Netflix can’t shake Chappelle controversy
Netflix can’t seem to close the door on “The Closer,” with the streaming giant only further inflaming controversy with its defense of Dave Chappelle’s mocking of the transgender community in his latest comedy special.
Netflix had touted Chappelle’s stand-up routine as a chance for the 48-year-old Emmy Award winner to “try and set the record straight” and “get a few things off his chest” when it was released early this month.
But instead, the show — the finale in a series of six specials that Chappelle partnered with Netflix for — quickly ignited a firestorm.
“Now listen, women get mad at me, gay people get mad at me, lesbians get mad at me — but I’m gonna tell you right now, and this is true: These transgenders,” he says in it, “want me dead.”
While declaring he is “not indifferent to the suffering of someone else,” Chappelle dedicated nearly half of his 70-minute long set to jokes deriding the LGBT community, specifically transgender people.
The comic used crude terms to refer to a transgender person’s anatomy and offered a defense of J.K. Rowling against critics who have called the “Harry Potter” author transphobic. Using a sarcastic tone to refer to himself as a “transphobic comedian,” Chappelle told a Detroit audience, “Gender is a fact.”
“Every human being in this room, every human being on earth, had to pass through the legs of a woman to be on earth. That is a fact,” he said.
“I’m Team TERF!” Chappelle exclaimed, referring to an acronym meaning trans exclusionary radical feminist, or a transphobic feminist. “Gender is a fact.”
Transgender men and nonbinary people can get pregnant and give birth — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website refers to “pregnant people” rather than solely women.
GLAAD condemned Chappelle, saying his brand “has become synonymous with ridiculing trans people,” while the National Black Justice Coalition, an LGBT advocacy organization, called on Netflix to pull the plug on the special.
Controversy erupted once again after CEO Ted Sarandos responded to critics in a pair of memos defending Chappelle.
“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,” Sarandos said in one of the notes.
In a separate companywide note sent Monday, Sarandos acknowledged that some employees “have been left angry, disappointed and hurt by our decision to put Dave Chappelle’s latest special on Netflix.”
But the Netflix executive drew even more ire from critics with another line in his memo, writing, “While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.”
Raquel Willis, a Black transgender activist, rejected Sarandos’s statement, telling The Hill in an interview that like Chappelle, “It’s very clear that the CEO of Netflix also does not understand intersectionality, and clearly doesn’t understand that the LGBTQ+ community, and particularly the trans community, is a marginalized group.”
“I think what I was most hurt about was the fact that this misinformation would serve as a confirmation bias for the numerous folks — particularly cisgender, straight people — who have no concept around the true lives of trans people,” the Brooklyn, N.Y., writer said.
“When people say, ‘It’s just jokes. This doesn’t have any impact on the world,’ I have to call BS because we know that most Americans say that they don’t know a trans person in their everyday lives, or at least they don’t think they do,” Willis, 30, said. “And so that means that their first and often only interactions with us are through what is shared through media.”
Willis also dismissed the special as a case of just “Chappelle being Chappelle” — an equal opportunity offender known for pushing boundaries and lobbing grenades with his comedy.
In “The Closer,” Chappelle recalled being befriended by a transgender comedian, who he said was a fan and backed him amid the criticism about his LGBT cracks, “Punching down on someone requires you to think less of them, and I know him, and he doesn’t. He doesn’t punch up. He doesn’t punch down. He punches lines.”
Chappelle “ignores his status in the world” with transphobic remarks, according to Willis, who said he “does not have a concept of his place as someone who can also be oppressive as a cisgender straight man who is also now wealthy, and has a platform, privilege and status in Hollywood.”
Eric Schiffer, a crisis communications and public relations expert, said controversy simply comes with the territory when watching Chappelle on stage.
“The typical cancel bloodbath that many comedians would get in this kind of situation he’ll continue to elude,” the Los Angeles-based chairman of Reputation Management Consultants said.
While some will view the entertainer’s transgender-dismissing jokes as “atrocious,” Schiffer said, “I don’t see this as being the annihilation moment for Chappelle. … It’s just not a spontaneous combustion for his career, that’s for sure.”
Some Netflix employees are planning a walkout next week in protest of the company’s stance on Chappelle, according to multiple reports. And The Verge reported Friday that the organizer of the walkout had been fired.
“We have let go of an employee for sharing confidential, commercially sensitive information outside the company. We understand this employee may have been motivated by disappointment and hurt with Netflix, but maintaining a culture of trust and transparency is core to our company,” a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement to ITK on Friday about the firing.
A Twitter account called Most run by “queer and trans people” that describes itself as the “home of Netflix’s LGBTQ+ storytelling,” wrote on Thursday that “the last couple of weeks have been hard.”
“We can’t always control what goes on screen. What we can control is what we create here, and the POV we bring to internal conversations,” the account said, adding its team will “continue advocating for bigger and better queer representation.”
A Netflix spokesperson told The Hill earlier this week that the company supports “artistic expression for [its] creators.”
“We also encourage our employees to disagree openly,” the spokesperson said. A representative for the streaming service declined to be interviewed or comment further about the controversy on Friday.
Chappelle and Netflix have found support among some cultural and conservative commentators. YouTube personality Dave Rubin dubbed Chappelle’s special “brilliant” during an interview on Megyn Kelly’s eponymous Sirius podcast, bemoaning what the “social justice warriors have done to America” with their criticism.
“A lot of that special felt like him just doing work just not to get destroyed after, and then ironically, of course, they’re going to go after him either way,” Rubin told Kelly.
Former “Good Morning Britain” host Piers Morgan heaped praise on Netflix’s handling of the drumfire of criticism.
“It’s so refreshing, frankly, to see any CEO in Hollywood take a stand in which he defends freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” Morgan said.
Free speech, Morgan continued, “doesn’t just mean the freedom to listen to the views and opinions that you agree with, actually it often means you have to tolerate opinions you don’t agree with.”
For Willis, the damage has been done through Chappelle’s words and Netflix’s defense of them.
The company, Wilis said, should listen to its transgender employees and take other meaningful steps: “At the very least, we need to start with an acknowledgement that harm has happened, move into some kind of public apology and then move on to some action. So that means how are you going to offset that harm by elevating, supporting, financing transgender innovators in Hollywood?”
While Chappelle seemed to embrace the controversy stemming from his material — reportedly saying at an appearance earlier this month, “If this is what being canceled is like, I love it,” — he also appeared to have a desire for “The Closer” to be his last word on the subject.
Nearing the end of his Netflix special, Chappelle said, “LBGTQ, L-M-N-O-P-Q-Y-Z, it is over.”
“I’m not telling another joke about you,” Chappelle said, “until we are both sure that we are laughing together.”
—Updated at 5:46 p.m.