Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas: What the Mainstream Media Doesn’t Get About Autistic Representation

Sonia Boué

‘Mainstream’ media has not yet clocked the seismic cultural significance, for autistic audiences, of Hannah Gadsby’s newest show, Douglas. A lofty but quite oblivious New York Times review by Jason Zinoman misses the mark, because the reviewer seems to have no knowledge of autistic culture. Inkoo Kang of The Hollywood Reporter does better. Kang has been watching the conversation about neurodiversity online, and notes Douglas is a novelty for pop culture. 

Yes. It is novel, but it’s vital that we take this observation one step further: We need to consider the import of Douglas for autistic people, and what impact it might have towards much needed societal change and improving their lives. For this we need a more sophisticated analysis of Douglas as a cultural artefact, and a dissection of the failings of ‘mainstream’ critical reviews. 

The Guardian’s Brian Douglas gives the film a worthy four stars, but fails to address it as an autistic cultural event. The NME review by El Hunt, makes mere mention of the show’s ‘big reveal’ that Gadsby is autistic, and finds Gadsby funny but frustrating:

“Hannah Gadsby is a white woman, and (you would assume) also a little richer thanks to Nanette. She does not examine this same privilege, nor the way that her work can sometimes hinge on reaffirming the existing beliefs of its core audience. Though she needles the patriarchy, and mentions marginalisation, they don’t get dissected in any meaningful way.”

I find this very telling. One mechanism of our oppression is that even when we do ‘come out,’ we remain invisible as marginalised people. Hunt ignores no fewer than two of Gadsby’s known marginal identities: She is both autistic and gay. Yet Hunt describes Gadsby as an articulate, wealthy, white woman, period. The bottom line is that we autistics don’t appear radical if others cannot “see” our autism. They don’t know what it takes to stand before them and translate ourselves for neuro-normative consumption. In calling-out Gadsby’s ‘lack of nuance,’ Hunt displays a considerable lack of nuance—if you happen to be autistic. 

I have experienced this particular oppression myself at first hand, as my being highly verbal often counts against me. This is a subtle yet toxic form of ableism: It’s almost as if the ability to explain autism disqualifies us from being autistic. 

If you’re not autistic you need to do the work to understand how radical, brave and important Douglas is for autistic people. To the mainstream critics I would say, the first step is human consideration. Secondly, think about how you would write your review about another marginal group. You might know about comedy and live performance, but how much do you know about us autistic people? Talk to the source, if you’re uncertain. What Brian Douglas observes, and what I observe is therefore very different:

“And Gadsby’s material on neurodiversity smoulders with fury at the doctors who dismissed her as “hormonal” and the perception of autism as the preserve of nerdy boys.”

Yes. Gadsby is on fire in Douglas, but we autistics all have cause to smoulder with fury. It’s the fact that Douglas is on Netflix streaming to global audiences, who embrace and identify with her (while she smoulders) that counts. Autistic culture is in the ascendance at grassroots level, and there are very many of us in all walks of life, many of whom still can’t ‘come out’ about their identities, for fear of the very real harms of stigma. This is why it’s so thrilling to see a show like Douglas break through. 

Generally speaking, it seems that mainstream critics can’t recognise our work as autistic culture, or are reluctant to write about it because they lack knowledge. Others simply practice ableism. This results in gross inequity overall, and creates a particular anomaly when autistics like Gadsby attain ‘mainstream’ recognition. 

I’m like Hannah Gadsby, who’s been talking about her autism diagnosis for some years; I see patterns and my thoughts run deeper than most. Douglas is about my kind of brain. Like Gadsby, I have spent a great deal of time trying to work out the ’purpose of my human’ (as she says in her TED talk), in a hostile and bewildering world. It is painful labour, but Gadsby has discovered that when you speak your truth you can (in receptive company) experience connection. 

The seeming inability of the ‘mainstream’ to properly review autistic culture is true across the arts, and a matter of deep frustration. Underpinning this critical vacuum is the “double empathy bind,” a term coined by Dr Damian Milton, which refers to the emotional no-man’s land between autistic and non-autistic people. Historically this has fostered a seriously stigmatising and traumatic perception of autistic people, to the extent that, as we witness with Douglas, autistic culture is barely known about let alone critiqued adequately.

Thank goodness there is always at least one pattern breaker. Leah Greenblatt’s review in Entertainment Weekly is a laudable exception to the rule, in acknowledging autistic pain, and showing a rare flash of empathy for Gadsby’s labour. This is encouraging, in an otherwise disappointing landscape. The success of Douglas is undeniable and not at issue—critics are at liberty to either favour it or not—but generally what’s lacking in these reviews is both humanity and insight.  

Do the research, and you begin to see that this general lack of critical attention to Gadsby’s autism is remarkable. Let’s begin by reading about Douglas on her website, which states that the film is about “Letting the world see the view from Hannah’s brain—one that sees the world differently but with breathtaking clarity.” This is literally the primary message, but let me paraphrase it: “In this show I will show you my autistic brain.” 

I’m astonished that the reviewers don’t get this message, and respond to it. Douglas is a groundbreaking show because it’s written and performed by an autistic person, and features an autistic person holding forth autistically. Compare this to Australian pop superstar Sia’s 2020 directorial debut Music, an ill-judged film about a non-verbal autistic girl. The manifold harms of bogus cultural productions like Music render the complete authenticity of Douglas big news. Hannah Gadsby reveals and embodies autism on a mainstream global platform to worldwide acclaim, and is a singular, exemplum of an autistic person refusing to mask their identity to be accepted. Audiences are not repelled. Audiences love it. This is standup advocacy, which paves the way for other isolated autistics to “find the purpose of their human.” 

Witnessing Douglas on Netflix was like the first snow, a thing of revolutionary beauty. The critical conversation needs to encompass the significance of Gadsby’s performance and her mission, within the context of the Neurodiversity Movement as a whole. I’m reminded of the author Katherine May, whose book Wintering’s ascendance on the NYT List of Bestsellers has been equally thrilling. Mainstream audiences crave our hard-won autistic wisdoms, and respond to our original minds. We are groundbreakers, but doing that work takes courage, and the open-hearted encouragement of others (not ignorance and opprobrium). 

Douglas is Gadsby’s difficult second album. It follows her smash hit Nannette, in which she broke comedy to both rebuild her art, and recover from trauma. The Guardian’s Jenny Valentish says Nanette as not merely an hour of standup, but a “mass bloodletting.” Douglas breaks with convention in a different way, by allowing audiences under the bonnet of Gadsby’s brain. Referring to the prolonged introduction to the show, Jason Zinoman observes, “This is an old magician’s trick, telling the crowd what you are going to do, only to still startle them with it.”

Okay, but Zinoman is missing the autism-specific subtext: As Gadsby explains, this is a show which rewards people who persevere. This sounds like an autistic burn to me, because autistics have to persevere in non-autistic spaces, or go under. For me Gadsby writes it large: It’s your turn to listen. Gadsby knows what she’s doing in potentially alienating her audience this way—she’s demonstrating autism. 

I know non-autistics who didn’t have the bandwidth for Douglas, feeling that the introduction was too long and not funny. The ability to stick with Douglas could be the mark of a good ally, I say. As Gadsby herself says in her interview with Jenny Valentish, A joke is a wank, but a story is intimacy. Global audiences enjoy connection with Gadsby because she’s genuine, and her stories resonate deeply. A quick laugh is soon forgotten. 

In writing this piece, I’ve developed quite a grim obsession with Zinoman’s review, which presents a perfect example of the double empathy bind. He suggests Gadsby’s elaborate web of meta-commentary is spun for the sake of cleverness, which distances the viewer. This is lacking in sensitivity, given that Hannah is autistic. Zinoman unknowingly notices cultural difference, for which he lacks any awareness or curiosity. Yes. This meta-commentary is identifiably autistic. Gadsby signposts her meta-commentary, spelling out the word meta in the air with her finger to underline a pun, “I met a…meta…that’s a pun…this is a very pun heavy show.” 

At which my brain goes, ping! Many of us autistics are known to revel in wordplay, and delicious tongue-rolling verbalisations, known as stims. For me, Gadsby both references and demonstrates this, in her segment about the quirks of American language, whereas Zinoman is dismissive, “There are riffs on language that you could have found on BuzzFeed years ago.” This is quite the put-down, but the game isn’t to catch Gadsby out, it’s to catch up. In a previous segment she’s already laid the ground for what follows: “I’m not very observant.” It doesn’t matter about your precious BuzzFeed. The sensory joy of my favourite stim is currently streaming on a global platform, yes please America, aru-gu-la!  Hannah Gadsby being autistic on Netflix is what counts. 

Autistic viewers will clue into further meta-references to our culture within the lengthy intro to the show. In her own words, Gadsby Hansel and Gretels the hell out of Douglas. She signposts literally every crumb of content, managing expectation, avoiding surprise, anticipating reactions, laying out her method. If you ever need to plan a birthday celebration for an autistic child or adult, these may be the strategies you need to employ. Information about autism in Douglas is both overt (loud noises can be difficult), and meta (many autistic people need the breadcrumb approach, and we often do better when every detail is explained ahead of time).

Indeed, the layers of autistic meta-reference in Douglas are breathtaking. Of course the intro is the show. It’s the show in ways non-autistic people think they know, but may never guess. We autistics need to tell you about our brains because they’re different, not because we’re trying to be smart. We understand how anxiety can be mitigated through detailed explanations. 

Yes, Gadsby’s audiences are global, but in Douglas, I feel, we witness her break through for autistic people. Though intersectional in spirit, her targets aside from white patriarchy are autism specific. While grabbing the patriarchy by a ‘Karen’s handful,’ she exacts delicious revenge on anti-vax groups, and neutralises narratives about (but without) autistic people, with a hilarious dog in the daytime story. You will never again be able to unzip an extending suitcase, without thinking about a lesser known part of the female anatomy called the Pouch of Douglas!

What first brought Douglas to my attention was Gadsby’s recent tweet acknowledging the scarcity of self-authored autistic storytelling, thus indicating that the narrative about us remains hotly contested. As I write (in late January, 2021), adult autistics are still subject to hate by the autism cure lobby and others. Hannah performs eating the haters for breakfast, nom, nom, nom. This is cathartic and joyful. It is also signifiant, I feel, that she employs the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag for her tweet. Douglas is self-advocacy, and we’re so done with the harms of misrepresentation. 

We must see Douglas for what it is: Gadsby is enjoying global success, but Douglas is significant emotional labour, which is subject to critique as art. For late-diagnosed autistic people there is always a calculation to be made in terms of self-exposure, because it can so easily elicit misunderstanding and ableism. We must turn to the New York Times’s Zinoman, one last time, to find an example. 

“When she performed this show in New York last year, Gadsby, in a discussion of her autism, built to a story about a girlfriend who insulted her with a slur. This made the audience gasp but also threw the show off balance. She cut it for Netflix. It was a smart edit — that story felt like a strained and doomed attempt to capture the gut-punch emotional climax of “Nanette” — and the omission suits the prickly puppet-master vibe of this new effort.”

I beg your pardon, sir? Crossing irrational social lines to public humiliation and opprobrium is our reality. We were born on the “wrong end of the stick” socially speaking, and have historically lived our lives as outcasts. This is what we seek to change when we risk “coming out.” Too long have we been silenced and rendered invisible, so please don’t deny our history in this careless, and ignorantly, knowing way. We are tyrannised by unspoken normative social rules, and it cannot be assumed what lies behind a decision to cut material for Netflix. As Valentish writes, “The burden of talking about complex issues usually comes down to the most marginalised people.” I say, sometimes it’s just too much. I’ve been there. 

I can’t end this piece without sharing my best Douglas moment. Gadsby delighted me with a hilarious art history illustration of never “getting the memo” as a defining autistic experience. This is genius because it works in reverse. Get the memo. Douglas is deep autistic advocacy and a work of the soul. 

There is still so much work to be done, and further questions to be asked, about the unpreparedness of mainstream critique to open its eyes to our distinct autistic cultural being. We need to establish neurodivergance as an aesthetic, an idea in its infancy, it would seem. Historically speaking, we’ve lacked ability to flourish and identify a culture, due to violent suppression (Applied Behavioural Analysis), and misidentification. Too many stereotypes about us persist. Stereotypes through which, Gadsby in her brilliance, is hampered in translating autism for the non-autistic public. 

I do hope I am wrong. The importance of Gadsby’s work for autistic people in witnessing embodied representation, at a global level, is immeasurable and a thing of utter joy. What my survey of reviews suggests however, is that even when we talk in great detail about our autism, we are still not heard.

Let that sink in, as I gently place my mic on the floor.