On same day that I heard about the death of Harlan Ellison, I watched Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special, “Nanette.” The juxtaposition did not go unnoticed, by me anyway. One artist shocked the world with their rage and anger, creating new stories that didn’t just subvert, they blew up the whole field, electrifying it for everyone else.
The other one grabbed Connie Willis’s breast.
So why compare these two completely different writers? They are both defined by anger. In the case of Gadsby, she flips the metaphoric tables by the end of her show, which starts out self-deprecating* and ends in frothing rage. I know I was shrinking in my living room — the audience at the live show were shell-shocked.
Harlan Ellison’s entire career was based on the persona of the angry young man, the transgressor. The man who flipped tables too, and didn’t care who got caught by a snapped table leg. And my little joke in the first paragraph should have been a clue that I wasn’t referring to Ellison, because the science fiction world reveled in Ellison’s anger, and some people reportedly provoked it, like poking a bear. Ellison’s anger was performative. The problem with performative anger is, at some point the anger becomes the man, not the act, and the kindness becomes the act, not the man.
He was mean. He was a jerk. Sometimes he was kind, and he didn’t want people to know. He mentored Octavia Butler. He grabbed Connie Willis’s breast; according to some, a joke gone awry. Sigh. It’s always a joke, isn’t it? It’s always an innocent mistake, it’s always a misunderstanding.**
The eulogies came fast and thick, with the words “life-changing” and “complicated” in the same piece. Men who I admire dearly talk about what Ellison’s radical identity meant for them, when they encountered him in their teens. He hurt a lot of people, especially when he taught at workshops. He was easily provoked. He supported dying friends. He comforted people. He was foul, raging, performative. Transgressive.
Ah. Transgressive. That word that we apply to people who do the things we think we want to do. I’m not surprised that teen boys are attracted to anger. What I’m surprised at is the number of people who think male anger is freeing or transgressive, especially now, when large-scale murder is regularly conducted by an angry male in his teens or twenties***. At this point, fellas, transgressive means a man who is kind, whose masculinity is measured by positive and productive creativity and personal relationships, like Mr. Rogers.
You want transgressive? Watch Nanette. Gadsby starts out calm, sweet, and funny, veers into art history along the way, and then the energy of the show ramps up. She has a habit of patting her chest as if to soothe herself when she gets nervous. It’s endearing, and it’s also foreshadowing, because of what comes next.
She goes back to an earlier joke that made people laugh, and then tells the rest of the story. We don’t laugh this time, because this time it’s not funny. And then she gets angry.
Transgression is when a woman gets angry, because we are socialized to be the patters, the soothers. The cliché of a woman’s anger is that she is out of control, and Gadsby is out of control, because the careful control she has had over her pain and the rage and the shame is let go.
It was not an easy thing to watch, even from my living room. It was a performance, sure, but it wasn’t an act.
Comparing Gadsby to Ellison, you could see the truth of the anger compared to the pro forma show that Ellison staged.
Gadsby is open and honest about the pain in her life, the way she was marginalized in her hometown and beaten to a pulp and shamed and devalued. I’m pretty sure that none of that happened to Ellison, so it makes me wonder, what did he have to be so mad about? And why is he lauded for it even as some solemn finger-wagging is going on?
Harlan Ellison lived a long life. Anyone who is that much of an asshole is probably in pain, because angry people inflict their pain on the people around them. He was complicated, a great writer at his peak, a jerk to some, a good friend to others. He inspired people. I’m sure he was tickled by his persona, but at some point he forgot where the persona left off.
Gadsby’s journey is just beginning. I hope there are fourteen-year-old kids out there who watched the show and found it transformative, who saw what rage and pain and comedy can put together. I hope that someday, people looking back will say, that’s where it began for them. That’d be cool.
That’s where I’m going to leave it, except to add one thing — I bet Ellison would have gotten a kick out Gadsby’s show. He’d recognize a good cathartic rage when he saw one.
R.I.P. Harlan Ellison.
*As Gadsby points out, self-deprecating humor from the margins isn’t about humility, it’s about humiliation.
**”A man is afraid a woman will laugh at him. A woman is afraid a man will kill her.” attributed to Margaret Atwood.
***I was about to say we’re due for another one, but we’ve had a two-fer — the attack on the Capital Gazette, and the knife attack on a refugee apartment complex in Boise.