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Dave Chappelle vs. trans people vs. Netflix

Chappelle’s latest Netflix special, The Closer, may be a tipping point for trans people.

Dave Chappelle performs during his Netflix standup special The Closer.
Mathieu Bitton/Netflix
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

For the past several years, comedian Dave Chappelle has been locked in a vicious cycle of anti-cancel-culture standup comedy. Over six Netflix specials, Chappelle has lashed out at what he views as progressive attempts to cancel him for his incendiary comedy — all while mocking the queer and transgender communities and the Me Too movement and generally doubling, tripling, and sextupling down on the offensive jokes and reactionary politics that people took issue with in the first place.

It’s a fatiguing ouroboros.

Chappelle’s latest special The Closer is possibly his last for the streaming service, and with it, the discourse around his comedy has intensified. In the special, released October 5, Chappelle’s humor is more openly transphobic than ever.

Many trans viewers feel Chappelle’s comedy has escalated into overt hate — and they’ve been voicing their complaints directly to Netflix. Moreover, Netflix recently suspended a trans employee who tweeted about the special’s transphobia. Netflix has said the employee was suspended not for her viral tweets, but for attending a director-level business meeting without an invitation. (The company has since lifted the suspension; another trans employee was fired after allegedly leaking budget information about Chapelle’s special.)

Despite the uproar, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos defended Chappelle and his comedy. “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,” he wrote in an internal email on October 8.

But with Chappelle platforming a position of gender essentialism onstage, and declaring that he’s “team TERF” — thereby aligning himself with trans-exclusionary radical feminists who argue that trans women aren’t women — many Netflix viewers and employees disagree. Netflix’s approach to the whole situation has triggered employee resignations, backlash, and now, a walkout of the company’s trans employee resource group and allies, held October 20. Participating staff presented Netflix with a list of demands for boosting trans and nonbinary content on the platform and decreasing harm prior to the walkout— and while Netflix issued a statement of support, it’s unclear if any of them will be met.

Complicating the situation even further is an uncomfortable wedge that has only exacerbated the polarization around Chappelle: the suicide of Daphne Dorman, a trans woman who defended and befriended Chappelle, then became a willing subject of his comedy herself in his 2019 Netflix special Sticks and Stones. Following her death shortly after the special came out, she became a focal point of the debate around whether Chappelle’s comedy is harmful to trans people.

That Chappelle discusses her again in his newest special is a heated point of contention between those who believe trans viewers are bullying Chappelle and his friends — including Dorman — and those who believe Chappelle’s humor makes it harder for trans people like Dorman to safely exist.

It’s a tangled, unpleasant mess, but it’s an important moment, both for Netflix and for the increasingly vocal trans audience that’s fed up with Chappelle.

Yes, Chappelle is being transphobic

To be extremely clear: Dave Chappelle probably considers himself a trans ally. He’s said repeatedly that he supports trans people, and in The Closer, he speaks out against North Carolina’s notorious anti-trans bathroom law.

He seems to be at pains to use his offstage support of trans people to justify his overtly transphobic onstage comedy. To be equally clear, however, his comedy has always been transphobic.

As Vulture’s Craig Jenkins sums up, “How much you enjoy The Closer will depend on whether you’re able or willing to believe the comic and the human are separate entities and to buy that the human loves us all, and the comic is only performing spitefulness for his audience.”

Chappelle insists his jokes — in which he has derisively referred to the LGBTQ community as “the alphabet people,” “gross,” and “confusing,” among other things — have been misconstrued by angry progressives.

Yet The Closer’s fixation on trans people drastically escalates the tone of his previous comedy, veering into outright anti-science arguments about gender while continuing his fixation on the anatomy of trans people. Many viewers were disturbed and upset to see Chappelle declare himself “team TERF” in the new special, along with defending J.K. Rowling for identifying with TERF ideology. “They canceled J.K. Rowling,” Chappelle opines, ignoring that Rowling is still a bestselling author with millions of fans. “Effectually she said gender was fact, the trans community got mad as shit, they started calling her a TERF.”

“Gender is fact” seems to be Chappelle’s way of implying that gender is binary and biologically determined. Science says otherwise. Chappelle also fails to mention in The Closer that Rowling has openly befriended and amplified the voices of TERFs on social media, and that she penned a long manifesto expressing the pernicious TERF ideology that trans women might actually be male sexual predators in disguise. Rowling’s transphobia, in other words, is far more involved than what Chappelle presents as a simple statement.

After downplaying the danger of Rowling’s actions, Chappelle proceeds to downplay his own, even while luridly describing the invalidity of trans female anatomy and repeatedly expressing gender-essentialist views. He also seems to think the gay and trans communities consist only of white people, as though the concerns of Black and LGBTQ communities are entirely separate and might never overlap. He even compares being trans to wearing blackface, an alarming reframing of the insidious idea that trans people make a mockery of gender.

As the ultimate defense of his viewpoint, Chappelle then goes on to discuss Dorman, a trans comedian whom Chappelle worked with, befriended, and discussed in his Grammy-winning 2019 special Sticks and Stones. Like The Closer, Sticks and Stones saw Chappelle dropping a litany of transphobic remarks, then holding up his friendship with Dorman as an example of his tolerance toward trans people. Chappelle joked about making out with her — while inspecting her anatomy.

Initially, Dorman was thrilled by Chappelle’s recognition. But following the special, she received backlash from other trans people, some of whom had argued that Chappelle was just using her as a way of excusing his transphobia.

Barely two months after the 2019 special, Dorman died by suicide. Shortly before Dorman’s death, she posted an apology note to Facebook. “To those of you who are mad at me: please forgive me,” she wrote. “To those of you feel like I failed you: I did and I’m sorry and I hope you’ll remember me in better times and better light.”

It’s important to acknowledge the uncomfortable reality that Dorman was criticized and harassed by other trans people and allies. But focusing on this framing turns Dorman into a martyr for the cause of defending Chappelle, who uses Dorman’s suicide and the bullying narrative to defend and justify his reactionary position in The Closer.

Dorman, he tells his audience at the end of his set, went against “her tribe” (i.e., the trans community) in order to defend him, after which they “dragged that bitch all over Twitter.” (For the record, there’s very little toxicity and not even very much dissent in the extant replies to Dorman from that period.) “It wasn’t the jokes,” he says. “I don’t know what was going on in her life ... but I bet [the trans community] dragging her didn’t help.”

Dorman’s family has also continued to defend Chappelle, referring to him as an “LGBTQ ally.”

Yet Dorman’s death reflects another uncomfortable reality: Trans people are at an extremely high risk of dying by suicide or transphobic violence. Chappelle’s latest double down arrives just as trans people are currently living through what might turn out to be the most violently transphobic period in recorded history. To attribute Dorman’s death to bullying from “woke scolds” erases the reality that as a trans woman, Dorman was extremely vulnerable to bullying and harassment because of her gender identity, as well as mental health struggles and becoming a victim of hate crimes or other acts of violence.

These are all arguably the kinds of transphobia that can escalate when a prominent comedian with a potential audience the size of Netflix’s 180 million subscribers treats trans identity like a quirky made-up fantasy.

In fact, study after study has shown a direct connection between the type of perceptions of gender identity Chappelle is performing and anti-trans violence. Even if you believe “Chappelle, the offstage human” is a decent and supportive trans ally, “Chappelle, the onstage comic” is promoting bigotry and amplifying gender essentialism in a way that contributes to making trans people deeply unsafe. Additionally, despite Chappelle’s reluctance to admit the overlap between Black and trans interests, Black trans women are the most susceptible group, by orders of magnitude, to the harmful impact of rhetoric like Chappelle’s.

Little wonder, then, that Chappelle has drawn sustained backlash from queer and trans communities. Over the weeks since The Closer’s release, that backlash has only grown more intense — and Netflix’s reaction hasn’t helped.

Chappelle’s transphobia is now a problem for Netflix

In addition to drawing overwhelmingly negative responses to the transphobic material from critics as well as many queer viewers, The Closer swiftly drew repudiations from advocacy groups around the nation, including the National Black Justice Coalition.

Anger and disappointment have also come from within the larger Netflix organization. Dear White People co-showrunner Jaclyn Moor, who is trans, decided to stop collaborating with the company in response to its decision to stand by The Closer. “It is much easier to commit violence against someone that you think is immoral or a liar or … someone not worthy of your respect,” Moor told the Hollywood Reporter, referring to the way Chappelle’s rhetoric endangers trans people. “That makes it much easier to hurt me. ... I just want to not be killed.”

Equally poignant was the backlash Netflix received from its own employees, particularly the staff behind the Twitter account @Most, which promotes the company’s queer content. In an unusually raw thread, the staff running the account told its followers that the week following The Closer’s release had “fucking suck[ed].”

In response to a flurry of internal questions about The Closer and Netflix’s responsibility not to air transphobic views, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos issued a company-wide email on October 8, obtained by the Verge. Reiterating that Netflix would not be removing The Closer from its library, he expressed pride in the company’s partnership with Chappelle and praised Sticks and Stones for winning awards and attracting views. He placed The Closer in the same category as other highly controversial Netflix releases, including Cuties and 13 Reasons Why, both works of fiction that have been accused of creating real-world harm.

Rather than engage the sticky question of whether Chappelle’s persona is another work of artistic license or whether he’s straightforwardly promoting transphobia to the masses, Sarandos denied that The Closer was transphobic at all. “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,” he wrote, before adding that “some people find the art of stand-up to be mean-spirited but our members enjoy it.”

He further suggested that Netflix was commendable for ensuring that “under-represented communities are not defined by the single story,” seemingly implying that Chappelle’s ridicule of trans people might even be a win for diversity.

But the issue of acceptance of trans identity is much more than an issue of “mean-spirited” comedy — as the high rates of trans violence indicate, it’s very literally life or death.

Terra Field, a senior software engineer at Netflix, posted a viral Twitter thread about Chappelle the day after The Closer’s release, making it very clear what the stakes are for trans people. “Promoting TERF ideology (which is what we did by giving it a platform yesterday) directly harms trans people, it is not some neutral act,” she wrote. “This is not an argument with two sides. It is an argument with trans people who want to be alive and people who don’t want us to be.”

Netflix subsequently suspended Field, who is trans. Although the news quickly grabbed attention, both Netflix and Field acknowledged that she and two other employees were suspended for attending Netflix’s quarterly business meeting without an invitation, not for speaking out about The Closer. “Our employees are encouraged to disagree openly and we support their right to do so,” a company spokesperson told the Verge. Field was reinstated on October 12. Another employee reportedly resigned in protest over The Closer and Netflix’s response.

Sarandos tried again in a follow-up company memo issued October 11. This time, he noted that “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.),” he wrote.

Still, Sarandos reaffirmed the company’s decision to stand by The Closer, arguing that “we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” Given the direct link between cultural transphobia and real-world violence, and given the connection between Chappelle’s previous Netflix special and Dorman’s suicide, it’s a troubling defense.

Netflix is coming into this controversy amid a time of triumph. September’s smash hit Squid Game became the most-viewed series in Netflix history and caused the company’s stock to hit record highs. With a windfall like that at the streaming giant’s back, upsetting trans viewers might seem like a relatively minor problem. Indeed, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter prior to the October 20th walkout, Sarandos walked back his previous statements, but stuck to his original position.

He “screwed up those communications,” he said, referring to the internal memos, both by failing to acknowledge his employees’ pain and by failing to acknowledge that stories can and do impact the real world. “Of course ... storytelling causes change in the world, sometimes hugely positive and sometimes negative,” he stated. But he freely offered, “My stance hasn’t changed ... You really can’t please everybody or the content would be pretty dull.”

Still, Netflix clearly hasn’t had the last word. The company-wide walkout on Wednesday, spearheaded by the staff’s trans employee resource group, protested not only Netflix’s decision to release and retain Chappelle’s special, but also the lack of positive trans content on the platform and demand a better ongoing response from the company to trans concerns.

The staffers’ list of demands, presented to Netflix before the walkout, included calls for Netflix to invest in more positive trans and nonbinary content and to allow the company transgender ERG to have more of a voice in shaping company policy, especially where trans representation is concerned. “As we’ve discussed through Slack, email, text, and everything in between,” the ERG organizers wrote in an internal memo obtained by the Verge, “our leadership has shown us they do not uphold the values to which we are held.” (The company recently fired one of the trans employees who helped organize the walkout, claiming that they leaked related confidential information about The Closer’s production budget and viewership totals. The former staffer has denied the allegation.)

Perhaps ironically, The Closer was supposed to be Chappelle’s “last” special for Netflix; during the show, the comedian also professed himself “done talking about” queer and transgender issues and said he won’t be joking about the communities again “until we are both sure that we are laughing together.”

But if Chappelle intended to go out on a note of admonishment and hope for reconciliation, he seems to have missed his target. If anything, The Closer seems to have bonded members of the trans community in a groundswell of anger and activism, aimed at not only Chappelle but also the streaming giant that has empowered the worst aspects of his comedy for years. If The Closer has proven anything, ultimately it’s that Chappelle, Netflix, and its trans audiences won’t be laughing together anytime soon.

Update, October 20, 2:50 pm: This story has been updated with additional statements from Sarandos and new information about the Netflix walkout and the company’s termination of an employee.

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