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Dave Chappelle's The Closer LGBTQ controversy isn't a betrayal: It's exactly what he wanted to accomplish

  • "Dave Chappelle is getting plenty of heat for his latest Netflix special, The Closer," says Nicole Lewis. "Chappelle’s 72-minute bit is squarely aimed at setting the record straight after being widely criticized for his previous specials in which he betlittles trans people, gay people, and survivors of sexual violence. He says this is his intention right at the start. We should take him at his word. His routine—controversial as it is—accomplished exactly what he set out to do. What that accomplishment reveals is not that he isn’t funny (he is). It’s not just that he is punching down (he is) or that his jokes haven’t aged well (they haven’t.) His latest special confirms once and for all Chappelle was never the progressive darling many thought him to be. In 2019, when Chappelle won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Jon Stewart called him the 'Black Bourdain,' a nod to the widely loved chef and documentarian whose work explored the intricacies of the human condition. That characterization is somewhat understandable. The beauty, and ultimately, demise of Chappelle’s Show was that he deftly, and publicly, explored the trials and tribulations of Black life. At the time, his comedy was provocative, novel, even revelatory. It makes sense we expected the same nuance with respect to other oppressed groups. But ultimately we were just projecting onto him something that wasn’t actually reflected in his work. We expected an intersectional analysis where none existed. The line that runs through all of Chappelle’s comedy is that anti-Blackness is the Final Boss of all oppressions. Everyone else’s pain and suffering isn’t as bad by comparison, and therefore doesn’t deserve the level of outrage and attention it currently gets in progressive circles....This so-called disparity has been at the heart of Chappelle’s work for years. But he is finally making it unmistakably plain. On one side we have the Black community dealing with the daily trauma, exploitation, and indignity of living under white supremacy. And on the other, you have the LGBTQ community who, in Chappelle’s eyes, has overcome the worst of their oppression in record time. In this world, these two camps are separate and opposed, with no overlap. (LGBTQ Black people may beg to differ.)" Lewis adds: "Over the course of his career Chappelle has been grappling with a very real victimhood and he has produced lasting art from it (he takes pains in The Closer to describe his work as art). What is unsettling for many of his fans and admirers is that the depth to which he understands his position in the world and the pain that comes with it has not necessarily led to greater empathy and generosity for the plight of others. Put another way, Chappelle was never actually on anyone else’s side. His latest special isn’t a betrayal, and can’t be dismissed as the misguided musings of an out-of-touch and aging comedian. In fact, we’re the ones who got him all wrong."


    • Ted Sarandos and Dave Chappelle are missing the point of the criticism over The Closer's transphobia: "Even as Chappelle tries to do some modicum of damage control, almost everything he says (in The Closer) about trans people is constructed to make the very concept of trans people seem too ridiculous to take seriously," says Caroline Framke. "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 (at a very low cost) 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."
    • The Chappelle controversy has taken some of the "glow" off of Netflix in wake of its recent Emmy domination: "The Closer has thrust Netflix into difficult cultural debates, generating the kind of critical news coverage that usually attends Facebook and Google," reports The New York Times' John Koblin. "Several organizations, including GLAAD, the organization that monitors the news media and entertainment companies for bias against the L.G.B.T.Q. community, have criticized the special as transphobic. Some on Netflix’s staff have argued that it could incite harm against trans people. This week, the company briefly suspended three employees who attended a virtual meeting of executives without permission, and a contingent of workers has planned a walkout for next week. A discussion this week on an internal Netflix message board between Reed Hastings, a co-chief executive, and company employees suggested that the two sides remained far apart on the issue of Mr. Chappelle’s special. A transcript of the wide-ranging online chat, in which Mr. Hastings expressed his views on free speech and argued firmly against the comedian’s detractors, was obtained by The New York Times. One employee questioned whether Netflix was 'making the wrong historical choice around hate speech.' In reply, Mr. Hastings wrote: 'To your macro question on being on the right side of history, we will always continue to reflect on the tensions between freedom and safety. I do believe that our commitment to artistic expression and pleasing our members is the right long term choice for Netflix, and that we are on the right side, but only time will tell. He also said Mr. Chappelle was very popular with Netflix subscribers, citing the 'stickiness' of The Closer and noting how well it had scored on the entertainment ratings website Rotten Tomatoes. 'The core strategy,' Mr. Hastings wrote, 'is to please our members.' Replying to an employee who argued that Mr. Chappelle’s words were harmful, Mr. Hastings wrote: 'In stand-up comedy, comedians say lots of outrageous things for effect. Some people like the art form, or at least particular comedians, and others do not.' When another employee expressed an opinion that Mr. Chappelle had a history of homophobia and bigotry, Mr. Hastings said he disagreed, and would welcome the comedian back to Netflix." Hastings added: “We disagree with your characterization and we’ll continue to work with Dave Chappelle in the future. We see him as a unique voice, but can understand if you or others never want to watch his show....We do not see Dave Chappelle as harmful, or in need of any offset, which we obviously and respectfully disagree on.”
    • Sarandos' defense of Chappelle is disingenuous: "It’s possible that Sarandos is speaking from a place of cluelessness; that he does not understand the 'real world' or the effect that culture can have upon it," says Kristen Lopez. "Perhaps Sarandos and Netflix are unaware that according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), fatal violence against the transgender and gender non-conforming community has doubled in the last six years. Or that a study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law released in March revealed that transgender people are over four times more likely than cisgender people to be victims of violent crime. Beyond murder, the statistic includes any incident of violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and simple or aggravated assault." Lopez adds: "There still remains Sarandos’ assertion that content has no real-life consequences. The error in the executive’s argument is a matter of oversimplification. Maybe The Closer won’t make a person walk up to a transgender woman and jeer about their genitals or question the legitimacy of their existence. Maybe. But what it does do is contribute to a larger culture that is already biased against a marginalized group. Chappelle, and by extension, Netflix, are punching down. Imagine one of the most powerful companies in the world broadcasting a message of hate regarding your very existence, for millions of people to consume, to further entrench the unfamiliar masses against you. How is that not real-world harm?"
    • Sarandos’ insistence that seeing violence, assault, and abuse on television doesn’t translate to “real-world harm” directly contradicts past practices of Netflix: "In March 2017, the series 13 Reasons Why premiered on Netflix, based on the YA series of the same name," says Ashley Reese. "It follows the story of a teen girl who dies by suicide and includes a graphic scene documenting the act. Mental health experts, including Dr. Christine Moutier at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in The Atlantic, noted that the indulgent nature of the scene could be enticing to others contemplating suicide, especially younger viewers. The backlash prompted Netflix to add thorough content warnings before every episode and create the website 13ReasonsWhy.info, a portal for teachers and educators about suicide and mental help. But it wasn’t until July 2019 that Netflix decided to cut the scene. A representative of the streaming giant cited that they did so because they 'believe this edit will help the show do the most good for the most people while mitigating any risk for especially vulnerable young viewers.' It’s inconclusive if 13 Reasons Why actually caused a spike in suicide among young people, but regardless of whether they were moved by experts, moral panic, or a little of both, Netflix still decided that a minutes-long scene depicting a teen girl’s suicide was too risky. So, it wouldn’t actually be out of the realm of reality for Netflix to conclude that, perhaps when anti-trans violence is rising and legislation limiting the rights of transgender people everywhere from restrooms, to sports teams, to the doctor’s office are ramping up, it should reconsider its insistence on propping up an influential comedian going on a tired rant about how 'gender is a fact.'"

    TOPICS: Dave Chappelle, Netflix, Dave Chappelle: The Closer, Ted Sarandos, LGBTQ, Standup Comedy