Nanette and Self-Deprecation
“I’m trash.” “I’m garbage.” “I’m disgusting.” “I suck.” How often do you come across someone describing themselves in such a jokingly demeaning way, or hear them laughing off their self-destructive tendencies? I’ve frequently made use of self-deprecating humor myself – often tossing out jokes about how I’m the “worst” or am utterly hopeless in my social interactions or efforts to resist procrastination. But as much as this language slips into casual conversation, where do we draw the line between poking fun at our own flaws, and being actually overly critical of ourselves? And even when if it is all for a joke’s sake, can we inadvertently shoot ourselves down through self-deprecation?
After hearing everyone talk about it, I finally sat down and watched Nanette. Nanette is a remarkable, confessional stand-up special on Netflix by Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, which wrestles with the effect of laughing at ourselves by asking difficult questions and recounting uncomfortable situations. Gadsby is openly lesbian, and in her show, she describes the difficulties of growing up as queer and non-traditionally gender conforming in conservative Tasmania, recounting all the times she’s been mistaken for a man with a coy smile on her face. Though she starts off her set making fun of queer women (“my people” as she frequently says), and by extension herself, she eventually stops using the self-deprecating humor that has long been part of her routines. As the crowd quiets around her, she explains to them, “I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor, and I don’t want to do that anymore.”
While self-deprecation is a coping mechanism for many – a way to make peace with one’s own flaws and learn to laugh at them – turning oneself into a punchline can also mean subjecting oneself to further trauma.
Though Nanette still makes you laugh, Gadsby’s work feels as much of a piece of theater—like an extended monologue where she bares her soul to the audience—as it does a stand-up comedy special. It’s an act of self-assertion—she will use her own terms to define herself, not the words and slurs of others. Yes, she is a comedian, and yes, she’s paid to make others laugh. But at whose expense?
While comedians and non-comedians alike make fun of themselves to build a sense of closeness with the audience, as if to say, ‘I’m real. I’m not perfect. I get that, and I can laugh at that,’ dig more deeply and find that this humor only reinforces negative assumptions and stereotypes of those who are already marginalized by society.
Gadsby asks why putting yourself down is sometimes necessary in order to be heard by the straight-white-male audience. Why do you have to let people laugh at you before they can laugh with you? “Humility” in this humor crosses over into self-hatred, but hating yourself and using that to help make others laugh isn’t going to make them hate you any less.
“What do you honestly think?” she asks incredulously. “That creativity means you must suffer?”
I never really thought that there was anything wrong with a good self-deprecating joke or two before. Calling myself “garbage” is just a joke, right? It doesn’t cut very deep, and sometimes I just want to laugh off any feeling of inadequacy. All of this self-worth-lowering banter is in part a reaction to the overly-curated images of perfection online, so posting pictures of your makeup-less self alone on a Saturday night and poking fun at your own lack of glamour feels like a giant middle finger to the expectations placed on me and all women alike. Right? But the distinction comes with who really benefits from all these jokes. Are you laughing with everyone? Or are they just laughing at you? I am finally beginning to see and understand Gadsby’s point. It is so easy to quickly slip from using clever bits of self-awareness into hurtful grenades.
While self-deprecating humor is a narrow category, this idea can trickle down into so many daily interactions. Think of all the times you apologize when it clearly was not your fault, just so you could make the other person feel comfortable. Think of all the times that you add a demeaning buffer statement before making a bold statement or asking a question, just so you don’t come off as disagreeing with the other person too much.
For queer people, people of color and anyone who is already subjected to regular insults because of their looks, identity or anything of that nature, self-deprecation only seems to confirm the notion that those insults and stereotypes are valid and true. Why else would the audience laugh so hard? They think you’re right. So, just as Nanette asks, we must wonder: Is it self-deprecation? Or is it public humiliation?
While some comedians might choose to lay themselves bare to the audience, that should be motivated by a desire for connection and relatability, not a need to let others fetishize their pain. Hannah Gadsby’s goal is to not simply to make you laugh, but make you think about what exactly you’re laughing at. Gadsby is through with apologizing simply for being herself, and now, I am too.
By Katie Duggan