Reviews TV + Movies

Hannah Gadsby’s Gender Agenda And The Power Of Laughing In The Face Of Adversity

In a world where global superpowers attempt to dictate and restrict gender binaries, where queerphobic attacks, bullying, and hate crimes are at an all-time high, it becomes crucial to recognize the significance of trans comedians poking fun at transphobia. At a time when prejudices and sensationalism seek to paint queer individuals as a monolith, shows like these serve as a powerful reminder that even simple acts of joy become acts of rebellion. These performances underscore the fact that the responsibility of eradicating transphobia should not fall upon queer people alone.

Somewhere towards the end of Hannah Gadsby’s latest Netflix special, “Gender Agenda,” the acclaimed comedian introduces a performer who has never done stand-up comedy before. Gadsby explains their decision to include artists from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, “because when you’re genderqueer in the comedy world, stage time is not always safe time,” and transgender artists – like everyone else – deserve to hold the mic without the looming threat of queerphobic danger. This sentiment encapsulates the essence of this fresh, pulsating new special, curated and hosted by the legend of nuanced comedy themselves, Hannah Gadsby. But as they astutely point out, there’s a foundational myth to this evening, one that stems from a tumultuous period in 2021.

In the wake of Dave Chappelle’s controversial Netflix special “The Closer,” which was criticized for its mockery of transgender people, Netflix found itself embroiled in a heated debate about LGBTQ+ representation. Ted Sarandos, the CEO of Netflix, used Gadsby’s work and other LGBTQ+ titles on the platform to publicly defend his stance, sparking outrage among queer folks, both within and beyond the company. Gadsby, in response, penned a scathing Instagram post, lambasting the CEO for his lack of backbone and his company’s hypocrisy. Calling Sarandos their “Netflix daddy”, Hannah’s explanation is met with uproarious laughter, “Netflix is a family. And like most families, they don’t really like their queer kids.”

As damage control, Netflix conducted several private negotiations, one of which gave birth to the “Gender Agenda.” Filmed at London’s Alexandra Palace Theatre, this 75-minute special showcases the talents of 7 up-and-coming transgender and genderqueer comedians: Jes Tom, Chloe Petts, Asha Ward, DeAnne Smith, Mx. Dahlia Belle, Krishna Istha, and Alok. The lineup, meticulously curated by Gadsby, is not only cross-continentally diverse but also rich in gender variance – going beyond the labels of ‘transgender’ and ‘nonbinary’.

Each performer brings their unique perspective and experiences to the stage, offering a glimpse into the complexities of genderqueer lives. Jes Tom, a half-Japanese/half-Chinese trans-nonbinary performer from San Francisco, has previously written for Max’s “Our Flag Means Death”. Chloe Petts, a self-described “Brit masculine lesbian,” jokes about being largely confused about her gender identity but identifying “as a man with a tie on his head” on dance floors at straight weddings. Asha Ward, hailing from a Trinidadian family in Baltimore, is the youngest-ever SNL writer and has an Emmy nomination to show for it. DeAnne Smith, identifying “as a weird little guy”, previously starred in Netflix’s “Comedians of the World ” and won the Sydney Comedy Festival’s Time best newcomer award in 2008. Mx. Dahlia Belle, a Black trans woman who’s the founder of the Portland Queer Comedy Festival, gained wide attention for writing an open letter to Dave Chappelle in the Guardian in 2021. Indian-origin, London-based Krishna Istha, a writer for Season 4 of “Sex Education”, is currently working on a trilogy of performance pieces about trans-motherhood. Lastly, Alok, a celebrated gender non-conforming Indian-American performer and author, headlined the NYC Comedy Festival in 2021 and has appeared in unscripted series such as Netflix’s “Getting Curious” with Jonathan Van Ness.

What sets “Gender Agenda” apart is its celebration of trans joy without succumbing to tragic portrayals or sensationalism. Comedians like Alok and Mx. Belle use large chunks of their 7-minute sets to address transphobia – but in hilarious ways. While Belle begins her set by establishing that people who consider cis-gender a slur clearly don’t know how slurs work, she goes on to joke, “I need you to know that I know that I will never ovulate, I will never menstruate, I will never get pregnant, I will never give birth. I just get a vagina with none of the obstacles or inconveniences.” Alok pokes fun at American districts banning socially relevant books while reasoning that Marie Kondo’s body of work faces a bigger threat to society than Alok’s banned book, ‘Beyond The Gender Binary’. They quip, “I’m just trying to get rid of gender norms. She wants us to get rid of everything! That’s the collapse of civilization, as we know it.”

In a world where global superpowers attempt to dictate and restrict gender binaries, where queerphobic attacks, bullying, and hate crimes are at an all-time high, it becomes crucial to recognize the significance of trans comedians poking fun at transphobia. At a time when prejudices and sensationalism seek to paint queer individuals as a monolith, shows like these serve as a powerful reminder that even simple acts of joy become acts of rebellion. These performances underscore the fact that the responsibility of eradicating transphobia should not fall upon queer people alone.

While a lot of jokes revolve around topics you’d expect from trans and genderqueer artists, none of them miss the mark in terms of humor. Jess Tom hilariously reveals how HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) has led them to “transition” from a lesbian to a bisexual man, an unexpected plot twist that led to some funny distinctions between ‘lesbian hot’ and ‘gay man hot’. DeAnne Smith delivers a side-splitting eulogy to their “sick rack,” humorously exploring the decision to opt out of nipples before top surgery.

However, beyond this focus on anatomies and medical transitions is also a wide range of performers whose acts had nothing to do with their gender identity. Asha Ward’s set begins with a candid confession of getting “too high for this,” leading to a humorous exploration of their relationship with recreational drugs and alcohol. Krishna Istha’s jokes on their T4T relationship (a relationship where both/all partners are transgender), especially how their British partner bonded with their Indian mother, all present snippets of trans lives we barely get to see in mainstream platforms.

Ultimately, the biggest strength of “Gender Agenda” lies in its commitment to visibility. By featuring a diverse lineup of lesser-known trans voices, the Netflix special not only amplifies marginalized perspectives but also critiques the platform hosting it. Few comedians could navigate the delicate balance of using a major platform to uplift underrepresented voices while critiquing the very platform, but Hannah Gadsby does so with aplomb. From the moment they boldly declare Netflix as “an amoral, algorithmic cult,” it’s clear that “Gender Agenda” is poised to be an explosive and unabashed showcase of trans joy and resilience.

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Hailing from Kolkata, Phelian (he/they) is a 22-year-old intersectional feminist, poet, and the writer-director of "They/Them," a trans-led short film about gender dysphoria. Immersed in the world of poetry and spoken word since the age of 8, he has graced numerous platforms, including Gaysi Family’s ‘Do You See Us?: A Queer Art Exhibit’ in Delhi and Mumbai Queer Pride’s 'Trans.ient: An Evening Of Gender-Diverse Storytelling’. As a former journalist at The Quint and Vogue India, they have always been committed to exploring and expanding trans-nonbinary representation in desi media and pop culture.
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