Be a Tether

This week I had the opportunity to watch Hannah Gadsby’s show Nanette on Netflix. I can’t recommend it enough. If you don’t believe me, you can read about it in Wired, the New York Times, and the New Yorker, and all over social media.

Her messages are incredibly timely with LGBTQ Ally Week just around the corner. And – in the US at least – her show also mirrors the discourse in the popular press about protecting white male privilege and reputations without regard for the lives of young women.

This is bigger than homosexuality. This is about how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things. It’s sensitive, it’s juvenile, it’s destructive. It’s more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with. Ignorance will always walk amongst us, because we will never know all of the things. I need to tell my story, because you learn from the part of the story that you focus on.

Hannah describes growing up in Tasmania’s Bible Belt, when homosexuality was a crime until 1997, and considered unacceptable by 70% of the population there. As a result, during those vulnerable years of childhood, she internalized shame and homophobia which will stay with her for the rest of her life.

As an accomplished comedian, Hannah has used comedy as a way to curate her life story in such a way that the most difficult parts were never told. She has realized she can’t do that any more, and that she may need to quit comedy as a result. Good comedy is simply a set up and a punchline; a story has a beginning, middle and end. In comedy the set up creates tension and the punchline dissolves it. In comedy the ending isn’t told, because it doesn’t fit that pattern. And of course the laughter – and the connection that it brings to a room – is what stand-up comedy is all about. As a result, she has never fully explored the complete version of her story, and she feels that in doing so, she trapped herself in adolescent shame.

I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor. And I don’t want to do that any more. Do you understand what self-deprecation means that comes from someone who exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. I don’t want to do that any more, not to myself, and not to anyone who identifies with me.

Woven in to her narrative for this show was a retelling of stories from her past comedic shows, where the true ending was shared. Her stories were emotional, incredibly powerful. They were also extremely relevant to the current U.S. news as we wait for next steps on the Kavanaugh confirmation in the Supreme Court, in wake of the sexual harassment claim against him from a former classmate.

With Ally Week around the corner, I can’t recommend Hannah’s show enough for those who want to deeply understand (in spite of the inevitable discomfort it will bring) what it’s like to see the world from another perspective. Woven in to her presentation was some humor about her academic training in art history, and how we’ve retold history in a way that privileges male accomplishments at the expense of sharing their humanity.

She says we think about ‘high art’ as way to elevate people, but we should not forget that the most successful artists have always been attached to money and power.

Vincent van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime; he couldn’t network, because he was emotionally unstable. Yet we have romanticized his mental illness, because it resulted in the sunflower paintings we admire so much. In reality, one of the medications he was on resulted in a heightened experience of the color yellow.

In contrast, Picasso wasn’t mentally ill but he was a misogynist. She dislikes cubism, and furthermore, she doesn’t believe you can ‘separate the man from the art’. Yet, cubism was a game-changer – shifting perspective in art from a single, stable world-view and bringing in many perspectives at once. But none of those perspectives were a woman’s. While married, he slept with a seventeen year old girl, without regard for her future or reputation. Hannah argues that our obsession with reputation – especially the reputations of men – needs to first be acknowledged, and then dealt with. We think men’s reputations are more important than anything else, including their humanity.

After describing some of the horrific experiences that she had abbreviated and used her in comedy show in the past, Hannah said:

I am not a victim. I tell you this because my story has value. My story has value. I tell you this because I want you to know, I need you to know what I know – that to be rendered powerless does not destroy your resilience. Your resilience is your humanity. The only people who lose their humanity are those who believe they have the right to render others powerless. They are the weak. To yield and not break – that is incredible strength.

… I will not allow my story to be destroyed. What I would have done to have heard a story like mine. Not for shame, not reputation, not for money, not for power – but to feel connected. I want my story heard because, ironically, I believe Picasso was right. We could paint a better world if we learned how to see it from all perspectives, as many perspectives as we could. Because diversity is strength, difference is a teacher. Fear difference, you learn nothing.

At the end of her show, Hannah talks about Vincent van Gogh, and the real reason he was able to produce his art. It was brother who loved him. What if we changed the narrative? Through all his pain he had a tether, a connection to the world. That is the focus of the story we need – human connection.

As we prepare our Ally Week celebrations, I would ask each and every person to consider what they are doing to ensure they see the world from multiple perspectives. Perhaps you can be that tether for one person who is ashamed, afraid, or otherwise vulnerable. Only in that way – when we embrace the humanity and complexity in each other – can we truly be connected and thrive.

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