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Netflix vs. Dave Chappelle vs. Transgender People and the Wasted Potential of Public Outrage

Stand-up comedian Dave Chappelle has once again picked a cultural fight with the LGBTQ community. His latest comedy special—the third in a series of specials released on Netflix—features a familiar repertoire of jokes about transgender and non-binary people which among some members of these communities (and their purported allies) has stirred outrage and accusations of transphobia against the comedian.

Public backlash against Chappelle from various transgender and non-binary communities—including some of Netflix’s own transgender and non-binary employees—culminated in public petitions for the special to be removed from Netflix’s streaming platform, as well as organized demonstrations held outside the company’s headquarters. Demonstrators claimed that Chappelle’s humor is linked to violent hate crimes committed against transgender people, and called for Netflix to suspend promotion of the special and add hate speech disclaimers (among others on a “list of asks”).

Following the fallout, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos continued to maintain that Chappelle’s special “doesn’t cross the line” of hateful or violent speech, and that his type of comedy, however offensive, “doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” Sarandos also justified the decision to keep Chappelle’s special by citing Netflix’s aim to continue providing diverse content for various demographics, including some content specifically made for (and with the intention to promote) LGBTQ communities.

Ashlee Marie Preston, the transgender activist who organized the recent demonstration against Netflix and Chappelle, called Sarandos’ comments “out of touch,” and referred to Netflix’s support of Chappelle’s comedy as being part of what she called a “hate economy.”

“There is this manipulation of algorithmic science that distorts the way that we perceive ourselves and others,” Preston explained during the Netflix demonstration. “I think that companies like Netflix… play into it and they monetize it.”

Meanwhile, Chappelle’s fame (or infamy) has only continued to rise. “If this is what being is cancelled is like, I love it," the comedian said over the controversy. It would truly seem that “cancelled”—a term generally applied to celebrities who have fallen from the public’s favor after outrage over their words or actions—doesn’t seem to apply to Dave Chappelle, in this case.

Who Can Cancel Dave Chappelle?

Chappelle’s jokes were decidedly transphobic, by definition, since they discriminatorily mock transgender people. They were also, by that same definition, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and classist. His sketch comedy show, “Chappelle’s Show,” made a name for itself during the early 2000's by featuring cartoonish depictions of various offensive stereotypes, a style which became his signature over the years. Chappelle knows this, and he knows his audiences (both those who like and dislike him) also know it. Netflix definitely knows it, given the three specials they’ve released, all featuring his equally offensive and controversial style of humor.

So, would Netflix remove Chappelle’s special?

It’s likely that considering the company’s scope and resources, Netflix has already conducted a stakeholder prioritization model to determine which demographics within their audience they should cater to the most. Netflix has consistently positioned itself as a content provider free from the influence of advertisers or special interest.

Therefore, it’s safe to assume that they count on a decent portion of their viewership to value freedom of expression over outrage for a particular cause (however noble such a cause might be), especially when it comes to a medium such as stand-up. This portion of the viewership seems to be, as per Netflix’s estimation, larger than those who oppose Chappelle’s humor enough to unsubscribe from their Netflix membership—or, worse yet, threaten demonstrations.

So, since Netflix has no financial incentive to cancel Chappelle, should Chappelle himself be the one to bow out from the public?

When “cancelling” a celebrity, the public generally has an expectation of irreparable harm upon the celebrity’s image, even affecting the financial viability of their celebrity status. However, Chappelle’s specials continue to be among Netflix’s most popular. After this most recent controversy, the comedian performed six shows in London (all of which sold out) and said that if his special is removed from Netflix, he would launch a 10-city comedy tour in the U.S. This would indicate that Chappelle, like Netflix, also feels little pressure from the public and is, in fact, largely benefitting from this latest outcry.

Chappelle also received support from the family of Daphne Dorman, a transgender stand-up comedian who became his friend and defended his previous transgender jokes. Dorman, who received public backlash for supporting Chappelle, committed suicide shortly after her friendship with him became known. Her family has since supported Chappelle’s stand-up and called him an ally of the LGBTQ community, even disagreeing with the notion that he was transphobic.

Chappelle mentions this during an anecdote about Dorman in the latest comedy special (this bit also brought Chappelle further backlash for seemingly using Dorman’s name to bolster his act). He finished the anecdote by vowing to quit making jokes about the LGBTQ community.

“I’m telling you, it’s done,” Chappelle said in the special. “I’m done talking about it.”

Whether Chappelle is right or wrong, he certainly seems to have gotten away with saying his part, and profiting from it. And Netflix, who knows very well who its stakeholders are, will continue to play his material, despite the public outrage.

Since both Chappelle and Netflix seem to both be (at least financially, if not apparently) benefitting from this latest publicity, the question is: Are transgender people also benefitting?

Besides slightly inconveniencing the entertainment industry, do social media campaigns achieve any actual progress for transgender rights?

Is Chappelle a worthy target for LGBTQ progress?

The consistently cited cause for controversy and criticism over Chappelle’s latest comedy special, both by public opinion and by various media outlets, is that it features jokes about transgender people during what has been the deadliest year for them on record.

But correlation, as Netflix’s CEO pointed out, is not causation. Netflix maintains that there is no true link between Chappelle’s humor and hate-related violence. Research on the subject has usually shown that Netflix is right.

After almost every shooting in America, similar claims get made about the influence of video games on gun violence. Such claims remain equally difficult to prove. Similarly, the effects on violence which can be directly or exclusively attributed to certain graphic or explicit verbal content from media such as television remains inconclusive. While there is an indication of socially-based imitation derived from watching television (perhaps somebody might quote Chappelle’s jokes about transgender people at a party), this is a long way away from linking it to violence.

This lack of any truly definitive link between Chappelle’s jokes and violence against transgender people is exactly the basis for Netflix’s justification in keeping the special. Netflix’s CEO made precisely the same comparison to video game research mentioned earlier, in a clear yet justifiable attempt to distance the company from hate-based violence.

For the LGBTQ community, the argument that Dave Chappelle is somehow influencing transgender murders might not only be a dangerous one to make but definitely one that is almost impossible to prove. Additionally, it places an undue burden on entertainment to answer for violent crimes that might very well stem from factors unrelated to exposure to comedic content, such as socioeconomic status, education, political affiliation, and other cultural influences besides, for instance, the contents of stand-up comedy.

This is the dilemma that lies at the heart of this conflict: Do we sacrifice certain freedoms within entertainment for the sake of comfort for certain disenfranchised groups, simply in the hope that doing so somehow solves the other many causes of violence?

From this dilemma stems a possible conclusion: Chappelle's jokes are not the biggest enemies for transgender progress.

For example, Vladimir Putin said transgender tolerance is a crime against humanity; that was not a joke. In Texas (and other states in the Southern U.S.), transgender student-athletes must compete in sports under their legally assigned gender instead of their actual gender; these laws are not jokes. In most parts of the world, even within parts of what we might consider modernized society, transgender people don’t even have recognition on their legal identification. These are not jokes.

Indeed, during this most violent year for transgender people, social media has done its part to show its support with united acts of outrage against perceived slights against the community, such as Chappelle’s humor. However, considering the currently unproven relation between jokes and violence, and the progress still to be made in more essential aspects of quality-of-life improvements for members of the LGBTQ communities (I.D. laws, bathroom laws, police-protection laws, employment laws, marriage laws, etc.) it’s easy to wonder: How truly effective are these kinds of demonstrations? Are these efforts wasted?

Could such outrage perhaps be focused toward more fruitful efforts for LGTBQ progress? This latest event seems to indicate that neither Chappelle, Netflix, nor the LGBTQ community agree on how to answer these questions.

by Gary Izquier



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