Since Dave Chappelle’s The Closer was added to Netflix’s content library early October 2021, there’s been a public back and forth of sorts between Netflix co-CEOs, Dave Chappelle, and those who think his comedy is anti-trans. The most palpable perspectives on the issue have either been from white LGBTQ people or straight people of all ethnicities. However, in order to unpack the controversy, we need to look at this from an intersectional perspective. Read on for more.
Where it all went wrong for Netflix
While his comedy has always been edgy, in Dave Chappelle’s newest set, he leans into the limited perception most straight people have of the LGBTQ community. Many went on to call the set transphobic. The controversy grew heated after Tara Field, an engineer for Netflix who is also a trans woman, was suspended after tweeting her disapproval of Chappelle’s special. Netflix clarifies that they did not fire Field for speaking out against the special but for trying to attend a director level meeting they weren’t invited to. Regardless, Netflix reinstated the employee within days after getting media attention. Shortly after trans employees began to organize a walk-out, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos released a microaggression-laden email that dismissed the workers’ concerns due to the popularity and profitability of Chappelle’s comedy.
In the email, Sarandos said Netflix will not take down the special because Chappelle is “one of the most popular stand-up comedians today, and we have a long standing deal with him.” He continued that “there will always be content on Netflix some people believe is harmful,” and that they will need to learn to live with “titles you strongly believe have no place on Netflix.” He said that he doesn’t “believe The Closer crosses that line” into inciting hate. He then continued to explain that “some people find the art of stand-up to be mean-spirited but our members enjoy it.” Sarandos even drew a hard line and said that there will be more questionable content in the future, warning that “this will not be the last title that causes some of you to wonder if you can still love Netflix.”
Sandaros made another troubling statement in an email to Variety: “Content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” he claimed, noting that despite the increase in on-screen violence in recent decades, instances of violent crimes have decreased. But this isn’t true, and Netflix should know better, considering there was a 28.9% increase in suicide among American youth from ages 10-17 after the streaming service released Thirteen Reasons Why, which glamourized suicide. Promoting content with the belief that it can’t directly cause real world harm is untrue and dangerous.
As part of the walkout, the trans employee resource group at Netflix released a statement asking those with deciding power to take a number of steps “to begin to repair the relationship between the Company, our colleagues, and our audience.” The group did not call for the special to be taken down but instead called for the creation of a fund specifically to recruit trans and non-binary talent, to invest in trans and non-binary content comparable to the company’s investment in transphobic content, to invest in trans creators, to place a warning at the beginning of transphobic content, and to promote trans-affirming content alongside content flagged as anti-trans.
Despite Netflix standing behind Chappelle, one consequence of the controversy was that festivals around the country began cancelling showings of Chappelle’s untitled documentary, which was filmed in 2020 and focuses partly on the police killing of George Floyd. Chappelle is taking steps to continue on with his premiere. Ultimately, both Chappelle and Netflix have the resources to survive the fallout.
Intersectionality in Dave Chappelle’s set
Dave Chappelle speaks on a number of issues with such a finesse that it can bring people together. So why was this set so divisive among viewers? The social commentary that underlines his jokes hits the mark when he speaks from a truly intersectional perspective.
He jokes about how his friend, a Black woman who pays alimony to her husband, shuts him down when he asks if she wants to go to the Women’s March of 2016 and then continues to discuss how feminism has historically prioritized white women. “When Susan B. Anthony was having that meeting and Sojourner Truth’s Black ass showed up,” says Chappelle, “all the White women asked Sojourner Truth not to speak. They didn’t want to conflate the issues of women’s rights and slavery… Sojourner Truth went up there anyway,” and delivered her iconic “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. By highlighting that a Black woman was formerly a slave and still had to fight racism within her feminist endeavors, Chappelle sheds light on someone who fought to make feminism work for women of all races.
Chappelle also shows that he’s trying to increase his understanding of LGBTQ issues in his jokes about using correct pronouns. He emphasizes that his understanding of gender could cause suffering when he compares himself to a Black man who, after earning his freedom, became a particularly cruel slave breeder. Just like the Black slave breeder was “invested in a construct” of success, defined partly by owning slaves, Chappelle says that he is invested in a traditional gender construct, “but this does not mean that I feel like another point of view can’t exist.”
Chappelle makes sure to finish off by making his audience fall in love with his friend, a trans woman and comedian named Daphne Dorman. He tells the story of how she bombs as his opening act but manages to hold a dialogue with Chappelle for the rest of the show. He then shares that Daphne took her own life after defending him on Twitter and receiving hate from her own “tribe.” While he can’t know why she took her own life, Chappelle imagines that the online hate didn’t help. By highlighting Daphne’s story, Chappelle touches on, but doesn’t fully portray, the high suicide rates among LGBTQ people. 48% of LGBTQ youth from the ages of 13-17 have considered suicide and 20% have attempted suicide. And more than half of transgender people who took part in a 2015 survey said they had attempted suicide that year. Chappelle’s framing of Daphne’s suicide around the online hate she received almost minimizes the lifetime of discrimination Daphne likely experienced on top of that hate.
Where Chappelle misses the mark: What Black trans women have to say
Throughout the show, Chappelle does a particularly poor job of depicting the intersection of the Black community and the LGBTQ community. He says that he has “never had a problem with transgender people. Clearly my problem has always been with white people.” As he tells stories and jokes about gay people in his set, he tends to describe some of the people in his story as Black, while others, like the racist gay man who called the police on him, are simply referred to as gay and aren’t described by their race, which is presumably white. This tells us that the stereotypical gay man in Dave Chappelle’s mind is white.
With that said, we need to paint a picture of the LGBTQ community that includes everyone. Many Black trans women have spoken out on Chappelle’s special. Ashlee Marie Preston organized activists in solidarity of the walkout that took place on October 20th, saying that “cross-cultural solidarity is an indomitable force that moves all of us forward.” Raquel Willis said that Chappelle’s commentary, which heavily focuses on the white LGBTQ community and “with that frame, they don’t have to contend with how Black cishet folks often enact (physical and psychological) violence on Black LGBTQ+ folks… Chappelle reveals the ignorant tensions in the Black community about queerness and transness but doesn’t have the range to turn them on their head.”
In an open letter to Chappelle, Black trans female comedian Dahlia Belle says that “in an honest debate, you can’t simply use ‘racist, white, (gay) male’ interchangeably with ‘LBGT,’ which is also not synonymous with ‘the trans.” In an interview with NPR, Belle adds that most instances of police brutality will feature men but will not even have “one mention of any of the numerous Black trans women who have been assaulted, shot, stabbed, literally set on fire,” so she doesn’t see how the rights of LGBTQ people has “advanced beyond the rights of my other community, Black people… what benefit am I,” as a Black trans woman, “receiving from that?”
Chappelle emphasizes throughout the special that the LGBTQ movement is doing well, as opposed to Black movements. “We Blacks look at the gay community and are like look at how well that movement is going,” Chappelle says, “how are you making that kind of progress?” The answer is simple; we’re not. 2020 saw the most acts of fatal violence against transgender and non-conforming people at 44 deaths, with two thirds of victims being Black transgender women. We’ve already lost 43 transgender and non-conforming people to fatal violence in 2021, which means 2021 will almost certainly become the most violent year on record.
Despite Netflix having a commitment to diversity and inclusion, the way they handled the backlash from Chappelle’s special shows they still have a lot of work ahead of them. A truly inclusive company uplifts those who come from intersectional backgrounds and includes them in every conversation.
Bianca Gonzalez is a queer, disabled, Latina B2B writer and social change advocate. She became a brain cancer survivor at the age of 20. Find her on Twitter at @ourstellarwords, Instagram at ourstellarwords, and on her website, b2binclusive.com.