Netflix's support of Dave Chappelle is setting a dangerous precedent. Here's why.
Netflix purports to be a beacon for inclusion in front of and behind the camera. But the growing controversy over Dave Chappelle's latest stand-up special, "The Closer," proves it has much further to go.
In "Closer," released on Oct. 5, Chappelle reacted to criticism he was punching down when making jokes about the trans community. He doubled down and expressed solidarity with "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, who drew backlash after conflating sex with gender and defending ideas suggesting that changing one's biological sex was a threat to her own gender identity.
"I agree, man," Chappelle says in his special, amid base jokes about trans bodies. "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."
Chappelle, 48, has a history of making trans- and homophobic remarks in his stand-up sets, including in his 2019 Netflix special "Sticks and Stones," in which he said "the alphabet people (LGBTQ)" don't care for him.
Controversy brewed on social media in the wake of "Closer's" release, with trans Netflix employees and allies announcing a walkout planned for Wednesday. Further fanning the flames, on Friday Netflix fired an employee who was organizing the protest, for leaking confidential viewership data for "Closer" to Bloomberg, along with Chappelle's compensation details. According to The Verge, the employee is trans.
“We have let go of an employee for sharing confidential, commercially sensitive information outside the company," a spokesperson told USA TODAY in a statement. "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.”
Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said in a staff memo this week that “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” a fact negated by research revealed even in one of Netflix's own documentaries, 2020's "Disclosure," which explores how trans people are impacted by negative representations in pop culture.
"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 marginalized groups, hate, violence etc.)," Sarandos wrote to employees on Monday in a memo that was obtained by USA TODAY.
"Last year, we heard similar concerns about '365 Days' and violence against women,” he continued. “While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm." Variety first reported on the memo.
"We are working hard to ensure marginalized communities aren’t defined by a single story," Sarandos continued. "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."
Gadsby, the queer, Emmy-winning comedian with two Netflix specials, fired back in an Instagram post on Friday, writing, "You didn’t pay me nearly enough to deal with the real world consequences of the hate speech dog whistling you refuse to acknowledge, Ted," and calling Netflix an "amoral algorithm cult."
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Do words directly cause harm?
According to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, on-screen violence causes increased aggressive thoughts and behavior as well as decreased empathy in viewers. The same could be said of hate speech, whether it's by politicians, celebrities or people you know.
"When people hear other people saying things that are hateful, for whatever reason and whatever group it's aimed at, it gives them permission, basically, to think that's true and to imitate that kind of speech," says Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research.
Stand-up comedy has long been an art form characterized by its incisive, take-no-prisoners attitude. Comedians as varied as Sarah Silverman, Kevin Hart, Pete Davidson and Jerry Seinfeld have all landed in hot water for jokes that have been deemed insensitive to particular groups.
Images of violence or harm have also long been debated (see: Quentin Tarantino), including at Netflix: The streamer eventually edited out a controversial suicide scene in its young adult series "13 Reasons Why" following intense backlash. A study later found suicide among U.S. kids aged 10 to 17 jumped to a 19-year high in the month following the release of the series.
And with anti-trans violence on the rise in the U.S., Chappelle's remarks struck a particularly nasty chord.
"When it's a group that's already vulnerable because they're already discriminated against – maybe even by members of their own family, let alone others – those are the people who are going to be emotionally more harmed by it," Zuckerman says. "I know some people get very upset about political correctness – 'Can't we joke about anything anymore? People shouldn't be so sensitive' – but it's very different when you're a member of a discriminated group."
And even if it's difficult to quantify whether words directly cause harm, "we shouldn't celebrate it," says Lanier Holt, an associate professor at Ohio State University studying the effects of media messages on audience's perceptions of marginalized groups.
"There's a long history of homophobia and acceptance of racism in the Black community, be it in our churches and in our satire. What we're ultimately doing is under the guise of humor, making it seem like it's OK or celebrated or worse, that it's funny. And there's nothing funny about it."
And with a platform as large as his, Chappelle's "words carry weight," Holt adds. "He's at a point now where his words become information. He can't do the same stuff he did 20 years ago."
Netflix's response has been head-scratching
With an employee walkout planned in this week, Netflix's seemingly indifferent response to the backlash becomes all the more head-scratching. The streamer has been viewed as a welcoming place for LGBTQ employees, with a treasure trove of queer memes and messages that flow from the company's social media accounts.
Not to mention its robust slate of LGBTQ content. Netflix original series "Orange Is the New Black" and "Sense8" featured prominent LGBTQ representation in front of and behind the camera, as do newer teen shows including "Sex Education" and "Never Have I Ever."
But while it may seem like Netflix is filled with LGBTQ content, novelty, prominence and repeated exposure could give way to false perception.
The University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative studied the company's diversity efforts in a February report commissioned by the streamer, examining the streaming service's diversity progress across 126 movies and 180 scripted series, and found that the company still lacks representation in major demographics.
LGBTQ characters, for example, were only in the main cast of about 4% of movies and 6% of series.
"Often what we think couldn't be further from the truth," Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of USC's initiative, said at the time, noting the importance of audits.
Before that, in January, Netflix released its first inclusion report, highlighting progress the company has made and further steps it needs to take to be more inclusive – such as achieving pay equity for underrepresented employees.
Raquel Willis, a trans activist who has spoken out about Chappelle on Twitter, applauds the Netflix employees staging the planned walkout.
"The company needs to be listening to trans employees and workers," Willis says.
She believes Netflix's handling of the situation has been irresponsible, given that more than 10 million people have viewed "Closer," according to the Bloomberg report.
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"So much harm has been done, and Netflix is continuing to be harmful by shooing away the concerns of the community," Willis says, including a lack of "due diligence" prior to release. "The leadership is showing that they don't actually have values around supporting the trans community and particularly fighting against transphobia."
She encourages people to not watch Netflix Wednesday in solidarity with protesters, and hopes that young trans people in particular will continue to find their communities, whether in person or online.
"I would push young trans people to continue to speak up, because they deserve to live their lives as authentically and vulnerably as anyone else."