Notes after Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette

I’ve not yet watched Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette on Netflix because I watched it live in London earlier this year, after trying desperately and failing to see it in Edinburgh last summer. I’m bad at watching things twice, though this would repay it I know. This is a good interview with her in the Guardian. So much that’s rich in it. I’m glad she’s still speaking and adding context to the show for many selfish reasons including;

1. Whenever I talked about my research on resistance and comedy, people would often launch into monologues about Stewart Lee’s innovation with form and I would sometimes say “There are also other comics innovating with form, in a way which plays with the comic-audience relationship differently” and they would look at me blankly, unsure how to cope with the idea that “Held up as an example of innovation due to having lots of cultural capital” and “Innovating” might be separate things.

2. In this interview she says that comedy is a form which is more accessible to people with less socio-economic capital because there are fewer gatekeepers. A strand of class criticism runs through her work and she makes the tension of social mobility visible in her movement between comedy and art criticism. See, look what can be done with comedy as an art form and give it Arts Council funding. (Actually, lots of practitioners from poorer backgrounds I know who straddle stand up comedy and other potentially subsidised forms are savvy enough to source both public and commercial funding and audiences for their work. The boundaries between forms like stand up and poetry and theatre are increasingly porous).

3. That’s why at a crucial point in Nanette I wanted to say “But, stand-up is able to do way more than you say it can, as your show itself proves, so you don’t have to give it up”- but she seems to have concluded that now. This applies times a hundred after the success of her show on Netflix. Stand-up is a brilliant form for people from marginalised backgrounds to challenge stereotypes without necessarily ONLY self-deprecating or minimising their experiences.

4. She’s talking openly here about being diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Condition (or Autism Spectrum Disorder, as the Guardian possibly insists). In the show, HG talks about the importance of stories as a tether and of shame being overcome-able culturally. (Her ASC is not part of her show, which focuses on her experiences of terrible homophobia). It’s still part of ASC diagnostic criteria that you might struggle with humour. Autistic people are still too often punchlines to jokes, rather than authors or subjects of stories which address the complexities of their lives. The fact that an autistic comedian is being so hugely successful with a deeply sensitive, emotional and hilarious show is part of a story which can act as a tether for autistic children and adults (and their families) who are often only hearing about deficits and “can’t”s via the reductive medical model.

5. Her show itself performs anger and tension and refuses to defuse it for the audience so that everybody can go away feeling better. Whilst that’s part of her performance that feels particularly revolutionary to audiences used to everything being wrapped up in a tidy bow of laughter, the interviews and commentary on Nanette demonstrate that she’s also mobilising another affect/emotion that can be revolutionary in stand-up- love. Or if that sounds too soppy – deep acceptance. Her trust of the audience in making herself vulnerable and expressing her previously hidden feelings, including anger, shows an acceptance of herself, but also of them. That can, in turn, help them to self-acceptance around their own traumas. Conjuring love in the room is not seen as particularly revolutionary- but in these times it certainly is. Experts at it include Sarah Millican and Barbara Nice- though love often hovers, unfashionably and unnamed in stand-up settings everywhere.

6. I was doing gigs at The Stand in Newcastle throughout 2012 and 2013. Open mike spots, unpaid tens and fifteens, some paid tens and fifteens. I’d been doing quite well as a stand up poet for a few years and had stepped back from the stand up circuit with relief. I’d never done very well there. Some paid support slots and usually a feeling of deep discomfort with how stand up put me in a box and led to me to be a much less interesting, thoughtful version of me as a performer. I could see that performers who were able to talk about men and women as different species and be relatable did well. I wasn’t relatable- but I wasn’t weird enough, or knowing enough then about my weirdness, to play up to it. This was somehow resolved when I did stand up poetry because I could be all of me at once and declaring you’re a poet already says you are coming at some sort of left angle to the world. Anyway, I decided not to do any self deprecating material at all in these Stand gigs. Meanwhile I saw Bridget Christie, Hannah Gadsby and Rachel Mars do shows at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 in which they all at some point took clothes off (onesies for Bridget and Rachel, standing in a swimming cossie for Hannah). They were telling me that stand up comedy could be self-controlled exposure but I couldn’t quite hear it. Just heard lots of angry young men doing material about rape and how awful women were and didn’t have the craft or binary thinking to deal with it. That’s when I decided to do a show nobody would care about because nobody was listening to me anyway- and my show about not wanting children became my first Radio 4 show and featured on an impending film documentary about women who don’t have kids. So in a very mini-way, I have also struggled to break out of the limitations of stand up as a form- and found a way to do that within stand up. It can expand to fit because it’s not only a commercial form that happens with big shiny lights around it and blokes with jokes, but is part of the folkloric, human need to have one person channel thoughts and jokes and stories in a way which makes them and an audience thrum with something which isn’t just thoughts or feelings, or being told, or listening, but the thrilling, transformational chaos that happens in the third space between.

 

Interview with Hannah Gadsby

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jul/16/hannah-gadsby-trauma-comedy-nanette-standup-netflix

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Autistic on Love Island.

Why did Niall Aslam leave Love Island? Two weeks ago we were only told it was because of “Personal reasons”, now he’s braving the stigma connected with an Autism/Aspergers diagnosis and spoken out to say this was behind his decision to leave. Here “Aah, because of Aspergers” the journalists and commentators are saying, “Yeah, er social difficulties and that” they add. The chances of getting some meaningful insight from them into what this means are about as high as for Adam Collard (the gas lighting one) deciding to train as a Relate counsellor after he leaves the show.

Now, I don’t know Niall and I’ve only watched one episode of Love Island (I didn’t inhale, but I could see a slippery slope of addiction beckoning if I carried on), so I really can’t speak for him, but I can give some insight into why being in an environment like Love Island might be hard for an autistic person. This point of view is important, because while we’re getting some of the cliched medical criteria in the stories about his diagnosis, we’re not getting the insights built up by the many actually autistic people who are finally getting their voices heard about the daily realities of life on the spectrum (I would recommend the #actuallyautistic hashtag on Twitter as a good starting point here). These insights would tend more to point to sensory sensitivities and things like autistic burnouts and social hangovers, which aren’t even mentioned in the descriptions of this way of processing and experiencing the world which have been written by psychologists and psychiatrists.

Many of the doctors still believe that an autistic way of being is not as normal or valid as a non-autistic one. They’re not that interested in the inside view or feeling of being autistic. Along with the stigma associated with the diagnosis, which Niall is bravely confronting by being open about it, an autistic person who only hears the medical view of the condition (Perhaps when they’re diagnosed as a child as Niall was), is less likely to reach the self-understanding necessary to live well as an autist. It’s partly why the suicide rate for autistic people is NINE TIMES that of the general population.  Anyhoo, that’s a rant for another time. I’m just going to suggest some reasons why the Love Island environment would be hard for an autistic person and hope that this also adds to some people’s understanding of the condition (I struggle with the word condition, autism is more about how someone’s brain and body is wired, it’s not separable from them and it’s not one single thing. Language around this stuff is hard).

  • The noise! Loud voices echoing across the pool, twenty people all talking at once and  shouting about the “Do bits society”, the bleep of the phone. It would basically do your brain in. Lots of  autistic people wear noise-cancelling headphones when they go out into public spaces.

 

  • Smells. I imagine there were sometimes choking clouds of Lynx and Elnett to walk through before a re-coupling. Partly, I jest, but basically it would have been a very intense sensory environment and that all contributes to overloading an autistic brain. Also tastes- I imagine the housemates don’t get that much say over what they eat and when. Many autistic people have food preferences and sensitivities.

 

  • Social overload. This is the biggie. This is not about social competence- Niall, for example, clearly made good friends in the villa who were devastated that he left- it’s about the energy cost of actually talking to people, reading their body language signals, working out what to say etc. For non-autistic people this stuff is their native tongue- for autistic people it can be like speaking a foreign language, even if they’ve learned it pretty well.  Autistic people talk about “Social hangovers”; a sort of brain fogged, exhausted feeling after doing lots of socialising. It’s one of the reasons that working environments can be difficult for autistic people. They’re fine getting on with tasks in their own way and time, but then socialising, whilst often enjoyable and desired, uses up lots of extra energy. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of downtime or alone time in the villa and this would be necessary to recharge batteries. It’s also a setting which is ALL about talking about relationships, feelings, emotions and trying to read the signals of others. Do-able, but flipping heck, hard work for anybody.

 

  • Lack of control. Autistic people experience the world as very intense. They don’t all have rigid routines and can enjoy spontaneity BUT you’d need to have some sense of control over your environment, down to things like where you slept and who with. It would be good to know what was going to happen on a daily basis and when to some extent. The world of Love Island is at the whims of producers who can suddenly introduce twelve new housemates or a jaunt out to that car park or  get you to go into the hut and spill your guts. I’ve noticed that some reality shows do have very structured environments and routines which can be great for neurodiverse people (I suspect ones like Fame Academy/Strictly/Splash etc where you’re learning a skill and then have to perform at a certain time can be quite good) but there would be a constant high stress load around the not-knowing.

 

That is not to mention any additional mental health or low self-esteem issues which can go alongside autism when you’ve spent your life recognising that you don’t quite fit and trying to work out the rules that other people seem to know instinctively.

In future, I’d think an autistic contestant on Love Island would need at the very least, their own room where they could have as much time as they needed to relax, recover, decompress from sensory and social overload and reenter the fray in order to shine to the full as the very splendid “rainbow fish” they are. Hopefully they would also have had chance beforehand to get to know and accept their true selves and their needs, with the help of other people who understand, accept and support them. Self-Love Island, if you will…