May 27

“Douglas” by Hannah Gadsby: Funny Trauma?

Douglas, a new Netflix special featuring Hannah Gadsby, actually exceeds the expectations she immediately introduces to her live audience.

Recently I’ve second-viewed Gadsby’s previous Nanette, a different breed from Douglas in that it’s funny for sure, but it’s also downright serious. (See my previous post.) In Douglas Gadsby notes right off the bat that she now realizes she foolishly used up all her real-life trauma in that one show: Had I known just how wildly popular trauma was going to be in the context of comedy, I might have budgeted my shit a bit better.

So, what happens in Douglas? Kathryn VanArendonk, Vulture: “It’s crafted from recognizable building blocks and a list of topics that coalesce into something like a Gadsby signature: art history, misogyny, the patriarchy, self-knowledge and self-blindness, wordplay, her childhood, and an effective dot-dot-dash rhythm of long, winding anecdotes punctuated by short sequences of clean, tight punch lines.”

What’s a population that doesn’t fare so well? Anti-vaxxers, be warned.

One, on the other hand, likely to be delighted? Those who identify on the autism spectrum. Gadsby was diagnosed relatively recently, in 2016.

Although Douglas is the name of her dog, by the way, Gadsby points out (at length) that it’s also the name of an interesting anatomical part. Ali Goldstein, Indiewire: “The special takes its title from a hilarious story about Gadsby unloading a host of information about the female reproductive anatomy on an unsuspecting — but not undeserving — overly friendly man at the dog park. She pivots from gently ribbing herself for failing to properly read this social interaction to proudly claiming her way of seeing the world as the beautiful and unique gift that it is.”

As Hannah Gadsby tells Terry Gross, NPR, she’s always known she doesn’t “process [things] in the same way as a neurotypical person”: “My entire life I’ve made people laugh, and I’ve not always meant to. Often I don’t. Yesterday, I was walking my dogs and a couple stopped me from a safe distance and asked me, ‘Oh! What kind of dogs are they?’ And I said, ‘They’re Lagottos.’ And they said, ‘Oh, I’ve never heard of that.’ And I said, ‘Neither have they.’ And it was the truth, and I wasn’t trying to be funny.”

Writing in Psychology Today Erin Bulluss, PhD, and Abby Sesterka express their high regard for Gadsby’s openness in relating “both the challenges and strengths that come with being autistic”:

She describes the difficulties of her pre-diagnosis experience of cognitive dissonance and lacking an understanding of herself. In the way that women across the world found validation in Nanette, we embraced Douglas because it offered an authentic narrative about the autistic experience like nothing we had seen before. It was empowering, validating, affirming. Finally, there was someone in the global spotlight talking from lived experience about being an autistic woman…

To see an autistic woman on the world stage, speaking honestly and openly about the autistic experience, is unprecedented. Gadsby is the authentic, articulate autistic voice that we have yearned for, and that the world needs to hear. We hope that autistic women can draw strength from Gadsby’s courage; to raise our collective voice from a whisper to a roar.