Hannah Gadsby’s 'Douglas' Is Just As Brilliant As 'Nanette'
If you didn’t know who Hannah Gadsby was before her Netflix comedy special Nanette, you are not alone. If you still don’t know who she is, you must literally live under a rock. An Australian comedian, writer, and actress, Gadsby’s newest special Douglas is now on Netflix. Rarely do I demand things of people (besides a constant exploration of self and the growth of emotional intelligence while checking implicit biases), but I demand this: Watch Gadsby’s newest show.
Referencing Nanette’s heaviness, Gadsby jokes that Nanette was “a particular show of a particular flavor.” Douglas is lighter and more playful but every bit as poignant as the show that rocketed her to fame in the U.S.
Gadsby begins with a 14-minute “prelude” that she claims is not part of the show, wherein she describes, bullet point-style, exactly what we’re in for and how she predicts we will react. She lets us know she’ll crack some jokes, lecture a bit, call out misogyny and patriarchy, address anti-vaxxers, and lay some “bait” for her haters. She warns us that she’ll reveal that she’s autistic, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since she just told us. And yet, somehow, even after that 14-minute prelude wherein she summarizes everything she’s about to tells us, the other 58 minutes still feel fresh, surprising, and brilliant. Maybe even more so than if she hadn’t warned us.
It’s clear the lengthy prelude is very much part of the show, but Gadsby never admits this, and the irony of letting us in on all the rest of her jokes without copping to this 14-minute one, is indicative of the ponderous knot into which she is famous for tying her audiences.
It’s her ability to manipulate her audience that makes Gadsby a genius. She is able to deliver a knockout punch even after she’s already told you it’s coming. She literally tells you to duck and yet you still get hit in the head.
Gadsby employed a similar technique in Nanette, but she did it more toward the end, where she admitted to the audience she had deliberately mis-told the story of a brutal attack (leaving out the traumatic bits and instead injecting the story with humor) as a way to get the audience to let down its guard for the later truthful retelling of the same story. Having heard the “light” version first made the true story that much more of a gut punch, and Gadsby made it clear to her audience that her deception had been deliberate. In Douglas, she uses the same tactic, but in reverse—she pulls back the curtain on her process and reveals the layers of deliberation so that the audience feels the deep intention—the seriousness—behind her “jokes.”
What Gadsby did with Nanette was unlike anything we had yet seen in comedy. She tackled misogyny, homophobia, and trauma in a way that was raw and necessary and not funny. She began with the usual tactic of making a joke of trauma and then asked with dead seriousness why exactly it is that trauma is often treated as a joke. Why is it that comedians, and especially queer comedians, self-deprecate and allow others to profit off of and laugh at their pain? She’d had enough of it and delivered one of the most powerful and honest presentations of the human experience the world has seen.
A big part of Douglas is Gadsby’s poking fun of Americans, who she refers to as “culturally confident,” a trait that she says leads us to our own stupidity. America, Gadsby observes, is the straight white male of cultures. Given the way Americans have shown their privilege during the COVID-19 pandemic, she couldn’t be more right. Imagine the entitlement and ignorance required to walk around without a mask, confident that you know better than scientists and public health experts. Nothing more American than being sure you know everything!
Gadsby uses Renaissance art and a hidden female body part called the “Douglas pouch” (yes, really) to illustrate the absolute absurdity of how easy it is for a man to become famous, revered, remembered, or even sainted—in comparison to women. Men have all the control, but why? Based on the “women frolicking naked together” paintings that have come to dominate the canon and the fact that a man who had a wet dream about the Virgin Mary squirting breast milk into his eye somehow managed to be elevated to sainthood, men are stupid and weird and gross.
Even weirder is that we’re all so enmeshed in this culture of absurdity that we barely question it. Gadsby addresses hormones, admitting to craving chocolate once in a while when she’s “hormonal,” but then notes that when men get testy, they punch walls. Men are hormonal too, but almost never get called out for it. Is punching a wall preferable to eating chocolate? Gadsby doesn’t ask this question—she tells a story that makes you ask it yourself. She addresses deep, millennia-old gender perceptions that we all know exist, but she does it in a way that feels fresh and revelatory.
Not that Gadsby lets women off the hook. Far from it. “My core demographic is rich entitled white women,” she says, and where there are rich, entitled white women, there are anti-vaxxers. (She also slyly calls out J.K. Rowling as a TERF using poor Hermione as a sacrifice.) She instructs the anti-vaxxers in the audience not to out themselves though, telling them, “that’s not what this is.” Without explicitly saying it, she implies that outing themselves could potentially subject them to an angry mob-type situation. She’s clear that vaccines do not cause autism, but she tells the anti-vaxxers in the audience that even if vaccines did cause autism, she’d rather live a life with autism in a world without polio. “I’m happy to take one for the team,” she says.
Gadsby is a cruise director and magician all in one. She is in complete control of her audience’s experience. Nothing that comes out of her mouth is said without thought and intention. If you feel tricked into laughing about something—particularly your own biases—or made to feel something you didn’t expect to feel, then the magic worked. Douglas is her show and her life and we will sit and listen. Hannah Gadsby is a wizard at her craft and I hope she keeps casting her spell on us again and again.
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