With limited exception (the Cuties controversy last year), Netflix has mostly managed to avoid the kind of heat the streaming service is taking right now for promoting, supporting, and defending Dave Chappelle, whose latest special, The Closer — like several of his previous specials — includes a number of transphobic jokes, or as Roxane Gay calls it, “five or six lucid moments of brilliance, surrounded by a joyless tirade of incoherent and seething rage, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia.”
The backlash has been swift, with employees of Netflix complaining to executives even before the special was released, and later airing their grievances on social media after its release. Three employees were suspended for crashing a meeting, although they have since been reinstated. Next week, employees are planning a walkout in protest of the special.
Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, however, has stuck by Chappelle, first arguing in a memo to the company’s employees that it was about artistic freedom. “As with our other talent, we work hard to support their creative freedom — even though this means there will always be content on Netflix some people believe is harmful.” Notwithstanding the fact that one of the people who aired their grievances on Twitter was among those suspended (and reinstated), Sarandos nevertheless maintains that the company encourages disagreement.
Sarandos’ latest argument in defense of Closer is a bizarre one. He equates Chappelle’s transphobia to violence on television and in video games, arguing that there is no link between the latter and real-world violence, ergo, there would be no link between Chappelle’s transphobic jokes and real-world harm, either. From Deadline:
Sarandos apparently addressed those and other concerns in a memo sent to employees on Monday. According to Variety, the co-CEO wrote about “trade-offs” and “the principles that guide our team’s content choices,” before focusing on “titles which could increase real world harm.” Sarandos wrote that, “we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” As proof, he cited the data showing that “violence on screens has grown hugely over the last thirty years, especially with first party shooter games, and yet violent crime has fallen significantly in many countries.”
This is a poor comparison. Violence in movies, television, and video games falls under the category of fantasy that isn’t directed at one group in particular unless it’s zombies or monsters or criminals (or, too often on Netflix, brown people). Chappelle’s jokes are a form of hatred directed at a specific, marginalized group that is already subjected to increased levels of violence because people in the mainstream, like Chappelle, continue to further marginalize those voices.
Moreover, the issue is not about “creative freedom,” either. It’s about the fact that the most dominant streaming platform in the world paid a man $25 million to promote hatred. If this was about artistic freedom, why wouldn’t Netflix shell out $25 million to Jon Gruden to creatively express his racist opinion on stage to an audience of millions (sadly, it would be profitable)?
Sarandos argues that there are “trade-offs” between artistic expression and real-world harm, but that’s not the trade-off Netflix is making. They’re making a trade-off between how much money Dave Chappelle generates and how much in terms of reputation and goodwill his jokes will cost the streaming service. Sarandos’ cynical calculation thus exacerbates the problem by valuing Chappelle’s bigotry while devaluing the voices that object to it. He’s no better than Chappelle, standing behind flimsy arguments in favor of artistic freedom while using the power of Netflix itself to further marginalize the trans community.
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