From #MeToo to MoMA, Hannah Gadsby Pushed the Culture Forward With ‘Nanette’

Her galvanizing Netflix special came along at exactly the right time, changing comedy and inspiring institutional change.
Hannah Gadsby
Hannah Gadsby
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

In February, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City announced a renewed focus on works by women, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans and other overlooked artists following a massive renovation and expansion. According to sources with knowledge of the museum’s decision, the effort to include more underrepresented artists was at least partly inspired by Hannah Gadsby’s galvanizing Netflix special “Nanette.” In a rare blend of comedy, one-person show, and searing social critique, Gadsby drew upon her art history background in “Nanette” to admonish the art world for revering artists like Pablo Picasso, who had relationships with underage girls, while largely ignoring women artists.

“Wow! You just never expect…like institutions are not really listening. So that’s kind of incredible, isn’t it?” Gadbsy said during a recent phone interview after learning of her influence on MoMA’s reasoning for the first time. “I’m a bit blown away. … A popular conversation is one thing. But institutions don’t necessarily respond to them. Institutions have been having this conversation. Art history has had this conversation. But it just never really responded. … Recalibration is something I’d never think they’d do. I’m delighted.”

But Gadsby’s influence doesn’t stop there. In the year and change since “Nanette” became an international sensation, she’s become a symbol of inclusivity for many different groups often made invisible to the mainstream. She’s queer, she’s masculine-presenting (or “gender not-normal,” in her words), she’s on the autism spectrum, she’s a rape survivor, and she doesn’t have the traditionally glorified body type. To many people who see pieces of themselves in Gadsby, her massive success indicates — if only aspirationally — shifting norms around difference in Hollywood and the world. While she hesitates to take credit for any such shift, she does admit she came along at a time when audiences were searching for something more.

Hannah Gadsby in "Nanette"
Hannah Gadsby in “Nanette”BEN KING/Netflix

“I think I did strike something with ‘Nanette.’ The audience had a need [for] something, they needed more than what they’re being given, with certain things. And I didn’t necessarily know that’s what I was doing,” she said. “What was great for me is that I expected that would drive an audience away. I didn’t think it would light a fire.”

One of the most outstanding themes in “Nanette” is the way Gadsby eviscerates toxic masculinity, making a charade of the idea that abusers should be given a pass if they’re a great artist or filmmaker, as in the Picasso example. As a rape survivor and a staunch feminist, Gadsby became an unofficial spokesperson for #MeToo, namely one high-profile comedian who is slinking his way back onto comedy stages.

“There’s a clear path to redemption [for Louis CK], he’s just not taking it,” she said of the widely condemned “Louie” creator.

Gadsby is nominated for two Emmys this year, one for Outstanding Variety Special and Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special for “Nanette.” Surprisingly humble for a stand-up comedian, processing success is complex for Gadsby.

“‘Nanette’ is a show about trauma, and trauma has an effect. And part of that success is that you can’t process positive affectation. So I understand, theoretically, all the success. But I’m still living with the effects of trauma. So winning is not easily processed,” she said. “I’m aware that ‘Nanette’ was very well received, but I’m also aware that there was a lot of hostility towards it, you know? I can’t look at the good without taking the bad. It’s a complex thing, and that’s what trauma really does. It adds a lot of complexity into the human recipe. And I think it’s important to acknowledge that.”

Gadsby faces some stiff competition in both her categories: Specials from Beyoncé (“Homecoming”), Wanda Sykes (“Not Normal”), James Corden (“Carpool Karaoke”), Adam Sandler (“100% Fresh”), Amy Schumer (“Growing”), and Bruce Springsteen (“Springsteen on Broadway”). Still, with the exception of maybe “Homecoming,” it’s tough to argue that any of those specials had an effect as cathartic on the culture at large.

For now, she’s just delighted to be nominated.

“It’s so ridiculous! Beyoncé!” she said. “To be nominated for something like an Emmy is really the win. Who eventually wins is a mood, you know? To be nominated, that feels like a win. When it’s a voting thing, it’s a mood. Whoever wins, that’s the mood and that’s cool. But to be nominated, I think, is incredible.”

So, is being nominated for two Emmys a win she’s able to process?

“Yeah, well, you’ll notice it’s not a technical win, so that’s why it’s easier.”

Final-round Emmy voting is open from Thursday, Aug. 15 through Thursday, Aug. 29 at 10 p.m. PT. Winners for the 71st Primetime Emmys Creative Arts Awards will be announced the weekend of Sept. 14 and 15, with the Primetime Emmys ceremony broadcast live on Fox on Sunday, Sept. 22.

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