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With Ricky Gervais’s new special, Netflix yet again suffers transphobic fools

Does Netflix even care that Ricky Gervais’s SuperNature is rife with transphobic TERF ideology?

Ricky Gervais performs in Netflix’s 2018 special Humanity. The comedian’s latest Netflix special has come under fire for transphobia.
Ray Burmiston/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.

Who knows exactly what response Netflix expected for SuperNature, Ricky Gervais’s transphobic new standup special, but pardon us while we refrain from clapping.

After the backlash to Dave Chappelle’s transphobic 2021 Netflix special The Closer, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said he believed in “artistic expression,” and that his stance toward Chappelle’s comedy hadn’t changed — implying that trans people would just have to get over it. That seems to be the platform’s party line on transphobia. The company’s long-term investment in Gervais includes releasing shows he stars in, like Derek and After Life, and reportedly paying him $40 million in total for his most recent pair of comedy specials. Humanity, released to Netflix in 2018, likewise reeked of transphobia. In SuperNature, the level of transphobia goes several degrees further than Humanity and even further than Chappelle’s seeming fixation on pronouns and genitalia. Gervais parrots numerous ideas that form the backbone of transphobic TERF ideology, then blames transgender audiences for being mad.

Gervais, like many other comedians of late, has spent his last several cycles on the comedy circuit reacting over and over again to so-called “woke” culture and comedy, as if the concept of comedy that refuses to punch down is so egregious all he can do is continually react to it, then react to the reactions to his reactions.

This time around, having been through repeated backlash over his previous offenses, he’s at pains to explain the structure of his comedy — to explain to us why he holds the comedic high ground over his invisible future catcallers. See, he stops to inform his audience, the joke he’s about to tell isn’t offensive because he’s being ironic. Now he’s being metaphorical. Now he’s using figurative language to illustrate that words aren’t violence.

Gervais, predictably, given his overt approval of TERF talking points, builds his entire indignant anti-woke stance specifically around transgender people: their anatomies, their pronouns, their existence. It takes him all of two minutes to make his first trans joke: A mention of fellow British comic Eddie Izzard, who has long identified as transgender and began using she/her pronouns two years ago. The “joke” isn’t actually a joke, because Eddie Izzard merely existing isn’t inherently funny; but the audience laughs at Izzard’s name, right on cue, because Gervais, having already condescended to explain irony to us, expects us to laugh at the whole concept of Izzard, or maybe the concept of finding Izzard funny, or an uncomfortable mix of both.

It doesn’t matter which of these jokes is intended, because Gervais has already rejected the counterargument that a hateful joke is only “ironic” when everyone is in on it and when no one is secretly having their actual bigotry reinforced by the cruelty at the center of said irony. Toward the end of the show, he drags out an appalling sketch full of racist Sinophobic stereotypes, which he insists isn’t racist because it’s “ironic.” Doesn’t matter that this kind of “irony” is what allows white supremacists to operate in plain sight. Doesn’t matter that five minutes into SuperNature an audience member audibly laughs at a mention of rape, which might indicate that perhaps Gervais’s audience isn’t as ironically humorous as he wants them to be. No, Gervais seems to have decided that because words aren’t literal physical violence, nothing he says can cause harm.

And once establishing this up front, he proceeds to use trans people as a (metaphorical) punching bag.

Gervais has said repeatedly that he doesn’t disrespect “real” trans people; rather, he only mocks specific people he sees as male sexual predators who’ve usurped “real” trans identity in order to prey on women by pretending to be women. This is pure TERF rhetoric divorced from reality.

Gervais has spent years making fun of trans women onstage; on social media, he’s spent the past few years amplifying transphobic TERF talking points about how trans people (usually women) are rapists, perverts, liars, and linguistic terrorists. Much like J.K. Rowling, Gervais claims to be very concerned with the state of cis men pretending to be women in order to rape them, while insisting that “real” trans people should be respected; but if you look for examples of Gervais actually embracing, supporting, or affirming “real” trans women, you won’t find any. Trans people seem to only interest Gervais when he has an excuse to dismiss or dehumanize them — or joke about beating them up or compare them to rodents.

Onstage, his obsession with trans people includes a vile fixation on anatomy. He expects his audience to laugh at the idea of a trans woman having male anatomy; he expects us to ridicule the idea that anyone wouldn’t laugh. Over and over again he “jokes” about trans women having penises. He says he personally supports trans rights, then talks about trans women raping other women, implies that trans people are “mental,” and implies that trans people invented “self-identification” sometime after the ’60s in order to exploit their marginalized status. Woe for today’s kids, he suggests, whose too-woke parents might force them into a “trendy” trans lifestyle.

Any trans person who complains about his comedy is “virtue signaling.” Such trans people are, he tells us, motivated by superiority and a wish to tear other people down. It surely has nothing to do with the astronomically high levels of violence against trans people, nor the equally high levels of trans mental health issues and suicidal ideation — all of which are directly linked to harmful transphobic rhetoric. Of course Gervais makes no mention of this; it’s not funny, after all, and it undercuts his ultimate thesis that insensitive or deliberately offensive humor should be seen as a form of affection and caring. We’re expected to speak his lingua franca of bad jokes and meet him halfway by agreeing that “identity politics” should be just as susceptible to mockery as everything else.

Given the TERF-y interludes, SuperNature is an unnecessarily cruel piece of transphobic rhetoric. But without the TERF-y parts, it just feels superfluous; there’s no real reason for it to exist. Gervais needs transphobia to have something to say, and apparently Netflix does too. The streaming service surely understood that by releasing this special, it would get more of the backlash it received after The Closer. During that backlash, Sarandos first said that he didn’t believe The Closer could cause any real-world harm, then recanted that statement, possibly after trans activists and allies pointed out horrifying trans suicide statistics. (It’s worth noting that Netflix has also made a significant financial investment in Chappelle.) Netflix went through all this once, yet still chose to release SuperNature at a moment when vulnerable trans people are already getting hit with wave after wave of unnecessary cruelty.

The implication seems clear: Netflix is just fine suffering transphobic fools for views. It’s just fine inflicting bigoted hateful rhetoric on its subscribers. It’s just fine with the subsequent real-world harm that comes from amplifying such views. The platform’s choice to release this special now, during a wave of unprecedented anti-trans legislation, is unconscionable. It’s not just that Gervais, his fellow contrarian comedians, and his large audience may feel validated and affirmed in their hatred of trans people and will pay that forward in the form of more cruelty and discrimination. It’s not just that actual trans people may be hurt, may internalize harmful messages and shame because of SuperNature’s existence. It’s that Netflix is an influencer; its decisions make waves. By openly signaling that trans people and their allies are disposable within its business model, Netflix sets a precedent that many other companies in the tech and entertainment industries are likely to follow.

And, sure, this is nothing new — but that doesn’t make it hurt less. If trans people are to be thrown to the wolves of comedy, one would hope the wolves would at least be funnier.