Sunday, July 29, 2018

On "Nanette" ambivalence

Everyone seemed to really love "Nanette." By "everyone" at this stage (there will be other stages), I mostly mean people I follow on social media: friends, acquaintances, like-minded writers. I had not, thus far, much-if-at-all noticed any reviews. But judging by word-of-mouth reception, the show, a Netflix stand-up special, seemed to have achieved the miraculous feat of seeming spot-on regarding feminism, across swaths of feminists who don't necessarily normally agree on much. There was a #MeToo angle! Something about mansplaining, but not heavy-handed-seeming! But also: performer Hannah Gadsby spoke about being a gender-non-conforming lesbian and not — as others would sometimes insist — a trans man, which pleased the contingent fearful that butch lesbians these days are under pressure to transition. (That is not my lane — I'm a cis woman not averse to menswear, but who, earlier this evening, booked something called "partial head highlights" — and nor am I any kind of outside expert; I bring this up merely to point out how branches of feminism I wouldn't have expected to were converging over "Nanette.")

Without giving much thought to how any of this would translate to comedy, I found myself with the requisite set of factors — an hour or so of free time, a limited array on Canadian Netflix — and figured why not?

It started out promising: We meet Gadsby with her dogs, and they're excellent dogs. Then, and more importantly, there's Gadsby herself, who's so charming, as well as just... original. Her stage presence, but also her well-told, unusual-for-stand-up life story (a gay Tasmanian woman with a background in art history, in an arena where "woman" can, on its own, suffice as difference). And maybe most of all, originality-wise, an unpredictable politics: unambiguously progressive but in-group critical. That's a tough line to walk, especially in comedy — how can this be done without making it seem like you're giving out-group members, aka the majority of the audience (and of society), permission to laugh at the group you're a part of? — but somehow she was managing it.

And then...

The second part of the routine is what critics (although the word "critics" seems the wrong word for near-unanimous adulation) have deemed the point. It's a monologue covering quite a bit of ground, all righteous, some cathartic, some more along the lines of a gets-it-right op-ed (or, as some have observed, a TED talk): Picasso was a sexist whose lover, during his own middle age, was a 17-year-old girl. Self-deprecation is problematic, you see, a self-defense mechanism of the marginalized. Comedy is problematic. Gadsby speaks about her own experiences as the victim of sexual violence; what she says is not funny, but who would ask this to be? She also repeats the refrain, "straight cis white men," I think in that order, in reference to the category of humanity without experience being the underdog.

Where did all this leave the viewer, or much more accurately, this viewer?

I came away as convinced as I already was — which is to say, abundantly convinced — that homophobia is a scourge which has lived on well past when some might imagine it's obsolete, if with more specific knowledge about Australian homophobia than I'd ever had previously. I was also — shockingly, I know, especially As A Woman — already opposed to sexual assault, as well as irritated at the thing where male geniuses (and a whole lot of not-so-brilliant men, under that cover) get a pass to do pretty much whatever. And yeah, I've experienced a bit of mansplanation in my day, even if my interpretation of it may be slightly different than the usual. (I think mansplaining is a thing, but a thing men also do to other men, only the dynamic's different in that context.) I may not have been precisely the target audience for "Nanette," but not far off.

But did agreeing with (most of) the arguments themselves mean liking "Nanette"?

According to The Moment, yeah, pretty much. Reviews and profiles in major publications (New Yorker, NYT, Guardian, etc.) tended to hit the same notes: Behold, a list of unassailable public figures who not only praised "Nanette" but declared it the most important work ever. Behold, Gadsby herself, someone whose relatively late, out-of-the-blue-seeming success, after numerous personal and mental-health struggles, feels not just earned but like justice being served. And then the third element: the cultural and political context, the ultra-solemn Now. "Nanette" feels like a response to Louis C.K., to all the bad men who've felt entitled to our bodies and our laughter. (Consider the New Yorker's choice to have Moira Donegan, creator of the "Shitty Media Men" list, as a "Nanette" reviewer.)

Failure to swoon over "Nanette" becomes a multifaceted misdeed: a dissent from the critical consensus; a personal-seeming insult against a performer who seems like an unusually deserving person (because, after all, the show is so personal);

While watching "Nanette," I found myself thinking of Woody Allen, not least because he comes in for some criticism in Part II. A straight cis white man, yes. Problematic, undoubtedly. (And who can forget that the journalist credited with #MeToo — even if, fine, two women journalists got there first — is none other than Allen's son? Woody Is Everywhere.) But I have trouble thinking of the self-deprecation of Allen's early years as coming from a place of privilege. I found myself wondering whether Gadsby, whose show so deeply rests on her own unequivocal underdog status, has reckoned with her own (best as I know) gentileness, when effectively throwing Jewish humor (yes, and other sorts as well) out the window.

I am not an experiencer of male privilege. I did not take the ugh-men turn remotely personally. Nor, somehow, was I cheering.

Far more than Woody Allen, though, the comedian I had in mind while watching was Ali Wong, a comic I also learned about via social-media hype leading me to a Netflix special. It's hard to argue that Wong's physical presence in "Baby Cobra" (which, for what it's worth, I watched and enjoyed well before motherhood was on the horizon for me personally) or "Hard Knock Wife" — Asian-American and heavily pregnant — is less outside stand-up norms than Gadsby's. Wong, too, broke ground, and addressed all manner of 'identity' topics, and also... was hilarious.

It helps that Wong's performances (and, as I recall, the critical and social-media endorsements of them) don't leave the viewer feeling like anything less than a heartfelt enthusiastic reception means you're an anti-Asian bigot, or unsympathetic to the challenges of life in a female body. Nor, for that matter, that any response other than This Is Important was akin to bashing a sensitive soul's artistic production.

But what I kept thinking was, are we meant to believe Ali Wong pandered to the patriarchy by doing stand-up routines that were funny the whole way through, addressing race, female sexuality, and miscarriage, but also, heaven forfend, making audiences laugh? More broadly: why is anything other than unsubtle, earnest outrage now viewed as being on the wrong side? Does someone like me — someone who (this is in the book) found much of "Master of None" cringe-inducing — simply not belong to this era?

(Is it too cynical, or worse, to remember that "Master of None" was only held up as this icon of Awareness until co-creator and star Aziz Ansari became problematic via an itself-problematic early #MeToo story, wherein he was reportedly gross while dating? To remember this, that is, and to wonder whether it's tempting fate to declare Gadsby — or any human being! — the epitome of pure, underdog goodness, when who knows what will surface, or as they say online, milkshake-duck?)

Sanctimonious entertainment doesn't drive me to the right politically. (Thus why you're getting this to-do on WWPD and not in a publication — I could see my view on "Nanette" being not just published celebrated on the right... but for the wrong reasons.) Maybe it does this for some, I wouldn't rule it out. For me, it just makes me think cultural consumption is something that effectively needs to happen in private, if it's to happen honestly. Not necessarily in the sense of alone, but among friends, or over direct messages.

To be clear, it's not about what can or can't be said, or not exactly. I'm well aware that there's a tremendous market for dissenting views from self-identified progressives. But that market is, or amounts to, the right. Or if not the right, exactly, then a subset of the center that has its priorities wrong, obsessing over progressive sanctimony while the right offers up one disaster after the next. It's certainly permitted not to like "Nanette." But where are you left if you like its political message but not its artistic one, or just found the whole thing a bit meh, despite rooting for the creator personally? Is this a case where it's best to say nothing at all?

The trouble with personal writing (yes, I repeat myself on this) is that it's impossible to criticize the writing without seeming to be judging the author, or making light of her struggles. A similar problem comes up with political art: If you care about Issue A, the expectation is that you'll love Work X, and conversely, if Work X doesn't do much for you, then it's clearly because Issue A doesn't move you. This approach to culture, which feels (and is!) so very now, isn't entirely new. It's just become ubiquitous. (Please, please read Lauren Oyler on "necessary" art, especially this part, but really, all of it: "When applied to bad art with good politics, 'necessary' allows the audience to avoid engaging with a work in aesthetic terms, which tend to be more ambiguous and difficult.")

"Nanette" falls squarely into both situations — it's personal and topical. To feel meh about "Nanette" is — unless you're really leaning into contrarianism — to feel as though you're wrong politically as well as contributing to the wrongs the performance's creator has already had to suffer. Which is... not great, I think, for art, or ultimately, for politics either.

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