Happily “cancelled” comedian Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix stand-up special The Closer continues to receive derision from critics (and high praise from its target audience), all while Netflix’s top brass is busy defending both Chappelle and themselves against charges of transphobia.
Netflix Co-CEO Ted Sarandos has already released two company-wide emails about the controversial special. The first was sent last week after a trans software engineer at the company was suspended for going public with their concerns about The Closer on social media (she was quickly reinstated after public pressure). Sarandos said, “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.” This week, Netflix employees are organizing a “virtual walkout,” which led Sarandos to release yet another charming testimony (emphasis ours):
We know that a number of you have been left angry, disappointed and hurt by our decision to put Dave Chappelle’s latest special on Netflix. Also, we have many new colleagues who want to better understand the principles that guide our team’s content choices, especially with challenging titles like this.
With The Closer, 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.) Last year, we heard similar concerns about 365 Days and violence against women. While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.
The strongest evidence to support this is that violence on screens has grown hugely over the last thirty years, especially with first party shooter games, and yet violent crime has fallen significantly in many countries. Adults can watch violence, assault and abuse – or enjoy shocking stand-up comedy – without it causing them to harm others. 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.
The email went on to insist that making harsh jokes about various groups is simply Chappelle’s “style” and that “stand-up comedians often expose issues that are uncomfortable because the art by nature is a highly provocative.”
Plenty of people are familiar with Chappelle’s style; reruns of aughts classic Chappelle’s Show still largely hold up, off-color humor and all. We recommend trying to watch the “World Series of Dice” sketch without laughing. And anyone with an ounce of seriousness would be hard-pressed to claim that they only enjoy media that is completely inoffensive. But Netflix doesn’t get a pat on the back for airing Sex Education while it shells out millions to a comedian saying he’s “team TERF” and that “in our country, you can shoot and kill a [man], but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.”
Additionally, Sarandos’ insistence that seeing violence, assault, and abuse on television doesn’t translate to “real-world harm” directly contradicts past practices of Netflix. In March 2017, the series 13 Reasons Why premiered on Netflix, based on the YA series of the same name. It follows the story of a teen girl who dies by suicide and includes a graphic scene documenting the act. Mental health experts, including Dr. Christine Moutier at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in The Atlantic, noted that the indulgent nature of the scene could be enticing to others contemplating suicide, especially younger viewers. The backlash prompted Netflix to add thorough content warnings before every episode and create the website 13ReasonsWhy.info, a portal for teachers and educators about suicide and mental help. But it wasn’t until July 2019 that Netflix decided to cut the scene. A representative of the streaming giant cited that they did so because they “believe this edit will help the show do the most good for the most people while mitigating any risk for especially vulnerable young viewers.”
It’s inconclusive if 13 Reasons Why actually caused a spike in suicide among young people, but regardless of whether they were moved by experts, moral panic, or a little of both, Netflix still decided that a minutes-long scene depicting a teen girl’s suicide was too risky. So, it wouldn’t actually be out of the realm of reality for Netflix to conclude that, perhaps when anti-trans violence is rising and legislation limiting the rights of transgender people everywhere from restrooms, to sports teams, to the doctor’s office are ramping up, it should reconsider its insistence on propping up an influential comedian going on a tired rant about how “gender is a fact.”
As much as I bristle at editing or removing controversial content after the fact, this isn’t a case of people being bad faith concern trolls. Chappelle can say what he wants. He (and everyone else) is generally funnier when he punches up or laterally rather than down, but debates over whether Chappelle is still funny or absolutely washed don’t really matter. What does matter is whether Netflix is interested in making smart and empathetic decisions about the content they produce and the context in which they’re airing.
What does matter is whether Netflix is interested in making smart and empathetic decisions about the content they produce and the context in which they’re airing. We’d argue that they need to do so soon, as it’s only a matter of time before some Republican congressman quotes Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special on the House floor to defend some regressive legislation that will negatively impact transgender Americans. Are jokes about being a TERF worth that risk?