name of a woman she met once.) Throughout the show, she talks about other women who have been laughed at, ridiculed, and abused. Gadsby draws upon her degree in art history during her set, when she rails against Picasso who had an affair with a seventeen-year-old girl when he was in his forties and said that a girl of such an age was in her prime. Gadsby names this girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter, and gives her space beside herself onstage for a considerable portion of the show. We feel the weight of the abuses women have suffered that have stretched back centuries and across countries.

At the very end, the weight of this history is too much for Gadsby to carry, and she explains that this is why she has shared it with us. Gadsby says, “I don’t want to unite you with laughter or anger. I just needed my story heard, felt, and understood by individuals with minds of their own.”

And so in both Nanette and Evelina, laughter evolves into stories that turn away from and beyond the women on the page and onstage. Burney and Gadsby demonstrate the ability of feminist satire to infiltrate genre, deconstruct it from the inside, and turn critique outward. As it evolves from comedy into satire, Nanette—like Evelina—carves out a voice for a marginalized voice to speak, and creates community between the heroine and the audience. Ultimately, Burney and Gadsby turn storytelling into something that, unlike the laughter wielded by the powerful, is not aimed downwards. Instead, storytelling becomes something equalizing, something with the potential to be shared.

Lillian Lu is a PhD student in English at UCLA, researching eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature, gender, and race. Her current personal goal is to replace her daily coffee with tea.

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