Trauma and triumph have always been source material for queer performers. The difference now is that people with power are starting to pay attention: men, heterosexuals, cisgender people, white people—even the holy trinity of cishet white men. At the cutting edge of this cultural reckoning are comedians Hannah Gadsby, Tig Notaro, and Cameron Esposito. All three are masculine of center (MOC) lesbians, comedians, and survivors of sexual assault and/or abuse.
They’re not the only comics who queer comedy and center marginalized lives—Margaret Cho, Jes Tom, Rhea Butcher, and D’Lo all have skin in the game—but Gadsby, Notaro, and Esposito are distinctive because they’ve captured what many other queer comics do not: mainstream attention.
Gadsby is having an especially good summer. Her Netflix special Nanette, released in June, was profiled in The New Yorker and landed Gadsby an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Almost overnight, Gadsby catapulted to international fame, and just as she was considering leaving comedy for good.
This June, Esposito wrote, performed, and released her special Rape Jokes in a matter of weeks. Esposito posted Rape Jokes to her site, where viewers could watch for free or donate to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). In a matter of weeks, Rape Jokes raised over $30,000 in donations, according to Huffington Post. Then there’s Notaro’s One Mississippi, the Amazon series based on her Mississippi homecoming, which said “time’s up” long before Hollywood did. The series was praised in the New York Times, and the second season was critically acclaimed, garnering a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Queer communities certainly have a rich tradition of oratory and cultural critique, and this is not the first time women comics have spoken on assault. As early as 2014, Esposito was writing and blogging about rape jokes. Esposito’s now-canceled series Take My Wife, made in collaboration with her wife Rhea Butcher, spoke frankly about assault but didn’t get much buzz. In 2016, HuffPo reported that women comedians were using Facebook to warn others about alleged abusers and harassment. But the Facebook groups were private, survivors feared losing their careers, and the report did not make waves.
So why is it that there are not one, but three butchy lesbians talking about rape culture and being taken seriously at the same time? “Cuz you need a good role model, fellas,” quips Gadsby in Nanette.
Gadsby has a point, but this newfound prominence is a combination of timing and worldview. The #MeToo movement has offered unprecedented power in numbers; survivors are not as isolated in their allegations as before and people want to listen. In tandem with #MeToo are Gadsby, Esposito, and Notaro’s queer sexualities and MOC gender performances. Though MOC queer women perform a gender with high social clout, they are still often criticized for doing womanhood “wrong.”
This dissonance allows for a unique social position and perspective. By rejecting gendered expectations of what women are supposed to look and love like, MOC lesbians offer up a new masculinity unburdened by toxicity. Yet as queer, lesbian, and masculine women, they are still deeply vulnerable to rape culture. Simply put, “rape culture” describes the practices and beliefs people engage in, individually and as a culture, to excuse and tolerate sexual violence. No one is immune from the effects of rape culture because it is embedded in the fabric, and founding, of America.
Gadsby, Esposito, and Notaro use their queer masculinity to expose and resist its toxic counterpart. By advancing the conversation beyond “[taking] down eight powerful men,” these comedians chip away at society’s deep contributions to, and complicity in, rape culture. Each woman’s comedy is transgressive, but taken collectively, these performances begin to reclaim culture via queer testimony. Breathtaking, funny and cathartic, these works begin to recast survivors’ misery as mirth.
Comedy often has a symbiotic relationship with rape culture. “It’s not like it’s a new topic in comedy,” Esposito says in her special. “We’ve had rape jokes forever,” and usually at the expense of victims. Gadsby confronts this as well in Nanette:
“Do you know who used to be an easy punchline? Monica Lewinsky.
“Maybe if comedians had done their job properly and made fun of the man who abused his power, then perhaps we might’ve had a middle-aged woman with an appropriate amount of experience in the White House. Instead, as we do, a man who openly admitted to sexually assaulting vulnerable young women because he could.”
Evoking Lewinsky is evidence that men’s monopoly on sexual power is systemic and ongoing, rather than unique to this particular moment. Past abuse, Gadsby points out, directly enables future violence. Holding the past accountable to the present is essential.
The second season of Notaro’s One Mississippi aired in September 2017, a few weeks before Tarana Burke’s #MeToo gained traction. The season’s arc explored the many forms assault can take, including child molestation. Most notably in the show, Notaro’s coworker and love interest Kate, played by Notaro’s real-life wife Stephanie Allynne, is assaulted during a meeting with a radio executive. Kate walks into the executive’s office for a meeting, where he then masturbates in front of her.
Kate tells Notaro, who plays a fictionalized version of herself, and they go to the radio station’s boss:
Boss: There were rumors. I just thought it can’t be! He’s so progressive.
Tig: That’s bullshit.
Boss: Do you think he thought he was just like... making a move?
Boss: And you tried to leave?
Kate: At first I was just like, what is happening here?
Boss: But once you realized... he didn’t block the door?
Kate: I mean, it all happened really fast…
Tig: You were in a state of shock.
Boss: Obviously, I’m taking this to HR.
Tig: HR? Can’t you just fire him?
Boss: Sadly, no…
One Mississippi was more than a warning; it was a protest, a public indictment of comedian and abuser Louis CK. Like many victims, Kate is gaslit by the executive (“I don’t know what you think you saw”) and silenced by her boss (“The police?... We have to handle it internally”).
Ironically, One Mississippi was canceled not long after Amazon dealt with its own sexual harassment accusations. The show’s cancellation hasn’t slowed Notaro’s roll, but it is a symptom of undervaluing the truly revelatory stories of survivors. Though Amazon did not cite a reason for the cancelation, the decision was reportedly made to focus on bigger projects. One Mississippi was dark—simultaneously vulnerable, impenetrable, and strikingly unconcerned with its digestibility for male audiences.
That’s not the case with Nanette. The success of Gadsby’s comedy special is her calculated appeal to men. She masterfully targets them and backs off. She lures them to listen before turning away. Towards the end, Gadsby finally confronts the men with a few moments of pure, unmitigated anger. Abandoning humor, Gadsby refuses to break the tension she created. “Because this is what not-normals carry inside them all of the time,” she says, “Because it is dangerous to be different.”
In Nanette, Gadsby narrates her life as a story, not a punchline. She situates the audience in her childhood as “gender not-normal” and lesbian. She was born in Tasmania (an Australian island where homosexuality was illegal until 1997), where the general wisdom on homosexuality was, as Gadbsy says, “If you chose to be gay, you should get yourself a one-way ticket to the mainland... why don’t you just pack your AIDS up into a suitcase there and fuck off to Mardi Gras?”
Growing up wasn’t much different for Esposito, who was raised by an ultra-Catholic family. Sex education was a trip to the woods, where a nun instructed girls to protect their “flowers.” But Esposito is buoyed by #MeToo. “Hasn’t it been beautiful to see that?” she asks in Rape Jokes. “Human grace and strength like that? And it’s not that these are new stories, but people standing in their truth and telling them, that’s fucking new.”
Esposito was assaulted in college by a classmate. Her story is the perfect storm: a religious queer girl in a Catholic college, young and alone “with like one L Word chatboard,” no sex education, and a budding alcohol dependency. Esposito says the classmate assaulted her while she was intoxicated, and displayed troubling behaviors prior to the assault (Esposito states he memorized her dorm code and filled her fridge with bricks). Indeed, many college men freely admit to forced or coerced intercourse, and wouldn’t even call it rape.
Being “cultured female [means] the thing you are valued for, the thing you are taught you are valuable for is your fuckability. That’s it,” says Esposito. This value system leaves all women vulnerable, but especially queer women like Esposito who opt out of all availability. For Gadsby, she wonders “how [men would] feel if they’ve lived my life... it was a man who sexually abused me when I was a child. It was a man who beat the shit out of me at 17, ‘my prime.’ And it was two men who raped me when I was barely in my twenties... I don’t tell you this so you think of me as a victim. I am not a victim. I tell you this because my story has value.”
Even as butchy lesbians—women who opt out of both traditional femininity and compulsory heterosexuality—the lives of Gadsby, Notaro, and Esposito are still pierced by patriarchal violence. Their performances are critical because they expose not only the frequency of sexual trauma, but the power structures, cultural norms, and apologists that allow its perpetrators to thrive.