Dave Chappelle, the stand-up comedian whose name is nearly synonymous with controversy, has incited debate once again with a new Netflix special. The Closer is billed as Chappelle’s attempt to “try and set the record straight—and get a few things off his chest.” He certainly got a few things off of his chest, but his show led to a Netflix employee walkout and lively statements of opposition from various quarters. The Closer raises questions for Chappelle and his audience, but it also challenges Netflix and other businesses to determine how to respond when their own employees claim a company’s product has gone too far.
What—If Anything—Is Wrong with Chappelle’s Comedy?
The Closer touches upon various issues, but much of it focuses on transgender individuals. At one point, Chappelle proudly declares himself a “trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” or TERF. TERFs do not consider transwomen to be real women, since they were born with male bodies and assigned male gender at birth.
While Chappelle veils this comment with a tongue-in-cheek delivery, it implies a deeply held belief, one that seems to be confirmed by a mantra he repeats on stage: “Gender is a fact.” With this declaration, the comedian shows himself unaware of the distinction between biological sex (itself not a straightforward category) and gender. It was comments such as these that led one trans activist to say Chappelle “attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness.”
Yet Chappelle went even further by pitting LGBTQ issues against racial concerns. He claimed that “TERFs look at transwomen the way we look at blackface,” implying that trans people were simply playing with, if not mocking, others’ gender identities. Chappelle also shared his frustration that some queer folks claimed he was “punching down” on their community.
Chappelle explained that he had been accosted several times by trans people or their allies for his supposed transphobia and it had not been comfortable for him. He also recounted a time that a white gay man threatened to call the police on him. Chappelle claimed that LGBTQ people (apparently all white) are racially insensitive toward black people and that “gay people are minorities until they need to be white again.”
As with all criticism, there is some truth to what Chappelle says. The white LGBTQ community has work to do on issues with race and inclusivity. But that truth does not explain Chappelle calling trans lives and identities into question.
Trans people are at an increased risk of discrimination, assault, and even murder. In fact, 2021 is “on pace to be deadliest yet for trans and gender non-conforming Americans.” Notably, the majority of victims of trans violence were black and Latinx transwomen. Indeed, the existence of black trans people seems not to compute at all for Dave Chappelle. It is as if a trans and black identities are mutually exclusive.
Sprinkled among jokes about pronouns, trans people’s genitalia, and “punching gays right in the AIDS,” Chappelle mentions that it is annoying for him that he can’t be offensive. “You can shoot and kill [someone] but you’d better not hurt a gay person’s feelings. And this is precisely the disparity I wish to discuss,” he says. He is particularly annoyed that the “rules changed” on him. He explains that he was used to poking fun at white people until he was told he was being offensive by (apparently white) trans folks.
At issue isn’t necessarily the line between acceptable humor and going too far. Chappelle engages in sincere, even serious, commentary. As a result, The Closer can appear to be an extended argument that trans people are overly sensitive, anti-black, and not really worthy of special protections. For many in the LGBTQ community, it can also seem like an hour-long gaslighting session, making them feel crazy for not wanting to undermine trans identities by flipping the narrative on them with the accusation of racism.
There are moments of real humanity, however. Chappelle says he will refrain from making anti-trans jokes until “we are both sure that we are laughing together.” He also shares a touching memory of a trans woman comedian who opened for him before tragically taking her own life. Sometimes Chappelle the vulnerable man attempting to understand those around him is more interesting than the stand-up comic.
Chappelle is perhaps most insightful when riffing on compassion as extended to the LGBTQ and black communities: “Empathy is bisexual—it must go both ways.” Some commentators agree and believe Chappelle needs to follow his own advice. According to gay black activist Michael Crawford, “There’s a difference between being the subject of a joke and being the butt of it. Dave Chappelle, who left Comedy Central when the laughing was at him instead of with him, should understand the distinction.”
Criticism of Netflix’s Decision
Even before its release, Netflix employees internally expressed concern with what they considered to be negative and inaccurate stereotypes about the trans community contained in The Closer. Some even took to Twitter to voice their opposition. Jaclyn Moore, a trans writer, executive producer, and showrunner for the Netflix series Dear White People, tweeted that she “will not work with them as long as they continue to put out and profit from blatantly and dangerously transphobic content.”
One black trans employee was terminated after encouraging colleagues to protest Netflix’s decision to air The Closer. Netflix claims the employee had shared commercially sensitive metrics about the comedy special outside of the company. Three other employees were suspended for attending a meeting to which executives said they had not been invited. After the controversy heated up, Netflix reinstated the workers.
Civil rights organizations have also joined the chorus of critics. LGBTQ anti-defamation group GLAAD released a statement, claiming that “Dave Chappelle’s brand has become synonymous with ridiculing trans people and other marginalized communities.” The National Black Justice Coalition argued similarly: “Perpetuating transphobia perpetuates violence. Netflix should immediately pull The Closer from its platform and directly apologize to the transgender community.”
Netflix Holds the Line
Controversy surrounding The Closer challenges producers and consumers to examine the ethical bounds of comedy, or of any media product. It has also forced Netflix, a media company with outsized social influence, to decide how it should respond. So far, Netflix executives have stood by Chappelle and resisted calls to de-platform his work or issue a full apology.
Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos released a memo in response to the criticism: “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 recognize, 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 meanspirited, but our members enjoy it, and it’s an important part of our content offering.”
Sarandos’ acknowledges the line between “commentary and harm” is the crux of the issue. His response also raises another question: When are profits from a product outweighed by the harm, or at least potential harm, that the product can cause a marginalized community?
Sarandos also responded to the apparent discrepancy between the company’s internal code of conduct, which apparently prizes diversity and respect, and its content offerings. “Externally, particularly in stand-up comedy, artistic freedom is obviously a very different standard of speech than we allow internally as the goals are different: entertaining people versus maintaining a respectful, productive workplace,” he wrote. Of course, the question remains: what should a business do when the speech it sells and profits from detracts from the respectful environment employees expect at work?
One employee pointedly posed the question, making a business case against supporting offensive content: “We repeatedly provide a platform for content that is harmful to the trans community. These decisions have a material impact on our business, including harm to our current employees and talent declining to work with us. What is our plan on how we are going to repair this situation in particular?”
What Is a Business to Do?
Any business that offers products or services that might be deemed offensive by the company’s own employees must handle the situation with care. Not only are its commodities brought into question, but the dedication of its workforce as well. Using Netflix’s response as a backdrop, here are some steps your business can take to effectively weather this sort of challenge:
- Clarify the company’s values. Your business should have a clear mission and values. Some companies want to remain strictly devoted to “business,” as when Basecamp forbade discussion of social and political discussions at work. Many other organizations are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, reinforced by workplace affinity and resource groups. Such businesses should ensure their commitments are written down in an employee handbook or other resource that is easily accessible by all employees. Regular training on these issues, and how they are interpreted and practiced in the organization, is advisable.
- Millennials care about your company’s values. Millennials and younger workers on the whole are much more interested in a company’s ethical, social, and political values than their older counterparts. They are much more likely to decline or even leave a job if they perceive the business’ values to be at odds with their own. Businesses must keep this in mind as they take on new hires and make strategic decisions about product development and service offerings.
- Make decisions with employees beforehand. It is best to develop new products or sign on new clients with the input of the team, especially when there is a possibility for controversy. Ensure that potential pitfalls of a new product or service have been fully discussed and that all key players are on the same page.
- Employees should be heard. Any healthy relationship requires channels of open communication, and that’s no less true at work. But if your business claims to cherish an open-door policy, it must stand by it. Companies find diverse ways of accomplishing this goal: small discussion groups or committees, direct email access to the boss, or even larger town hall events, depending on the organization’s context. Managers should take the time to assess exactly what employees are upset over, and how they might devise a solution together. Minimizing employees’ concerns or not really listening can prove harmful in the long run.
- Don’t discipline employees for unrelated reasons—address the core issue. Netflix claimed that it suspended an employee for attending a meeting meant only for senior directors, not because that employee had criticized the company. Whatever the reason, businesses should refrain from disciplining employees on pretextual reasons. If management has an issue with an employee, it is best to address it head-on, even if doing so would be uncomfortable. Otherwise, the company risks muddling the issues, leading to miscommunication and a mutual lack of trust.
- Consult with counsel. Before taking any action in response to a controversy, whether internally or public, it is always best to review your plan of action with trusted employment counsel.
Although things are still raw for those that have been hurt, we can hope that The Closer might serve rather as an opening to a discussion about how to weigh creative license and profitable products against the concerns of the workers who make those products possible.