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Hannah Gadsby and Kathleen Turner give a master class in rage

Wmc Features Hannah Gadsby 080918
Hannah Gadsby in her groundbreaking Netflix special, Nanette. (Netflix)

Kathleen Turner is mad and unapologetic about it. Turner’s refreshing candor about her anger surfaced in a recent Vulture interview with New York Magazine contributing editor David Marchese. When Marchese asked Turner, “What else, aside from luck, has driven your career?” Turner replied succinctly, “Rage.” Although her answer seemed straightforward enough, Marchese nonetheless asked, “What do you mean?” Turner clarified: “I’m fuckin’ angry, man.”

Her already much-commented-on free expression of anger comes fast on the heels of comedian Hannah Gadsby’s electrifying, rage-filled performance in last month’s Netflix special, Nanette. During her performance, Gadsby took a slow-burning torch to sexism, homophobia, white privilege, misogyny, and the cruelty of her profession. Her sharp and poignant routine was a searing indictment of the trauma our culture so casually inflicts on marginalized people. In the process, she altered the way that comedy itself is perceived and female anger is being talked about.

Gadsby described and condemned an acceptable form of humor for women, a form that, with an assertion of bracing liberation, she is rejecting. “I built a career out of self-deprecation, and I don’t want to do that anymore,” Gadsby says in Nanette. “Because you do understand what self-deprecation means from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.”

The insult and indignity that Gadsby names are often quietly elided with femininity, folded into women’s identities from birth. As girls, we become adept at ignoring both our denigration and humiliation and the anger that come with them. As women, we are expected to do the same, and smile as we do. Aspects of our identities other than gender mediate these experiences, but women share the knowledge that our anger is unwelcome and unacceptable, and possibly endangers us.

“It’s not my place to be angry on a comedy stage,” Gadsby explains. “People feel safer when men do the angry comedy; they’re the kings of the genre. When I do it, I’m just a miserable lesbian ruining all the fun and the banter. When men do it, ‘heroes of free speech!’”

Turner, who also has a lot to be angry about professionally, describes a similar double standard. In the early ’90s, she was one of the most recognizable stars in America. Her deep, sultry voice, easy confidence, and flirtatious gaze oozed the kind of sex appeal that Hollywood banks on. By mid-decade, however, Turner, who had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in the meantime, was considered “difficult,” a persona non grata described as a “nightmare” to work with. When asked by Marchese about what happened to her career at the time, Turner was even-keeled about the possible reasons, but she also didn’t hesitate to describe double standards regarding the treatment of opinionated men and women: “The ‘difficult’ thing was pure gender crap. If a man comes on set and says, ‘Here’s how I see this being done,’ people go, ‘He’s decisive.’ If a woman does it, they say, ‘Oh, fuck. There she goes.’”

Turner explains that she is angry at far more than the vicissitudes of work. She is enraged by “everything,” by the world’s injustice. In a relatively brief interview, she manages to cover a tremendous range of issues familiar to most women on a personal level, but not often openly discussed in the context of often pent-up anger: sexist double standards, sexual objectification, the tyranny of low expectations, and the daily exhaustion of dealing with microaggressions and stereotypes. She describes the harms to women’s confidence and self-esteem that derive from toxic cultural norms and expectations and what it is like to live as a woman with chronic pain, alcohol dependence, and a debilitating autoimmune illness.

This unabashed frankness about unfairness, imperfections, and rage is still relatively rare. Girls and women will go out of their way to downplay expressing strong negative feelings, referring to their anger with minimizing terms like “irritation” or “frustration,” for example. Saying, “I’m mad,” or, as in Turner’s case, “I’m fuckin’ angry,” is very difficult for many women, socialized since childhood to ignore, suppress, deny, or divert rage. 

The shadow of this socialization seems to hang over Gadsby, who, despite the compassionate, creative, and protective qualities of her anger, concludes by distancing herself from her own rage: “The only way I can tell my truth and put tension in the room is with anger ... I am angry, and I believe I’ve got every right to be angry, but what I don’t have a right to do is to spread anger.” In rejecting anger this way, Gadsby seems to articulate the dominant belief about anger: that it is an unremittingly “toxic” and “never constructive” emotion that should be denied or ignored.

There are good reasons for women to distance themselves from being cast as “angry women” and they have everything to do with the “gender crap” Turner identified. Angry men are more respected, angry women less. A man who speaks with ire is considered more credible, a woman, less. In courtrooms, anger in a male prosecutor will probably help his case, in a woman its might very well hurt it. Male politicians, a gender card rarely mentioned, freely leverage their freer expression of anger to capture populist rage in ways that women politicians are overtly punished for. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump fist-pounded, finger-wagged, and scowled to the cheers of millions, but if Hillary Clinton evidenced the slightest dishevelment, if she raised her voice even slightly or used strong emphasis, her voice was described as having a “decidedly grating pitch and punishing tone” that was “loud, flat, harassing to the ear.” 

There is nothing inherently wrong or bad about anger, and Gadsby’s remarkable performance, and what its success represents, is a testament to that fact. Given the cultural disapproval we encounter, however, it is a rational choice to walk away from anger. But doing this is unhealthy, and it inhibits women’s ability to confront unfairness and to act in self-defense or in defense of other people—personally, professionally, and politically. As Turner recognizes, rage is a primary weapon in fighting injustice. Her anger is self-aware, wise, and affirming. She doesn’t hedge, isn’t vengeful, and is aware of the importance of recognizing her own power.

Nanette would not have been possible without Gadsby’s transformation of her justified rage into her remarkable art. This is the kind of mature and productive transformation of anger that often goes unseen in people’s lives. In psychology, this process is known as sublimation, converting socially unacceptable feelings and behaviors into socially acceptable ones. Usually, but not always, this happens unconsciously. Even if Gadsby rejects the notion that anger has been a positive force in her life and now ours.

While Gadsby leaves us with discomfort, Turner, 64, instead, elaborates on her position. Marchese notes that she’d once referred to her 50s as her “fuck it” 50s; she corrects him: “The fuck you 50s. I did what I wanted.”



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Soraya Chemaly
Director, WMC Speech Project, Activist, Writer
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