Warning: This article mentions transphobia and references transphobic comments.
Just over a week ago, Sarah wrote about Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix Comedy Special, The Closer. Spoiler alert, it’s awful. I powered through ⅔ of it for this article, and I wanted to throw up the entire time. I ended up reading a transcript for the rest of it.
Since The Closer came out, there’s been an enormous uproar both from within and outside Netflix. Reportedly, even before the special aired, employees expressed concerns around the transphobic and offensive jokes littered throughout Chappelle’s special. To put it in perspective, despite expressing his annoyance that people think he’s transphobic, Chappelle tells jokes ranging from declaring his support for TERFs to insulting descriptions of a trans woman’s genitalia.
Employees took to Twitter, including Terra Fields, a software developer and trans woman working at Netflix. There’s even a company-wide employee walkout planned on October 20th to protest the special.
What I think is fascinating about this story is that it sits at the intersection of many different issues that we talk about on the site. As Sarah explains in her article, Dave Chappelle falls into a common pattern of comedians who decry the death of comedy while telling unfunny jokes that not only showcase their ignorance but punch down on marginalized communities. It’s not a cute look.
It also relates to cancel culture and the complicated question of consequence versus influence for a celebrity’s platform. And as much as I want to write about both of these, I think the most interesting part of this story is the role that Netflix is playing as the middleman.
Since Chappelle’s special, Netflix has seen an unprecedented amount of leaks of internal information. And in retaliation, Netflix has fired and suspended employees, including a Black trans woman who was organizing the walkout on October 20th.
Through these leaks, we get a glimpse into Netflix’s perspective. Here’s an internal memo providing guidance to managers from Netflix’s CEO, Ted Sarandos, published in a Variety exclusive.
It opens with:
“Chappelle is one of the most popular stand-up comedians today, and we have a long standing deal with him. His last special “Sticks & Stones,” also controversial, is our most watched, stickiest and most award winning stand-up special to date.”
Already, we’re prioritizing Chappelle in this conversation, and especially his financial contributions to the company. In response to hurt within the trans community, this memo starts by saying, “don’t forget, he made us a lot of money and awards.”
“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. I recognize, however, that distinguishing between commentary and harm is hard, especially with stand-up comedy which exists to push boundaries. Some people find the art of stand-up to be mean-spirited but our members enjoy it, and it’s an important part of our content offering.”
Translation: we get that you, trans people, may find it hard to understand the difference between a joke and a legitimate concern, but it makes us money so shut up.
Plus, take that second line. “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..”
That’s an inherently flawed argument and you need not look any further than another Netflix title, Disclosure, to see why. The media we consume shapes our perspectives and opinions. Reinforcing harmful stereotypes, joking about harassment, and even poking at hateful ideologies all have VERY REAL consequences for the trans community. In Disclosure, there are countless examples of tropes in film and television that make their way into the actual lives of real trans people. And in a world where trans people are alarmingly more likely to be harmed and killed, “but our members enjoy it” seems like a sh*tty defense.
When we’re trying to figure out who to support, Dave Chappelle’s platform or the trans community at large, I feel like it’s a no brainer. He doesn’t need it. As Dave Chappelle admits proudly right at the beginning of The Closer, “first of all, before I even start, I’m gonna say that I’m rich and famous.”
And Netflix, for its part, is making a play so old that the page of the playbook it’s on is tattered and worn. You can see this in this subsequent memo to employees.
“We are working hard to ensure marginalized communities aren’t defined by a single story. So we have Sex Education, Orange is the New Black, Control Z, Hannah Gadsby and Dave Chappelle all on Netflix. Key to this is increasing diversity on the content team itself.”
This is the corporate equivalent to “I can’t be transphobic. I have a trans friend.”
SIDE NOTE: It’s important to note that in this memo, Ted Sarandos also argues that media can’t be harmful because despite the prevalence of violent video games, shootings have gone down in many countries. Yeah... I sh*t you not.
Netflix has always been eager to appeal to LGTQ+ consumers. Memes juxtaposing this tweet with headlines of Netflix firing trans employees showcase the disconnect between corporate rainbow washing and the true actions of a media conglomerate.
Happy pride month, beautiful humans. Hereâ€™s a thread with 7 of our favorite LGBTQ films on the service (one for each color of the rainbow). *blows gay kiss* pic.twitter.com/itniUsMAoO— Netflix Tudum (@NetflixTudum) June 7, 2018
But this is what happens when a once disruptive company becomes the dominant player in a market. Scrappy and defiant Netflix is now the big boss in the room, fighting to stay at the top in an increasingly competitive space. As it always is in business, that means that corporate profit wins over everything else.
We’ve seen Netflix clean up in this recent awards season. And benefiting from a pandemic where everyone sat at home streaming shows and movies for months, Netflix seems to have achieved its goal of playing on the same level of the big studios. However, that also means taking their cue and abandoning much of the attitude that led to the streaming platform’s success, including the communities and audiences it wants to pander to. Is that a smart move? It’s certainly a dickish one, but it works for the shareholders - yet another reminder about what corporations prioritise.
As someone who was a fan of Netflix’s programming, I now think Hannah Gadsby puts it best in her response to the leaked memo.
“F*ck you Netflix and your amoral algorithm.”