Speaking Jokes to Power: Comedian Hannah Gadsby Takes on Art


By Clayton Jarrard

This article was published in the October 2019 edition of Live Ideas. View it here.

“Gadsby, like many women, is done hiding her anger, and in ‘Nanette’ she bends the bounds of stand-up to accommodate it,” reads a raving review in The New Yorker (Donegan 2018). Indeed, this act diverges from what is typical of a comedy special. Comedian Hannah Gadsby uses her hour on the stage to tackle a range of topics including, but not limited to, the #metoo movement, the LGBTQ+ community, mental illness, identity, politics, privilege, and even Western art history. Being politically and socially charged, the performance provides stimulating critiques on these issues and, more broadly, the stories that are told surrounding them. Yet within this torrent of calculated humor and fiery proclamations, Hannah Gadsby remains true to her art and keeps people laughing.

Throughout her acclaimed and timely performance, Gadsby admits she knows her craft well; she reveals that the way to win a good laugh from the crowd is to produce tension. As a comedian, her job is to play this tension as an art form. She labors to build it and then lets it simmer until finally delivering the punchline, saving the audience from its own discomfort and letting it experience a flood of relief and laughter. It’s an abusive relationship, she acknowledges, this manipulation of tension and relief.

Strikingly, the comedian performs with a cognizance of how significant her moment on stage is as an artist. Barbara Babcock explains the significance of such moments, saying,  “Performers and performances (verbal, dramatic, or artifactual) not only follow but revise and revitalize accepted rules, acting out and challenging aesthetic conventions and social values” (1993: 75). This is precisely how Gadsby postures herself and her art, with a trajectory to accomplish revision and revitalization. Pushing the boundaries of comedy, she implores her laughing audience to thoughtfully explore conflicts that burden many people within society today: gender roles, the dominant narratives of society, and our culture’s obsession with reputation. The comedian draws on Western art and the broader ties it has to culture, the complex and systematic interconnectedness of human relations that help shape experiences and perceptions, as a vehicle for this exploration.

Gadsby purposefully tackles a subject that plays a significant role in dynamics of oppression, flirting with the boundaries of convention. In an entire portion of her show, the comedian jokes about the portrayal of women in art, and these jokes serve a greater purpose than to simply coax a laugh. Gadsby critiques how men’s presentations of women have become fixed within culture, exaggerating them as the natural way.  She expresses that artistic depictions of women make her feel like a different species. Distinctions between herself and the species of “dumb history women” include how she always remembers to get completely dressed, “especially if I am leaving the house to get my portrait painted,” and her ability to generate her own thoughts while, “Historically, women didn’t have time for the think-thoughts. … They were too busy napping naked, alone, in the forest.” This rhetoric proves to be a crucial point in her exposition. Margaret Miles commented on a “need in a male-dominated culture to preserve male control in a form that tends to be thought of simply as ‘order.’ A central component of maintaining and reproducing social order is through the management of women, and a powerful strategy for controlling women is their public presentation (in art, in the media).” Miles’ assertion suggests art to play a forceful role within culture. As well, ramifications of the portrayals of men and women are thought by feminists to contribute to “gender relations of dominance and subordination,” which remain “determined largely by men” (Witcombe 1995: 5, 4, 5). Emphasizing this in one of her most pointed moments of the performance, the comedian exclaims, “The history of Western art is just the men painting women like they’re flesh vases for their dick flowers!” (Olb 2018: 00:48:21-00:50:11). Such honed rage is what makes this stand-up act stand out.

The relationship between artists and their artwork prompts these recurring depictions to be questioned. As can be seen, there is more at stake than a woman being painted promiscuously on a canvas; such images being produced can be revealing of both the artist and the culture. Clifford Geertz, when referring to the views of Matisse, professes, “The means of an art and the feeling for life that animates it are inseparable.” Art, in its unparalleled fashion, exposes what is within the artist, and much of this is connected to how the artist encounters his or her surroundings. Praising the art can equate to praising the person, for if Matisse claimed, “I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have for life and my way of expressing it,” about his own art, is it possible for the audience to make such a distinction between the artist and the art (Geertz 1976: 1477, 1475)? What does this say about the art that is adored within our culture and the images they convey?

Delving deeper into this question, Gadsby works to convince the audience of the fact that famed Western artists were just as much steeped within their own culture as the rest of humankind, despite how they are not often perceived in such a way.  Due to their unique contributions, people often remark such artists like Van Gogh, for example, were “ahead of their time.” This otherness is often suggested as a reason for why they suffered and experienced difficulty throughout life. In comedic style, Gadsby exaggerates the obvious, knocking the esteemed from their pedestals: “Nobody is born ahead of their time. It’s impossible!” She comments that this stems from a romanticizing of mental illness, but at the plight of this rant another key point is made, “Artists don’t invent zeitgeist. They respond to it” (Olb 2018: 00:44:45-00:45:21). The importance of this part of the argument lies in illustrating that the identity of artists, and by extension their art, is contained within a relationship to the surrounding culture. Considering this, the artist can be seen as representative, to a certain extent, of an aspect of the culture in which they existed, and art can be viewed as a product of this interaction between the artist and the outside world. This holds a problematic possibility when examining the legacy many of these individuals left behind. Pablo Picasso serves as a sobering example of the troubling implications within this discussion.

A suspect side of Picasso’s reputation is recounted within Sally Price’s book, Primitive Art in Civilized Places. Price describes how the painter had been praised for introducing artwork that was considered original while in reality it was only original to the elite Western art scene. Picasso’s piece was an imitation, yet this imitation gained more status and value than the historically original, which is used to exemplify the low value placed on “primitive” art and the power of an artist like Picasso’s reputation (Price 1989: 96). This is precisely what Gadsby conspicuously alludes to when she speaks on the liberties that have been allowed to Picasso’s reputation for the sake of his artwork. It is then taken a step further in the stand-up act when Gadsby levels Picasso’s artwork with a personal appraisal that it would be worth nothing at an auction without his name attached to it (Olb 2018: 00:52:15-00:52:27).

Gadsby begins her commentary on Picasso, appropriating it for modern times, by claiming he suffered from a mental illness. His mental illness, according to the comedian: misogyny. But cubism! Picasso introduced cubism, and Gadsby hails the pivotal development it was, as it allowed people to view many different perspectives within a single canvas. “But tell me,” Gadsby counters, “any of those perspectives a woman’s?” The comedian describes Picasso’s character with a revealing quote: “Each time I leave a woman, I should burn her. Destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents” (Olb 2018: 00:51:16-00:54:48). To Gadsby, the artist’s contribution does little to mitigate his misogyny, but it cannot be said that the same stance is taken by our society. Such grim content is set to provide an underlying theme for how notable men within history are remembered and their work, venerated. Meanwhile, the atrocities of these men are rendered insignificant. This only perpetuates the cycle of power, feeding into many of the social issues reverberating within society today.

The comedy routine morphs into a keen discussion about the power structures and figures shaping the experiences of many. By speaking about Picasso’s reputation and the high regard for his artwork, she moves to address figures like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. In her mind, these individuals are not so different, specifically considering the impact politicians, celebrities, and artists have. “Artists,” Gadsby declares, “have always been very much a part of the world, and very, very firmly attached to power.” Further, the comedian even abstracts upon the existence of her art and proposes that a driving purpose for comedy is to keep those in a position of power in check, which she claims has not been done sufficiently (Olb 2018: 45:34-45:44, 00:55:53-00:56:16). If artists truly embody a key part of the systems of power, their integrity along with the art being revered should be under appropriate scrutiny.

However, the response to such a statement can be concerning when considering the distinguished contributions individuals like Picasso made. The entanglement displayed here is a tedious one, for men like Picasso are found to be recurring figures throughout much of our history. This is the true issue. The reputations of such figures are protected because our story is a bleak one if it follows questionable people like Picasso. “We think reputation is more important than anything else,” Gadsby states, and the consequences of this are not to be underestimated. “They are not individuals, they are our stories,” and according to her, the moral of our story, the story of our history, our culture, our society, is that, “We only care about a man’s reputation.” The comedian does not find this agreeable, and she imparts this tension to all those listening: “What about his humanity?” (Olb 00:56:31-00:57:17). Ultimately, not only are the reputations of such men like Picasso being valued, but the models of how they lived are still firmly attached to power, providing a driving narrative for even today.

The stories of our society and the humanity of those informing them are not matters to be taken lightly. These are crucial to the culture we innovate and the lived experiences of everyone within it. Christopher Witcombe explains, when discussing visual art, social practices, and social representation, “each acts on the other in many tiny ways to nuance or reinforce, to correct or reiterate the role, behaviour, and attitude of women and men in relation to the status quo” (1995: 5). In this light, it is important to recognize how Gadsby through her art can be both perpetuating social roles and producing new ones. She speaks with the voice of a minority, including the narrative of being a lesbian woman, and of being hurt, abused, marginalized and traumatized, but she takes these experiences to push back against the systems that allowed such to happen. She also produces the role within the comedy scene, within the art of stand-up, of a woman telling her own story, avoiding the temptation to truncate it in the form of a joke, with such fervor that it is too compelling for everyone not to listen and take notice.

What is expected to be an hour of entertainment and laughs turns out to be so much more for those watching Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette.” Her art is used to do what she believes it should; it questions those in power. Gadsby’s comedy contributes to a greater force emerging within a myriad of disciplines struggling to give women, those within the LGBTQ+ community, and so many others that have been silenced a voice within the story. Karen Leong states, “Critical analyses of western women’s history disrupt[s] the conventional narratives of U.S. western history by making visible how the dominant ideologies of whiteness, gender, and liberalism … have been and continue to be foundational to U.S. western history as it has been largely understood, produced, and reproduced” (2010: 621). Gadsby personifies how this disruption is not something exclusive to the United States. “Nanette,” in its essence, is a timely performance within this emergence to challenge the systems of oppression. Just as she said, “Artists don’t invent zeitgeist. They respond to it” (Olb 2018: 00:44:45-00:44:52).



Babcock, Barbara A. “At Home, No Womens Are Storytellers: Ceramic Creativity and the Politics of Discourse in Cochiti Pueblo.” In Creativity/Anthropology, edited by Lavie Smadar, Narayan Kirin, and Rosaldo Renato, 70-99. Cornell University Press. Ithaca London: 1993.

Donegan, Moira. “‘Nanette,’ Reviewed: Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix Standup Special Forces Comedy to Confront the #MeToo Era.” The New Yorker. July 09, 2018. Accessed November 11, 2018.

Geertz, Clifford. “Art as a Cultural System.” MLN 91, no. 6 (1976): 1473-1499.

Leong, Karen J. “Still Walking, Still Brave: Mapping Gender, Race, and Power in U.S. Western History.” Pacific Historical Review 79, no. 4 (2010): 618-28.

Olb, John, director, and Madeleine Parry, director. “Hannah Gadsby: Nanette.” Netflix Official Site, 2018.

Price, Sally. Primitive Art in Civilized Places. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago: 1989.

Witcombe, Christopher L. C. E. 1995. “Seeing through Art: A Course on Images of Women and Men in Western Art.” Transformations 6 (1): 16.

Image Credit: “Hannah Gadsby” Work is licensed under CC BY 2.0. 

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