The Sound of Female Self-deprecation: humour, trauma and voice quality in Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up

Curator's Note

Stephanie Koziski has positioned the stand-up comedian as a cultural critic who renders their insights palatable by enabling the audience to laugh at them (Koziski, 1984, 62). In the last ten minutes of Nanette (Netflix, 2018), HannahGadsby rejects this premise, explicitly naming the anxiety and damage that not adhering to the conventions of heteronormative “femininity” has precipitated and refusing to relieve through laughter the tension that this induces. This serves as her formal contribution to the #MeToo movement, but aural evidence of trauma in Gadsby’s work long precedes her verbal testimony. 

Much of the content of Gadsby’s self-deprecating humour centres around her body, mainly her mid-section. When she speaks, rather than fully utilise her body, by breathing into the diaphragm, she restricts resonance to her head and throat. This very strained vocal delivery is purposefully done for effect. Creating tension, as she explains, is the main skill required for the jokes to work in stand-up comedy. But this also takes its toll on Gadsby who has disclosed that the act of crystallising the trauma in a formal performance has had a negative impact on her psychologically. Trauma then results not from the event itself but from “the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged” (Levine, 1997, 19). By performing the freeze response Gadsby is repeatedly replicating a somatic response to fear.

The prevalence of this performance trait among comediennes, and female performers in general, necessitates much further scholarly attention. Extant research on voice quality in female performance, and what that signifies in terms of female dis/empowerment, is severely limited. Studying the sound of comediennes offers great insight into the complex relationship between cultural oppression and markers of female identity.



Koziski, S. (1984) “The Standup Comedian as Anthropologist: Intentional Culture Critic.” The Journal of Popular Culture 18 (2), pp. 57-76.

Levine, P. (1997) Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences. California: North Atlantic Books.

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