On 7 October, a trans employee tweeted about Dave Chappelle’s comedy special The Closer, saying that the comedian “attacks the trans community and the very validity of transness”. The employee had also been suspended by the video streaming platform company—it isn’t because of their tweets.
According to Netflix, the company suspended software engineer Terra Field, along with two other employees, for trying to attend a director-level meeting they weren’t invited to. Another trans employee is quitting the company over how the special—and Field’s comments—were handled.
In context, it looks like the situations between Netflix and the trans community had been a huge misunderstanding. Field’s suspension seemed like it had nothing to do with their tweet thread speaking out about Chappelle’s special. However, the suspension might look like an attack against the LBGT community by Netflix. So let’s first go back to the beginning.
What Chappelle said
I personally had never watched a comedy special by Dave Chappelle, but I understood from his reputation that he tended to shock his audiences with provocative thought and content. I also knew that there had been a lot of comments on the internet regarding his new stand-up special, including from GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) tweeting that Chappelle’s brand has “become synonymous with ridiculing trans people and other marginalised communities”.
I tried to find the parts of his special where he touched on those subject matters, but entertainment news sources like Good Morning America had only added in a few very short phrases Chappelle had said like “I’m team TERF!” (TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist). So, rather than just taking these clips out of context, I thought I’d indulge myself by watching some parts of The Closer on Netflix.
In the special, Chappelle touched on the LGBT community and the trans community, specifically. He had bits where he talked about the ridiculousness of people being scared of trans people using the restroom. He explained that he’s “not indifferent to people’s suffering because I know it’s hard to be everybody.”
“I know they haven’t seen me for themselves, they just repeat what they heard. Any of you who have watched me know that I’ve never had a problem with transgender people. If you listen to what I’m saying, clearly, my problem has always been with white people,” said Chappelle in his special.
However, regarding his TERF bit, he explained that the trans community “cancelled JK Rowling”—a notorious TERF who argued against including trans women in the very idea of “female”. While his point was to establish the power the LGBT community has to be able to “cancel” a successful author, he said that he is “team TERF” because he agreed that “gender is a fact” and he even went on to compare cis and trans women with “Impossible” or fake meat.
There are other points that he made in his special. In general, there are a lot of things about the LGBT community (specifically the trans community) that Chapelle does not understand, or tries to understand like his “Impossible” meat analogy. Even I, as a non-trans person, felt that a trans person watching his special might feel hurt that he doesn’t see them as the gender that they are.
However, some of what he said is him accepting, or at least trying to learn from trans people. A part of his special talked about his conversation with a trans comedian, and how he said that he “doesn’t know what she’s talking about”—to which she responded, “I don’t need you to understand me, i just need you to believe that I’m having a human experience.”
Terra Field’s Twitter thread
Dave Chappelle’s special come out on 5 October, and Field’s Twitter thread came out the next day—saying that the comedian’s special is trying to pit the trans community against other marginalised groups. They also said that the special “promoted TERF ideology” and basically said that Netflix has given Chappelle a platform to do so.
Field added a huge list of trans people who had been killed “because our society devalues trans people and trans experiences”. They explained that “it is an argument with trans people who want to be alive and people who don’t want us to be”. The Twitter thread went viral, quickly spiralling into a conversation about free speech and cancel culture.
Netflix’s Dear White People showrunner Jaclyn Moore also announced that she will no longer work with Netflix due to Chappelle’s special. She said that she “won’t work for Netflix again as long as they keep promoting and profiting from dangerous transphobic content”.
“It is absolutely untrue to say that we have suspended any employee for tweeting about this show… Our employees are encouraged to disagree openly and we support their right to do so,” said Netflix in a statement.
However, Netflix’s employees started asking questions about whether or not trans people were included in the decision to air the special and where the company draws a line between commentary and transphobia. A current employee at Netflix even brought up that Netflix “repeatedly provides a platform for content that is harmful to the trans community”.
Replying to employee questions, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said that “some talent may join third parties in asking us to remove the show in the coming days, which we are not going to do”. He also said that Chappelle’s last special, Sticks & Stones, is Netflix’s “most watched, stickiest, and most award winning stand-up special to date”—which doesn’t look good from our point of view as it just looks like the platform cares more about views than anything else.
“Several of you have also asked where we draw the line on hate. 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. I recognise, however, that distinguishing between commentary and harm is hard, especially with stand-up comedy which exists to push boundaries. Some people find the art of stand-up to be mean spirited but our members enjoy it, and it’s an important part of our content offering,” continued Sarandos.
While Field’s tweets were not the cause of their suspension from Netflix, it was pretty bad timing that the platform suspended them while the controversy with Chappelle is still going on. But despite the negativity, it did make me watch Chappelle’s new comedy special.
While his special really isn’t as obnoxious or as hurtful as I thought it would be to the LGBT community, there’s still some debate on whether it is still necessary for comedians to cite offensive content for entertainment or education. I get why Netflix refused to remove his special as it isn’t a direct hate speech to the LGBT community at all. But small little parts taken out of context could either anger someone in that community, or fuel the hatred of someone against that same community.
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