Netflix has been plunged into America’s culture wars by a Dave Chappelle comedy special that raises concerns about free speech and censorship but has been slammed by its own employees as transphobic.
In “The Closer,” boundary-pushing mega-star Chappelle responded to critics who have accused him of mocking transgender people in the past by asserting that “gender is a fact” and accusing LGBTQ people of being “too sensitive.”
“In our country you can shoot and kill” a Black man, “but you’d better not hurt a gay person’s feelings,” said the stand-up comic, who is Black.
While the show has been condemned by LGBTQ groups — including Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which cited studies linking stereotypes about minorities to real-world harm — Netflix has so far stood firm, insisting the show will not be taken down.
But the streaming giant finds itself trapped at the center of arguably its most intense controversy yet.
Chappelle remains hugely popular, at a time when Netflix is competing with rivals such as HBO and Disney in the so-called streaming wars. He commanded a $24 million outlay from Netflix on his latest special, highlighting his appeal to the subscribers on whom the platform depends.
And the affair raises broader questions about acceptable speech — and the role of entertainment giants such as Netflix in policing it.
“Netflix is no longer a little company that mails out DVDs, it’s a vast maker of content that last year spent something like $17 billion,” said Stephen Galloway, film and media arts dean at California-based Chapman University.
“This is [Netflix’s] first really visible test case. And they stuck their flag in the grounds of free speech versus limiting speech,” he added.
In “The Closer,” Chappelle describes a US rapper who “punched the LGBTQ community right in the AIDS,” compares trans women to the use of Blackface, and jokes about threatening to kill a woman and stash her body in his car.
In a leaked memo, content chief Ted Sarandos wrote that “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” and so the principle of free speech outweighs any offense taken — including by its own employees.
Still, a group of Netflix employees plans to walk out this week over their bosses’ handling of the furor, while one worker was fired for leaking internal data about Chappelle’s high fee.
“We understand this employee may have been motivated by disappointment and hurt with Netflix, but maintaining a culture of trust and transparency is core to our company,” Netflix said in a statement to AFP.
Sarandos also sought to defend Chappelle’s presence on Netflix by pointing to other performers it features such as Hannah Gadsby, whose acclaimed “Nanette” special recounted her horrific experiences of homophobic violence as a lesbian woman.
That earned him an expletive-laden response from Gadsby on Instagram, who labelled Netflix an “amoral algorithm cult.”
“You’re seeing the Netflix leadership going head-to-head with some of their employees,” said Galloway.
“When does Ryan Murphy say this is unacceptable?” he asked, referring to the creator of LGBTQ-themed smash hits such as “Pose” who is on a reported $300 million deal to make shows for Netflix.
Chappelle’s case is more complicated still because, while he is accused of hounding one vulnerable minority, the comic repeatedly points out during the show that he is speaking as a member of another.
“The special draws its energy from one of the hottest debates in popular culture, about competing claims to victimhood,” wrote Helen Lewis in The Atlantic.
There are parallels with the uproar sparked by “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling in 2020, when she asserted the reality of biological sex, which many deemed to be transphobic.
While Rowling spoke about the importance of protecting the safety of girls and women, Chappelle discusses his experiences as a Black man.
He argues that white gay people “are minorities until they need to be white again,” and that LGBTQ communities have made progress in a few years that Black people have not enjoyed in decades.
“There are multiple fault lines here,” said Galloway. “Any one could split open and create an earthquake.”