When Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special dropped on Netflix, viewers were quick to call out one segment where Chappelle discussed transgender women. And not long after a staffer’s tweet went viral, three were suspended from the company.
In the past week, Netflix has been surrounded in controversy for its decision to release a Dave Chappelle comedy special – The Closer. The special includes a segment where Chappelle spoke about cancel culture and how JK Rowling was ‘cancelled’ for previous comments about transgender people.
Chappelle, who had also come under fire for his own past comments about transgender people, compared transgender women to people wearing blackface, and proceeded to joke about their genitalia.
The release of the special prompted a Netflix staffer who identifies as transgender, Terra Field, to tweet a thread of comments about how Chappelle’s special harms the trans community, noting that they are not “offended” despite being brushed off as such.
In the days that followed, a transgender showrunner left the company, Netflix stood its ground for releasing The Closer, and then Field and two other employees were suspended for attempting to join a meeting with Netflix executives. Netflix denies this was in response to the Twitter thread.
Without rehashing too many details of the controversy – from either side. This article isn’t about diving into the problem itself. But instead, it’s important to understand and question the decisions Netflix ultimately made.
Some asked for the special to be removed from the streamer entirely, but many others just the one segment discussing cancel culture and transgender women, citing the harm to LGBT people Field had discussed. However, Netflix stuck by its initial decision, and thus their celebrity talent, Dave Chappelle.
In an internal email to employees, released by The Hollywood Reporter, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said:
“Chappelle is one of the most popular stand-up comedians today, and we have a long standing deal with him. … As with our other talent, we work hard to support their creative freedom — even though this means there will always be content on Netflix some people believe is harmful.
“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.”
In response, GLAAD, an organisation founded as a protest against defamatory coverage of LGBT people, said in a statement:
“Netflix has a policy that content ‘designed to incite hate or violence’ is not allowed on the platform, but we all know that anti-LGBTQ content does exactly that. While Netflix is home to groundbreaking LGBTQ stories, now is the time for Netflix execs to listen to LGBTQ employees, industry leaders, and audiences and commit to living up to their own standards.”
Netflix has been well-regarded for their depiction of LGBT people in their film and television content, such as Sex Education and Orange Is The New Black. So a film like Chappelle’s, and the unwavering support since its release from the streamer, seems a bit out of place for Netflix.
There’s no denying Chappelle is a popular figure in the comedy world, but with three staffers having lost their job (whether directly or indirectly) because of this controversy, and an army out for Netflix blood, is Chapelle’s star power really worth jeopardising Netflix’s reputation?
There is an argument to be said about drawing the line between comedy and hate, and of course it’s important to recognise the critiques of people like Field who voice their concerns for the harm Chappelle’s comments may have given to LGBT people.
It’s a fine line to walk across in our digital and modern world, but despite what Netflix says, they put up a fight and turned on their own in the process. Without any effort to seek the middle ground.
I’m not saying this was necessarily the wrong decision, although I do think the voices of so many LGBT community members counts for a fair discussion over the comments and exactly how harmful they may be to their community.
What I am questioning is why this is the moment Netflix draws a line in the sand, and doesn’t look deeper into the issue on this occasion.
Netflix is a brand and company that could have easily listened to the outcry and taken down the segment, appeasing many criticisers and reaffirming their LGBT support. It would, for the most part, put to bed the controversy they are now in.
And it’s a move the streamer’s done in a similar fashion before when it removed a suicide scene from 13 Reasons Why, after many raised issues with it, some seeing it as ‘glorifying suicide’.
While the decision brought supporters and opposers, it was a fix to the problem. One that could have done a lot of unknown good, even if it took two years to finally get the scene removed from the platform.
No one was harmed by removing the suicide scene, because the existence of potential harm by having the scene up was undoubtedly more dangerous. But in the Chappelle case, even though there’s a suggestion of serious harm from his comments, Netflix doesn’t act.
Keeping the segment up and being so divisive in the process paints the company in a negative light, and compounding problems could cost them in the future. Their support of the LGBT community now comes with an asterisk to some, an asterisk that didn’t need to exist.
So will Netflix remove the Chappelle special’s segment in two years time after enough ongoing dissatisfaction? Or will this be the moment it stands its ground and flags itself as an ironic contender to the ‘cancel culture’ discussion?