Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special sets dangerous precedent


Netflix claims to be a beacon to be included in front and behind the camera. But growing controversy over Dave Chappelle’s latest stand-up special, “The Closer,” proves he still has a long way to go.

In “Closer,” released last week, Chappelle responded to criticism he was suppressing by making jokes about the trans community by doubling down and expressing his solidarity with “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling, who sparked a reaction after mistaking sex for gender and defending ideas suggesting that changing one’s biological sex was a threat to one’s own gender identity.

“I agree, man,” Chappelle says in her special, amidst basic trans body jokes. “Gender is a fact. Every human in this room, every human being on Earth, had to go through a woman’s legs to be on Earth. It is a fact.”

Chappelle, 48, has a habit of making trans and homophobic remarks in his stand-up sets, including his 2019 Netflix special “Sticks and Stones,” in which he said that “people of the alphabet (LGBTQ) “don’t care about him.

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Controversy erupted on social media following the release of “Closer,” with trans Netflix employees and their allies announcing a walkout scheduled for Oct. 20. To further fuel the flames, Netflix fired an employee who organized the protest on Friday for leaking confidential hearing data for “Closer” to Bloomberg, as well as details of Chappelle’s compensation. According to The Verge, the employee is trans.

“We fired an employee for sharing confidential and commercially sensitive information outside of the company,” a spokesperson for USA TODAY said in a statement. “We understand that this employee may have been motivated by disappointment and hurt with Netflix, but maintaining a culture of trust and transparency is at the heart of our business.

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said in a memo this week that “on-screen content does not translate directly into real-world damage,” a fact denied by research revealed even in one of Netflix’s own documentaries, 2020’s “Disclosure,” which explores how trans people are affected by negative portrayals in pop culture.

“We understand that the concern is not about content that is offensive to some, but headlines that could increase damage in the real world (such as the further marginalization of already marginalized groups, hatred, violence, etc.),” ​​wrote Sarandos to employees Monday in a memo. 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 strongly believe that on-screen content does not translate directly into real-world harm.” Variety first reported on the memo.

“We are working hard to ensure that marginalized communities are not defined by one story,” Sarandos continued. “So we have Sex Education, Orange is the New Black, Control Z, Hannah Gadsby and Dave Chappelle, all on Netflix. The key to that is to increase diversity within the content team itself.”

Gadsby, the queer comedian, Emmy winner with two Netflix specials, fired back in an Instagram post on Friday, writing, “You haven’t paid me enough to deal with the real-world consequences of hate 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, violence on the screen causes an increase in aggressive thoughts and behavior as well as a decrease in empathy in viewers. The same could be said of hate speech, whether it’s politicians, celebrities, or people you know.

“When people hear other people say hateful things, for whatever reason and no matter what group they are intended for, it essentially gives them permission to think it’s true and emulate that genre. of speeches, ”said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research.

Stand-up comedy has long been an art form characterized by its incisive, prisoner-less demeanor. Comedians as varied as Sarah Silverman, Kevin Hart, Pete Davidson and Jerry Seinfeld have all landed in hot water for jokes deemed insensitive to particular groups.

Images of violence or prejudice have also long been debated (see: Quentin Tarantino), including on Netflix: the streamer finally edited a controversial suicide scene in his YA series “13 Reasons Why” following a backlash intense. A study later found that suicide among American children between the ages of 10 and 17 peaked at 19 within a month of the series’ release.

And with the rise of anti-trans violence in the United States, Chappelle’s remarks struck a particularly nasty chord.

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“When it comes to a group that is already vulnerable because it is already discriminated against – perhaps even by members of its own family, and even less by others – it is the people who will suffer the consequences. more emotionally, ”Zuckerman says. “I know some people are very upset with political correctness – ‘You can’t joke about anything anymore? People shouldn’t be that sensitive’ – but it’s very different when you’re in a band. discriminated against. ”

And while it’s hard to quantify whether words directly cause harm, “we shouldn’t be celebrating it,” says Lanier Holt, associate professor at Ohio State University who studies the effects of media messages on public perceptions. towards marginalized groups.

“There is a long history of homophobia and acceptance of racism in the black community, both in our churches and in our satire. What we do ultimately is under the guise of humor, giving the impression that 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 things he did 20 years ago.”

Netflix’s response has been mind-boggling

With an employee walkout slated for the coming week, Netflix’s seemingly indifferent response to the backlash becomes all the more gratifying. The streamer has been seen as a welcoming place for LGBTQ employees, with a treasure trove of queer memes and posts flowing from the company’s social media accounts.

Not to mention its solid list of LGBTQ content. The Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black” and “Sense8” featured prominent LGBTQ portrayal in front and behind the camera, as did new teen shows including “Sex Education” and “Never Have I Ever.”

But while it may seem like Netflix is ​​teeming with LGBTQ content, the novelty, prominence, and repeated exposure could give way to a misperception.

The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California investigated the company’s diversity efforts in a February report commissioned by the streamer, examining the streaming service’s diversity progress across 126 films and 180 series. scripted, and found that the company still lacks representation in key demographics.

LGBTQ characters, for example, only featured in the primary cast of around 4% of movies and 6% of series.

“Often times, what we think couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of the USC initiative at the time, stressing the importance of audits.

Prior to that, in January, Netflix released its first-ever inclusion report, highlighting the progress the company has made and other steps it needs to take to be more inclusive, such as achieving pay equity for employees. under-represented employees.

Raquel Willis, a trans activist who spoke about Chappelle on Twitter, applauds Netflix employees for organizing the planned walkout.

“The company needs to listen to employees and trans workers,” says Willis.

She believes Netflix’s handling of the situation has been irresponsible, given that more than 10 million people have watched “Closer,” according to the Bloomberg report.

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“So much damage has been done, and Netflix continues to be harmful in chasing community concerns,” Willis said, including a lack of “due diligence” before release. “The leaders show that they don’t really have values ​​around supporting the trans community and in particular the fight against transphobia.”

She encourages people not to watch Netflix on Wednesday in solidarity with the protesters, and hopes transgender youth in particular continue to find their communities, whether in person or online.

“I would push trans youth to keep speaking out because they deserve to live their lives as authentically and vulnerable as anyone else.”

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