A Conversation with Nanette: A Not-So-New Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric

By Nanette Rasband Hilton

Abstract: Hannah Gadsby’s 2018 comedic routine, Nanette, is a global live stage, Netflix, and viral sensation. However, Gadsby’s success comes at the expense of an Other from whom she derived the title of her show and casts as a scapegoat for societal sins. Invitational Rhetoric, as modeled by five female writers from nineteenth century Margaret Fuller to twenty-first century Rita Felski, teaches a better way for resolving ideological conflict, working toward understanding, and promoting peaceful communities.

Keywords: Invitational Rhetoric, Othering, Nanette, Margaret Fuller, Phenomenological Alterity, Virginia Woolf


“No, No, Nanette regales my ears” nearly a century since its 1919 Broadway debut, this time it’s not Doris Day on Broadway,[1] but rather Hannah Gadsby on Netflix. I can’t resist responding, that’s my name. I share it with only one other person on the planet—whom I’ve met—in junior high school over three decades ago. It was startling to hear another person called by my name then; we became friends. Recently, I was surprised to be called out by name again, but this time, as a mean pejorative when Gadsby’s comic routine hit the fan. While discussing feminist rhetoric in a university seminar focusing on female writers, I unknowingly followed the advice of Wired Senior Editor Alexis Sobel Fitts as I examined Gadsby’s rhetorical moves, the way she “quietly built and broke different interlocking threads” in her sensationalized staged exposé of the homophobia she feels. She names this phenomenon Nanette.

“Nanette ranked among the Top 1000 [names] until ‘77, peaking in 1956” (Rosenkrantz and Satran) and made it to the endangered list by being “given to only five babies each in 2013, the lowest number counted by the U.S. Social Security Administration. Once usage dips below that, they become the dodo birds of baby names.” Nanettes are rare and, apparently, need protection.

I investigated Gadsby’s motivation to appropriate my name—the name that has become an international phenomenon in the world of stand-up? comedy?. Watching the Netflix hour-long version provides no explanation for the title since that part of her live routine was clipped. Could there be a Moby Dick without the whale? A Jane Eyre without Jane? Maybe it’s unimportant, just a matter of semantics…Semitics…sematic…any Tom, Dick, or Harry would have sufficed? Why is Nanette minus Nanette? Why did Gadsby name her show in such a personalized manner giving a face-slap to every Nanette everywhere? Maybe she knew there weren’t many of us. We pose no threat—easy pickin’s. Apparently, Gadsby was in a bar where she sighted Nanette working. How did Gadsby know the barista’s name if they never spoke? Perhaps Nanette wore a uniform with a nametag as she silently served Gadsby. Maybe a regular shouted, “Hey, Nanette, get me a drink!” Asked this question in an interview by Variety entertainment and business magazine Features Editor Jenelle Riley, Gadsby admits that she never spoke with Nanette, that they never had any direct contact, and that she has not followed-up with her further (par. 14–15).

But, thanks to Gadsby, now we’re “The ‘Nanette’ problem,” observes Peter Moskowitz. “One of the problems with ‘Nanette,’” Moskowitz recognizes, is Gadsby’s location of “the problem not in exploitative structures that might implicate Gadsby’s audience [and herself], but within ourselves.” He laments that “If only we could respect each other, then things would change. If only we could be more civil in our public debates.” Calling defenseless Nanette out in a public forum for something she didn’t do—most likely a miscommunication between strangers—is neither respectful nor civil. Stranger danger is a reality: the stranger we remain, the more danger we face.

Gadsby claims no foul, excusing herself and Nanette saying, “No offence to Nanette, she might have just had a tough day. I was purely projecting. I feel pretty bad because she was just getting on with her life. It’s one thing for me to open up this viral sensation upon myself but she’s just doing her thing” (Riley, par. 15). Yet Gadsby’s shot is fired and all Nanette’s—all five of us—fall victim. We’re the minority bullied by a Netflix star who uses our name to signify hate.

In defense of endangered species, the barista Nanette “Gadsby encountered at a café” accused of making her “feel uncomfortable,” I have to ask, really? You “two never spoke” yet your interaction “was enough to leave its mark” (Aubrey, par. 4)? Gadsby admits “in the live show I talk about her but in the film version it was cut for time. I’ve never seen her since, I assume she’s still kicking about somewhere. She was just an older lady who I would normally love to talk to, but because of what I represented, we didn’t” (Riley, par. 14). We didn’t? Or you didn’t? Who deterred the conversation? Is ageism at play? In her routine, Gadsby’s narrow-minded mother evolves, even becomes the heroine of diversity. Gadsby also anticipates giving Grandma a second chance. But Nanette is cast in concrete, stereotyped to her doom. I cringe anticipating my name becoming an adjective like “Pollyannaish.”[2]

The negative stereotype affixed to both Nanette and Pollyanna is an injurious act of phenomenological abjectivity by either the rhetor or the reader, whether done intentionally or ignorantly. Gadsby concedes that she “projected” her own abjectification, that Nanette did nothing of note. Similarly, Porter’s young heroine, Pollyanna, was the model of optimism for the cynical adults and despondent children with whom she came in contact yet is today unfairly remembered. In the face of severe trial, Pollyanna chose to find hope instead of despair. She was the “tonic” for those suffering emotional misery (Porter 137). Instead of remaining this symbol of hope for us today, her name connotes naïveté, gullibility, and childishness. We’re a poorer society in choosing this association over the loadstar Porter actually provides in her classic story. And in so choosing, Pollyanna risks being relegated to the dusty margins of outdated, sentimental novels not hip enough for today’s readers. Again, we impoverish ourselves and the next generation by our oversight when Pollyanna could be just the medicine our discordant society needs—especially people like Gadsby who perceive offense where none is given.

Nanette is Gadsby’s scapegoat—the person on whom she heaps society’s sins and expects to silently carry them away. The term scapegoat is just as culturally ubiquitous, yet often used in ignorance, as is Pollyannaish. An etymological study of scapegoat may illustrate Gadsby’s irresponsibility in sacrificing Nanette.

The first 15 chapters of the Bible’s Leviticus teach how individuals can become reconciled to God through sacrifice or how they can “wash away their sins” through ceremony and obedience to His laws. The Day of Atonement described in Leviticus 16, celebrated in modern day as Jewish Yom Kippur, symbolized atonement for the entire Israelite nation as a priest officiated the personification of a goat as savior of the community by shouldering their collective sins and releasing it into the wilderness never to be seen again.

The English word for this symbolic goat was fashioned by William Tyndale in his 1530 translation of the English Bible. He translated the Hebrew word azazel, found only in connection with this Levitical ceremony, as ez azel or the goat (ez) which escapes (azel). The concept of this is that the goat represents “one that bears the blame for others” whether guilty or innocent (Merriam-Webster). Thus, we see the origins of the scapegoat archetype employed by Gadsby.

These origins surpass language and religion as seen in text archives of Jungian writings, the Torah and Qumran and in the twenty-fourth century BC Syria (Zatelli). The ancient Greeks had a scapegoating ritual, much like Gadsby’s burdening of Nanette with all society’s bigotry in which they cast out of the community a mendicant, cripple, or criminal, either in response to a natural disaster or calendrical crisis; regardless of one’s language or religion, today this is recognized in America as abhorrent societal practice.

Why didn’t Gadsby converse with Nanette when she had the opportunity? Was she too shy? Her stage performance and celebrity shed doubt on this possibility. Who judged? Condemned? Sentenced? It wasn’t Nanette. Instead, Nanette is the marginalized silenced soul on display, commodified for the benefit of Gadsby’s capitalistic and rhetorical goals. In effect, Gadsby cast Nanette from the community, burdened with blame.

Gadsby’s show “became an instant viral sensation, prompting praise on social media from everyone from Jon Favreau to Kathy Griffin to Roxanne Gay” (Riley, par. 3). It’s reported as being “[s]tartlingly frank and personal” and a moment in which Gadsby boldly declares she’s “quitting comedy,” an issue “her legions of new fans are sure to take issue with.” I can hear them chanting, standing, demanding an encore, “No, No, Hannah!” as they plead with her to continue. They may get their wish as Gadsby’s celebrity star rises higher with every Netflix viewing “in people’s private spaces and homes…breaking the contract essentially of what stand-up comedy should be—light entertainment” (Riley, par. 7). Gadsby revels in her new limelight while on tour, reporting that “To get recognized in New York is weird because that’s definitely a place you shouldn’t be recognized…I don’t quite know what to make of it” (Riley, par. 4). Money is what Gadsby will make of it—money and fame, at Nanette’s expense. It is in Gadsby’s best interest not to confront Nanette, not to get a different perspective than that on which she built her box-office hit, not to relinquish her power. Gadsby’s power is directly related to the subjective position in which she placed Nanette.

Historically, it is recounted that in ancient Israel, the scapegoat once returned from whence it “escaped” after which great pains were taken to ensure it never happened again:

…the man in whose charge the goat was sent out, while setting him free, was instructed to push the unhappy beast down the slope of the mountain side, which was so steep as to insure the death of the goat, whose bones were broken by the fall. The reason for this barbarous custom was that on one occasion the scapegoat returned to Jerusalem after being set free, which was considered such an evil omen that its recurrence was prevented for the future by the death of the goat. (Baker’s)

But every societal scapegoat, every Nanette, must take a stand, declaring herself or himself the inclusive, nurturing, nonjudgmental person she or he is—or at least come to the discussion table to offer their point of view. For the sake of us all, Nanette can’t simply disappear. Silenced voices are characterized by Others. Isn’t that Gadsby’s message? None of us can afford to be silent lest a comedian abuse us on stage. Silence is suicide—another of Gadsby’s messages. Gadsby has the power in this contrived relationship and chose to smear all five Nanettes in a campaign of prejudice and hate. (OK, maybe there’re a few more of us left—I’m only guessing since I’ve yet to meet another one since junior high.)

Following Derrida’s definition of the Other as a subject of phenomenological alterity, Gadsby begrudgingly claims Other status for herself and thereby the privilege of slandering Nanette. Yet, simultaneously she turns this objectionable lens on Nanette, making her the Other. This two-pronged, oscillating approach is the shaky framework upon which Gadsby’s show is built and causes viewers difficulty in receiving and believing her message. The instinctive practice of Othering, with often negative consequences, is a common core of contemporary social discourse, whether addressing gender, race, religion, or any variant stratification influencing intersubjectivity. This conceptual schema of Othering is integral to Gadsby’s argument, yet ironic in its application.

Language is a key to identifying the Other as Toni Morrison points out in her book The Origin of Othering, writing that “The resources available to us for benign access to each other, for vaulting the mere blue air that separates us, are few but powerful: language, image, and experience, which may involve both, one or neither of the first two” (35). Gadsby intently appropriates and peddles these keys to identifying an Other by naming her show an unpopular, out-of-fashion name: Nanette. I doubt she would have titled her show Ema, Olivia, or Ava as, according to a U.S. baby-naming website, these are the most popular baby names for girls in 2018 (Mom365). Gadsby was instead reaching to the margins of society when she named her show—a place from which she (and most institutions of power) didn’t anticipate any resistance.

Morison points out that mankind abjectifies the stranger out of self-preservation, as does Gadsby by her own admission. Though Morison’s is primarily a study of color, it can be applied to any situation where people are marginalized and objectified. Morison’s examination of Othering motives may explain Gadsby’s hypocritical attack on Nanette as she writes, “The necessity of rendering the [Other] a foreign species appears to be a desperate attempt to confirm one’s own self as normal…The danger of sympathizing with the stranger is the possibility of becoming a stranger. To lose one’s rank is to lose one’s own valued and enshrined difference” (29-30). Whatever transpired between Gadsby and her Nanette was interpreted by Gadsby as a call to arms. She chose to attack Nanette, crossing the lines of human decency by disparaging her name and character, portraying Nanette as a stereotypical bigot. Morrison further explains Gadsby’s bad behavior by noting that what we often abjectify in others is a quality we see in ourselves, writing that “there are no strangers. There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from” (38).

My name is now an offensive slur like homo, fag, dyke….Parents are unlikely to name their newborns Nanette and when I introduce myself to a stranger, they may give me that look, you know the one, Hannah, “when someone looks at you like you’re scum of the earth” (qtd. Aubrey, par. 6). In the 1950 film adaptation of the Broadway musical “No, No, Nanette,” Doris Day sings “No, No, Nanette regales my ears…Sometime, perhaps, I’ll have my way, when I am old and turning grey, but just as yet it’s always no, no, no, no…Nanette!” Wherever Gadsby’s Nanette is, she’s still that “older woman,” getting older every day, singled out as the sacrificial scapegoat for Gadsby’s rhetorical and financial purposes. It is as if Gadsby says, “No, No, Nanette, you shall not speak!” Nanette represents every subjugated person condemned to a life of silent anonymity, excluded from the grand social conversation.

Rather than perpetuating the Aristotelian pattern of patriarchal rhetoric wherein the rhetor (Gadsby) works to persuade his audience to his way of thinking and dominate them in the process, I suggest Gadsby and all of us take a different rhetorical tact as we interact with one another: experiment upon the Invitation Rhetoric feminist theorists Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin propose. Foss and Griffin espouse a “new rhetoric…united by a set of basic principles” including “equality, immanent value, and self-determination” (4). Aren’t these the privileges Gadsby claims and accuses Nanette of withholding? This isn’t really new rhetoric but rather the same claim humans have made since time immemorial. The old rhetoric employed by Gadsby at Nanette’s expense thrives on the “rush of power” (qtd. Foss 3) with “[t]he value of the self deriv[ed] not from a recognition of the uniqueness and inherent value of each living being but from gaining control over others.” Foss and Griffin instead propose “an environment that facilitates understanding, accords value and respect to others’ perspectives, and contributes to the development of relationships of equality” (17).

This new rhetoric was actually practiced and promoted by nineteenth-century American writer and social reformer Margaret Fuller who cultivated a multi-ethnic, transclass, transgender, transnational sensibility through her heterogeneous texts—bestsellers like Summer on the Lakes which painted a sympathetic portrait of Native Americans’ plight under white colonization and Women in the Nineteenth Century which was the first American feminist manifesto. These books were loaded with what Jeffrey Bilbro calls “rich cultural diversity” inviting readers to “engage in a dialectic, communal hermeneutic, one that might act as a check on self-serving, individualist interpretations and thereby contribute to a harmonious culture” (64). Evidence of Fuller’s commitment to inclusivity includes her famous monthly subscription “Conversations” fostering dialogic interchange among women who were normally excluded from intellectual inquiry and discussion. Fuller’s texts are models of dialectical conversation between disparate groups, “one Fuller curates in order to educate readers to be loving interpreters” of one another. Fuller’s writing, only recovered and added to the canon in the last 30 years, models Foss and Griffin’s Invitational Rhetoric and champions inclusivity long before it was politically correct. Like Nanette, Fuller was silenced from the intellectual conversation because she didn’t have the power to speak for herself—she drown in a tragic shipwreck after which her bestsellers were heavily edited in reprinting to the point that Fuller disappeared from the intellectual conversation. Today, scholars spanning the Atlantic are working to resurrect Fuller’s authentic voice.

Had Gadsby engaged Nanette, perhaps simply with, “Wazup?” she would have something authentic to say in her routine. Perhaps Nanette would have corroborated Gadsby’s suspicions, giving her the stink-eye and spitting in her general direction. However, invoking social norms and striking the middle ground of possibilities, I expect they would have had a civil interchange, no matter how brief or superficial. Gadsby could have accomplished what Fuller believed to be the aim of conversation: to educate the participants and bring them to greater understanding. Fuller defended her frequent “inclusion of various excerpts from other books” to create a heterogeneous amalgamation of voices by claiming “one must look ‘at both sides to find the truth’” (qtd. Bilbro 67), a belief Gadsby and all of us would do well to adopt.

Following in the rhetorical tradition of twentieth-century writer, Virginia Woolf, who contrived an epistemological dialog between herself and those by whom she felt marginalized in her Three Guineas—an exploration on how war might be prevented—I imagine yet another alternate reality wherein Gadsby and Nanette have a conversation.

Again, envision Gadsby saying to Nanette, “Wazup?”

But this time, Nanette drearily replies, “Arrrg, what a day. I had to put my dog down. By the time I left the vet I’d missed my bus. Got in late cuz of the five mile walk. Boss been on my case all day. So, here I am, still. Missed my bus home, too.”

Gadsby’s eyes open wide as she realizes what’s really on Nanette’s mind—a mind she misread.

“Damn, Girl!” Gadsby exclaims, “Hug!” as she stands and reaches over the bar to embrace Nanette.

And, striking a Pollyannaish tone, Gadsby continues, “That must have been so haaarrrd,” pulling the word in empathetic emphasis. “But, look on the bright side,” Gadsby cheers, “if you hadn’t gotten here late, we’d never’ve met. And you are exactly the woman I intend to celebrate in my next gig—that female model of fortitude who gives us all courage to go on. I’m gonna name it after you, Girlfriend!”

Another hug.

Here I stop imagining because, had this exchange actually occurred, Gadsby’s show wouldn’t have fed the clamoring crowd of accusers ready to critique every Nanette/Other they see through their lens of hermeneutical suspicion; the show wouldn’t be the popular sensation it is.

Is my imagined version of the two women’s exchange sappy like Pollyanna is purported to be? Perhaps. But isn’t it a better model of human interaction than Gadsby’s version?

Everyone is quick to engage in what literary critic Rita Felski calls “a spirit of skeptical questioning or outright condemnation” (2). It’s the low fruit—just check the daily news. “Why is it,” asks Felski “that critics are so quick off the mark to interrogate, unmask, expose, subvert, unravel, demystify, destabilize, take issue, and take umbrage?” (5). Gadbsy is Nanette’s self-appointed critic who fails to follow through with the requisite conversation to confirm her suspicion. The harder task for Gadsby and every accuser is to converse with their subject before marking them a suspect while reaching beyond the zone of comfort with the hope of exonerating and understanding an Other. Felski and her allies preach a “hermeneutics of restoration” wherein the critic approaches her subject “in the hope of revelation” (32). To reap this superior fruit requires real effort, actual interaction, discourse, and collaboration. These are the moves that would have saved Nanette and every other Other, along with Gadsby’s feelings and integrity. These moves involve what Felski calls “shrugg[ing] off the mantle of knowing skepticism by embracing a renewed sense of idealism, purpose, and utopian possibility” (188).

Just as Woolf’s interlocutor claimed to want a war-free utopia, Gadsby claims to want social acceptance, harmony, and peace for herself and others like her—those victimized and marginalized. To usher in this utopian society, people must hear and heed Woolf’s mandate that portends Foss and Griffin’s “new rhetoric” wherein she instructs,

…we can best…prevent war not by repeating your words and following your methods [, Hannah Gadsby and institutions of power,] but by finding new words and creating new methods. We can best help you to prevent war not by joining your society but by remaining outside your society but in cooperation with its aim. That aim is the same for us both. It is to assert “the rights of all—all men and women—to the respect in their persons of the great principles of Justice and Equality and Liberty.” (170)

Just as the Broadway musical “No, No, Nanette,” experienced an ebb and flow in popularity over time, so do ideologies. Fuller’s 1840 commitment to dialogic inclusivity was taken up by Woolf’s 1938 directive to practice a new rhetoric, something other than the past patriarchal rhetoric which proved tired and unsuccessful in promoting peace. In 1927, Porter believed that even a child can persuade society toward utopia as her Pollyanna planted hope and positivity instead of pessimism and suspicion. Foss and Griffin issued a 1995 “Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric” intended to make every voice heard, foster community collaboration and harmony, echoing their foremothers’ century-old appeal for peace. And in 2015, Felski continues the attack on critical suspicion which leaves everyone wounded and poor. Together, this genealogy of women writers call for a not-so-new way of seeing and making meaning. What would be new is for society to regard their message, to accept the invitation to talk to one another. Gadsby’s 2018 message is a step backwards.

As for Nanette, I counter Gadsby’s memorialization of her. I add her name to the record of the fallen and forgotten. Nanette is M.I.A. (missing in action), possibly “still kicking about somewhere” (Aubrey, par. 5). She represents all the Others who suffer silently and are never heard, known, or understood because they are powerless. I commemorate her as someone who, in the end, was sacrificed for the cause of Justice, Equality, and Liberty—may her name be so remembered.



[1] In the remake of the Broadway musical “No, No, Nanette” titled “Tea for Two,” Doris Day sings “No, No, Nanette regales my ears…” “Sometime, perhaps, I’ll have my way, when I am old and turning grey, but just as yet it’s always no, no, no, no…Nanette!”

[2] Eleanor H. Porter’s 1913 best-selling novel Pollyanna is responsible for the positive and negative associations of blind optimism and inaugurated terms such as the adjective “Pollyannaish” and noun “Pollyannaism.”


Works Cited

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Rosenkrantz, Linda, and Pamela Redmond Satran. “15 Once-Popular Baby Names on the Verge of Extinction.” Parenting, 17 Mar. 2015, updated 6 Dec. 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/17/unpopular-baby-names-going-extinct_n_6859318.html. Accessed 12 Sept. 2018.

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