The second memo that Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos issued to Netflix staff about Dave Chappelle and stand-up comedy only proves that he doesn’t understand why people are actually upset about how Chappelle approaches transgender people in his new special “The Closer.” In his first response, Sarandos emphasized that even if “some people find the art of stand-up to be mean-spirited … our members enjoy it.” In the second, he again asserts Chappelle’s right to “artistic freedom.” In both, he underlines that neither he nor anyone with sign-off power at Netflix believe that Chappelle’s extensive material on transgender people crosses the line of being “designed to incite hate or violence” — and even if it did, violence on TV doesn’t necessarily, “directly translate to real-world harm.”
Together, Sarandos’ memos do little to address the actual criticism of “The Closer.” They do, however, provide an unusually forthright window into how the executive leading one of the most powerful networks in the world seems to misunderstand the very basics of how people can be influenced by media.
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Chappelle knew as he took the stage for “The Closer,” his last Netflix special for the foreseeable future, that readdressing his past material on the LGBTQ community — a phrase he says with enough labored emphasis to elicit the nervous audience laughter he was looking for — would prove controversial. The fact that it did isn’t a bug in his comedy, but a key feature. What’s genuinely surprising about how Chappelle talks about trans people in “The Closer,” then, is how much he talks about trans people, period. It’s clear that the blowback he’s gotten over the years from “that community” has stuck with him in a way he finds unfair. His “objective,” he says straight off the bat, is to answer “all the questions you’ve had about all the [LGBTQ] jokes I’ve said these last few years.” And so for the majority of this set, Chappelle does everything from express solidarity with trans people, to declare himself “team TERF” alongside J.K. Rowling, to wonder if there’s “even such a thing as a woman or man or anything anymore.” He shares anecdotes about befriending a trans woman and beating up a trans woman. He calls North Carolina’s anti-trans bathroom law “a mean law” before going into graphic detail about what he would think, and see, should a trans person sidle up alongside him at a urinal.
On a basic storytelling level, Chappelle spends so much time on this one subject and crosses so many different wires on his way to very different conclusions that the entire set ends up lost in a fog of, “these people couldn’t even cancel me right.” He’s so frustrated that his trans critics, in his view, seem to be reciting tired bullet points without listening to what he’s saying that he has trouble talking about anything else at all. So I did watch the special, and made sure to listen to what he was actually saying in between his declarations that he is not, in fact, “indifferent to the suffering of others.” But even as Chappelle tries to do some modicum of damage control, almost everything he says about trans people is constructed to make the very concept of trans people seem too ridiculous to take seriously.
As Sarandos points out in both his memos, it is indeed Chappelle’s right to say what he thinks. But Sarandos rejecting the idea that Chappelle’s rhetoric is violent, or that violence on TV versus real-life violence rates has any correlation to what makes his punchlines violent, would be laughable if it weren’t so concerning.
Sarandos and other Netflix executives have spent years saying that “representation matters,” pointing to titles such as “Orange Is the New Black” and “Sex Education” as helping to keep “marginalized communities” from being defined by any one story. The 2020 documentary “Disclosure” — which Netflix bought out of Sundance — provides clear examples of how media treating trans people like a disgusting joke adversely affected how trans people feel and were perceived by others. Netflix has also acquiesced to experts who advised that a particularly graphic suicide scene in its smash hit drama “13 Reasons Why” directly correlated to a spike in teen suicide attempts. On a 2020 panel, Sarandos himself allowed that “a lot of great films have changed the course of history.” For Sarandos to now say that Netflix’s offerings are neutral, and that the company has “a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” reeks of him trying to have it both ways.
As for Chappelle’s special itself: no, the comedian never goes so far as to condone violence against trans people, and yes, he is careful to say that he’s “not saying that trans women aren’t women.” And yet as he frames them, over and over again, trans people in his experience are mostly just selfish aberrations who love nothing more than to trap unsuspecting, well-meaning people into messing up. As Chappelle describes taking stages with a hyper-awareness for telltale “knuckles and Adam’s apples,” he’s highlighting just how inherently strange he finds the very concept of trans people existing at all. For the very most part, Chappelle describes trans people as inconvenient, thin-skinned jerks who are probably just confused, bless their dumb hearts.
This is, despite Chappelle and Sarandos’ insistence otherwise, transphobia at its most basic, harmful and downright disappointing. Neither seem willing or able to acknowledge the fact that it doesn’t take a literal cry for violence to make an audience, especially one already primed to take Chappelle’s word as gospel, more willing to dismiss trans people altogether. It’s almost worse that Chappelle wraps these sentiments in faux understanding; that way, he can claim some kind of cover for the criticism he’s now facing.
For Sarandos to say that the incredibly wide reach of Chappelle’s carefully chosen, invalidating words have no bearing on the everyday indignities trans people face is an astonishingly shortsighted position to take. Insisting that #RepresentationMatters — until a standup comedian says otherwise — does nothing but show where his true priorities lie. And if Sarandos can’t understand the finer nuances of how media in general can influence people, let alone the hundreds of hours of worldwide content he oversees, he’s quite simply out of his depth on this crucial issue.
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