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Earlier this summer, one of our brilliant doctoral scholars asked me if I had seen Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette (Parry & Olb, 2018). As I generally shy away from most popular media, I will often come to awareness of important specials through such recommendations. As I watched this special over the summer, I thought ‘this pairs perfectly with what we need to do in a course such as Diverse College Students.’ Thus, I had scholars in my HIED 5367 course begin the term with a viewing of this special.
There is an unapologetic furor to Gadsby’s comedy special. At first, one thinks this would be like any other comedy special. Gadsby begins by discussing how her ‘lesbian’ identity has structured much of her comedy throughout her career. She comedically portrays growing up, watching her people on TV. Her people are quite flamboyant and flaunting. They like to party. Where, she questions, is a quiet gay person to go? Where do we fit in?
Naturally, I’ve coupled the Hannah Gadsby special with some reading. Kevin Kumashiro’s (2000) article “Toward a Theory of Anti-Oppressive Education” remains, for me, one of the most important articles written about educational practices in the 21st century. In this article, Kumashiro discusses a range of ways schooling is complicit in and seeks to deconstruct oppressive structures (becoming anti-oppressive). Schooling is both-and: oppressive and possibilitarian.
Kumashiro (2000) describes the many ways we learn biased knowledge about others – “partial knowledges” (p. 32) – that turn into stereotypes, prejudices, and biases. Media is one medium. Schooling is another. Gadsby’s viewing of gay culture through media gave an incomplete picture of what it means to be gay; how one can be gay. Gadsby begins with this bit of self-deprecating humor: “I don’t think I’m very good at gay. Not lesbian enough.”
On our college campuses, students experience this same phenomenon every day. Colleges and universities are ripe with normalizing discourses that reproduce hegemonic, oppressive structures: “that which society defines as ‘normal’ is a social (and contested) construct that both regulates who we are supposed to be and denigrates whoever fails to conform to ‘proper’ gender roles, for instance, or ‘normal’ sexual orientation” (Kumashiro, 2000, p. 36). Students arrive on campus having internalized particular scripts: what it means to be a good student; how to be male or female (campuses are inherently gender binary); what it means to come from a particular racial or ethnic background. The power of these normalizing discourses on our campus must smack students like the heat of an August Texas afternoon.
Such normalizing discourses become fodder for jokes. We are so inept at discussing difference that we all participate in a comedic social structure. Jokes perpetuate the normalization of problematic scripts. They become oppressive. “This is bigger than homesexuality,” Gadsby proclaims. “This is about how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things.”
Kumashiro (2000) states that “oppression is the citing of harmful discourses and the repetition of harmful histories” (p. 40). Gadsby declares she must leave comedy precisely because of her participation in the perpetuation of harmful discourses. Jokes are inherently dehumanizing. In taking up jokes and self-deprecating humor as a career, Gadsby realizes she has participated and is complicit in her own oppression. She is repeating a harmful history in the form of a joke, and this unwittingly led to shame and guilt about who she was or is. As she goes on to say, she has frozen the story at the moments of trauma, inflicting the trauma over and over and over again.
At approximately minute 40 of the special, Gadsby’s real message emerges. “You learn from the part of the story you focus on,” she states. In building a career off jokes and self-deprecating humor about her coming out story, about her multiple, intersecting, and multiplicitous identities overall, she has focused on the wrong part of the story – the punchline, rather than then denouement, so to speak.
One aim of a course such as Diverse Student Populations is to begin the process of unlearning (Kumashiro, 2000). This requires scholars, and me, to move into a space of discomfort. It requires a level of commitment to a learning community that will allow us to share some of the stories that we often do not tell – sometimes for fear of coming out of our own closet (Beckham, 2013), sometimes because we are simply participating in our own oppression.
“Stories hold our cure,” Gadsby says. We need more stories, more perspectives, so that people do not feel so alone. “We could paint a better world, if we learned to see it from all perspectives.” This is the aim of the work. This is what we need on our college campuses. More stories, to challenge monolithic college student experience and environments, bend our institutions and ourselves toward justice, and ensure everyone feels like their story, and their humanity, is valued.
For those who have not seen the special, or who will re-watch it, here are some additional topics that I found powerful and worthy of discussion:
- Gender issues – our society’s scripts for how gender operates, from birth, into careers and politics, and through to death.
- Mental health and depression – our society’s discomfort with the topic, and simultaneous mythologizing of the benefits of mental health, particularly for creative individuals.
- Sensitivity – particularly, why we say things like ‘stop being so sensitive.’
- Morality – particularly, how men and women are held to different moral standards.
- #metoo – you’ll understand.
- Anger – why we have a right to be angry; but do not have a right to spread anger.
- Violence – physical and discursive.
Beckham, A. (2013). We’re all hiding something. Let’s find the courage to open up [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/ash_beckham_we_re_all_hiding_something_let_s_find_the_courage_to_open_up
Kumashiro, K. K. (2000). Toward a theory of anti-oppressive education. Review of Educational Research, 70(1), 25-53.
Parry, M., & Olb, J. (Director). (2018). Hannah Gadsby: Nanette [Comedy Special]. United States: Netflix.
Additional Readings Paired with Nanette
Karunaratne, N. D., Koppel, L., & yang, c. (2016). Navigating a social justice motivation and praxis as a student affairs professional. Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs, 3(1), 1-19.
Landreman, L. M., Rasmussen, C. J., King, P. M., & Jiang, C. X. (2007). A phenomenological study of the development of university educators’ critical consciousness. Journal of College Student Development, 48(3), 275-296.