If you are extremely online, you know the internet has been dominated by take after take — some thoughtful, some ignorant — on Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix comedy special, The Closer. In the special, the once-nuanced comedian goes on bizarre rants about LGBTQ+ communities, specifically trans women, and repeatedly spews rhetoric that denies trans women are women, ignores the existence of Black gay people, and defends noted homophobic rapper, DaBaby. None of these abhorrent comments can be brushed off as mere “jokes,” — mainly because they aren’t funny, but also because they perpetuate hate-speech used to justify the marginalisation of the groups Chappelle targets in his special — groups that he is not a part of or seems to know anything about.
As the backlash to the special came swiftly, so did the defences from Netflix, a platform which continuously prides itself on diversity and inclusion. Despite reported complaints about The Closer from Netflix staffers, the platform went ahead with its release, and promotional push. According to Bloomberg, staff raised concerns that “a series of jokes about gender-neutral pronouns and the genitalia of transgender people was potentially inflammatory and damaging.”
In response, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos sent a laughable (truly funnier than anything Chappelle has done in years) and out of touch memo on Friday defending the special. “Several of you have also asked where we draw the line on hate….We don’t allow titles on Netflix that are designed to incite hate or violence, and we don’t believe The Closer crosses that line,” he wrote. Sarandos also noted that stand-up comedy “exists to push boundaries.” I’m not sure what’s boundary-pushing about calling feminists “frumpy dyke[s]” or going on age-old bigoted tirades against trans people, but sure, go off, Ted.
After days of people and even Netflix staffers pointing out how awful this defence was, and after Netflix suspended a trans employee who protested the special, Sarandos doubled down. Variety reports that in an email sent to staff on Monday, Sarandos wrote, “We know that a number of you have been left angry, disappointed and hurt by our decision to put Dave Chappelle’s latest special on Netflix.” The Netflix chief then went on to make confusing equivalences between Chappelle’s special, other Netflix shows, and crime rates around the world. Trans staffers and allies are now planning a walkout for October 20 where they will do no work for the streamer.
“With ‘The Closer,’ we understand that the concern is not about offensive-to-some content but titles which could increase real world harm (such as further marginalizing already marginalised groups, hate, violence etc.),” Sarandos wrote in his latest email to staff. “Last year, we heard similar concerns about 365 Days and violence against women. While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.”
“The strongest evidence to support this is that violence on screens has grown hugely over the last thirty years, especially with first party shooter games, and yet violent crime has fallen significantly in many countries,” he wrote. “Adults can watch violence, assault and abuse – or enjoy shocking stand-up comedy – without it causing them to harm others.”
Whew, there’s a lot to unpack here. Nevermind the condescending tone of Sarandos trying to mansplain violence on screen to his staff, there’s also the issue of Sarandos completely ignoring the fact that violent crimes against trans people have actually risen, especially in America. This is a point that Disclosure — the NETFLIX documentary about how harmful trans representation has been on screen — makes so astutely.
It’s absolutely bewildering that Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos can say “we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm” when last year they released the Netflix Original @Disclosure_Doc, which included salient scenes like this. pic.twitter.com/a8A3FW6fxs
— Out Magazine (@outmagazine) October 14, 2021
This year is set to be the deadliest year on record in America as killings of trans and gender-noncomforming people reach an all-time high, according to the Human Rights Campaign. There is a war against Black trans women raging, and those women are losing their lives as a result. As writer Akilah Hughes wrote for Medium, Dave Chappelle’s special is the portrait of a comedian rapidly losing his relevance while railing against people who dare to critique his jokes. “So your joke didn’t land. Did you die? ’Cause a lot of trans women did….” she writes.
You absolutely can make a direct line from content that dehumanises trans people and emboldens homophobia to “real world harm.” The stats are right there. People are dying over the exact same ignorant ideologies that Chappelle regurgitates in his special. I’m not sure what the goal of comparing trans women to blackface was from Chappelle other than to “incite hate,” which is something Sarandos claims Netflix is against. The same company that pats itself on the back for the good its doing with authentic LGBTQ representation (Sarandos shouted out Sex Education in his first memo) can’t then dispel that same logic to defend content that reverses any good the streaming service is doing onscreen.
As GLAAD told Variety, “Authentic media stories about LGBTQ lives have been cited as directly responsible for increasing public support for issues like marriage equality. But film and TV have also been filled with stereotypes and misinformation about us for decades, leading to real world harm, especially for trans people and LGBTQ people of colour. Ironically, the documentary ‘Disclosure’ on Netflix demonstrates this quite clearly.”
“We’ve been around since there was footage, you just have to look for us.”@Disclosure_Doc — a new documentary from director Sam Feder and producer Laverne Cox about the history of trans representation on screen — is now on Netflix globally. pic.twitter.com/6WQ2TUlheQ
— Most (@Most) June 19, 2020
It’s baffling that Sarandos can continually defend Chappelle and his special, in the face of real trans people telling him what harm the comedian has caused to them and their community, when his platform has repeatedly proven that they do believe on screen content can “translate to real world harm.” If they didn’t believe harm could come from content, why would they have provided resources and public service announcements ahead of 13 Reasons Why, a show that was criticized for glamourising suicide? They issued warnings ahead of episodes and directed viewers to sites that provided support for the very subjects tackled in the show. But by Sarandos’s logic, none of that was necessary since “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” right?
By supporting, promoting and enabling Chappelle’s strange vendetta against trans people, and anyone who dares criticise him for these horrible views, Netflix is telling us exactly where they stand. The clear hypocrisy in Sarandos’s statements aren’t just causing real-world harm to his employees, but also to the members of the LGBTQ+ communities Chappelle relentlessly ridiculed in his special. Sarandos doesn’t really care about them, or about protecting free-speech, or about the sanctity of the content on Netflix. He cares about money. And it would have been easier for him to just say that instead of pretending to care about trans lives.
R29Unbothered has reached out to Netflix for official comment.
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