The backlash surrounding Dave Chappelle’s Netflix comedy special The Closer is continuing to gain intensity, following the streamer’s decision to fire an employee who is transgender and 33 weeks pregnant, alleging they had shared confidential financial information about the special with Bloomberg.
Chappelle’s latest set for Netflix drew criticism due to the comedian’s jokes about the transgender community.
Over the course of his set, Chappelle remarks that controversial rapper DaBaby, who recently found himself in trouble after also making homophobic comments, “punched the LGBTQ community right in the AIDS.”
He also remarks that he aligns with Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and others who don’t believe that transgender women are women.
“Gender is a fact,” Chappelle says. “Every human being in this room, every human being on Earth, had to pass through the legs of a woman to be on Earth. That is a fact.”
This is a particularly problematic statement for such a powerful celebrity to make at a time when the rights of transgender people are in grave danger of being repealed, particularly in the US, on the basis that gender and sex are black and white and therefore trans people are not “real.”
He also references the backlash he received after making jokes about Caitlyn Jenner and other trans people in previous specials, notably his 2019 special Sticks and Stones in which he joked about the Michael Jackson and R. Kelly sexual abuse scandals, as well as the LGBTIA+ community and cancel culture.
Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos, who has said that the special does not cross a line, is maintaining his stance in the wake of the continued criticism, although he acknowledged to internal staff that he should have handled the situation better.
“When we think about this challenge we have to entertain the world, part of that challenge means that you’ve got audiences with various taste, various sensibilities, various beliefs. You really can’t please everybody or the content would be pretty dull,” Sarandos told The Hollywood Reporter.
“I do think that the inclusion of the special on Netflix is consistent with our comedy offering, it’s consistent with Dave Chappelle’s comedy brand, and this is … one of those times when there’s something on Netflix that you’re not going to like.”
The co-CEO has also declined to add a disclaimer to the special warning that some of its content could be harmful, deeming the move not “appropriate.”
The controversy resulted in a huge protest taking place outside the streamer’s headquarters in Los Angeles on Wednesday (October 20), with hundreds of Netflix employees and their supporters protesting The Closer.
The attendees carried signs that read “Trans Lives Matter” and “Transphobia is Not a Joke” while counter-protesters retaliated with signs bearing messages such as “Jokes Are Funny,” and “Netflix Don’t Cancel Free Speech.”
One of the more high-profile protestors was Joey Soloway, the creator of the hit series Transparent.
“Trans people are in the middle of a holocaust,” Soloway said as they addressed the crowd. “Apartheid, murder, a state of emergency, human rights crisis, there’s a mental health crisis. There’s a suicide crisis, a bullying crisis, an anxiety, depression, self-hatred state of emergency crisis. But trans people are also out here dreaming. Dreaming of safety, dreaming to be alive, to be human, to belong and to have some time, which is privilege.
“The line is simple: stop making things worse.”
Meanwhile, other Hollywood names who were not in attendance at the protest shared their support in other ways.
Actor Elliot Page wrote on Twitter, “I stand with the trans, nonbinary, and BIPOC employees at Netflix fighting for more and better trans stories and a more inclusive workplace #NetflixWalkout”
— Elliot Page (@TheElliotPage) October 20, 2021
While Schitt’s Creek star and creator Dan Levy showed his support for the Netflix employees who had walked out explaining that he had seen firsthand how “vital television can be when it comes to influencing the cultural conversation.”
“That impact is real and works both ways: positively AND negatively,” he wrote, concluding with “Transphobia is unacceptable and harmful. That isn’t a debate.”
— dan levy (@danjlevy) October 20, 2021
Additionally, personalities such as Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, Pose star Angelica Ross, Jameela Jamil and former Bachelor star Colton Haynes participated in a video, released on Wednesday ahead of the rally, to show their support for Netflix’s trans staffers.
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The special has ignited fresh debate around how far comedians can go when it comes to pushing boundaries and being shocking for the sake of a laugh.
Many argue that Chappelle has the right to free speech (and the comedian himself has stated that he doesn’t make such jokes to be mean, but rather to be funny) and that the pendulum has swung too far when it comes to policing content.
However, given that the transgender community is one of the most marginalised groups in the world, finding themselves disproportionately discriminated against and suffering alarmingly high rates of violence, isolation, harassment, bullying, it is easy to see why so many have decided to speak out against Chappelle and his comments.
At the end of the day, comedy is supposed to be the ultimate equaliser, but without actual equality for transgender people in the real world, it might be best to leave jokes about them out of the equation until the playing field is truly and demonstrably even.