In her video essay “The Darkness,” YouTuber ContraPoints (Natalie Wynn) responds to Hannah Gadsby’s comments in Nanette about self-deprecating humor. As ContraPoints suggests in the clip, the self-deprecator must perform seeing themselves as others do—as they, from the audience’s implicit perspective, “really” are. This coerced form of authenticity interacts with expectations tied to genre. Sharing true (or apparently true) experiences is conventional in both stand-up and YouTube vlogging. In the different genre of the YouTube video essay, ContraPoints’ inclusion of personal stories is less conventional. Gadsby follows stand-up’s convention of telling true stories but for the unusual purpose of forming her special as a unified, explicit argument. For both performers, from distinct platforms and genres, the telling is not confessional: the point is not to share the experience, but to further the argument.
ContraPoints begins her video as the embodiment of the dark humor she will discuss, announcing “It is I, the darkness within.” While she draws this darkness out to the surface with her gothic costuming, ContraPoints positions her dark humor as authentically internal: “I want to defend my sense of humor, which I feel is like the core of my personality and what keeps me alive.” After playing a clip of Gadsby denouncing self-deprecating humor, she notes “I felt a little called out by that.” “Called out” usually means “taken to task,” but I see ContraPoints as calling out to the surface the dark humor within so that, like Gadsby, she can show the harm that some expectations around dark humor foster, while also defending self-deprecating dark humor—used responsibly—as a tool for solace.
This responsibility competes with expectations of authenticity. ContraPoints explains that “the terrible thing about being a not-normal with an audience is that you don't just get to be yourself because whether you like it or not, people will see you as a representative of the community.” Concluding that even with those who defend “politically incorrect comedy” there is “a concern there for what is virtuous and what is true,” ContraPoints suggests that “maybe before we can even talk about what's funny, we have to have a level of shared agreement about what is true and what is morally right.” The demand for representativeness is a burden that has as its flipside the opportunity to facilitate agreement around truths, an opportunity that raises the issue of how to respond to audiences’ various calls for authenticity.
Where do these expectations of authenticity come from?
Nice work on the piece! I think the self-deprecating angle is particularly interesting. As the subject line with this message suggests: Where do these expectations of authenticity come from?
I find your reference, "the self-deprecator must perform seeing themselves as others do" to be particularly fascinating. This idea of self-identity becomes a critical consideration when we are talking about how these "dark" jokes become relevant. For example, an individual must present themselves in a specific way to subsequently use self-deprecating humor. They must lean into what people "think" about them as a way to identify what would constitute as self-deprecating in the first place.
More of a meta-thought than anything else!
authorship and truth
Thanks for the question, Michael! Maybe in a really broad sense expectations of authenticity come from an idea of a person as a stable, unified presence, such that self-disclosure or genres engaging with autobiography require signs that one knows oneself and tells it true. More specifically, I think that questions of authenticity define stand-up, which I understand to work through two key elements: authorship (my name for identity and self-expression) and truth (my name for convention and context). In the clip, ContraPoints has to navigate authorship (her dark humor as the core of who she is) and truth (the conventions about what authenticity looks like and the context in which self-deprecation contributes to harmful attitudes).
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