A group of Netflix employees staged a virtual walk-out on Wednesday in protest of Dave Chappelle’s controversial comedy special, “The Closer,” which was released on the streaming platform earlier this month. The special has been criticized as being transphobic and potentially harmful to the LGBTQ community, and while many Netflix staffers have urged the company to remove the special or add a warning to it, executives are sticking by the show and maintain it doesn’t need a disclaimer.
Here’s a look at the controversy, and how executives, employees, and Chappelle himself are responding.
What was controversial about ‘The Closer’?
In the comedy special, Chappelle mockingly refers to transgender people and sides with “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling by identifying as “team TERF,” a term that means “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” and excludes trans women as women. Chappelle goes on to say “gender is a fact,” and also takes jabs at lesbian and gay people, as well as the #MeToo movement.
The much-anticipated standup special was ranked as the fourth most popular title on Netflix at the time of its Oct. 5 release, according to the New York Times.
What has the response been like?
Organizations like the National Black Justice Coalition and GLAAD have condemned Netflix and Chappelle, calling the special transphobic and urging the company to take it down.
“With 2021 on track to be the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the United States — the majority of whom are Black transgender people — Netflix should know better,” NBJC executive director David Johns said in a statement. “Perpetuating transphobia perpetuates violence. Netflix should immediately pull ‘The Closer’ from its platform and directly apologize to the transgender community.”
GLAAD, which monitors media and entertainment companies for bias against the LGBTQ community, also criticized the special, saying that Chappelle’s brand “has become synonymous with ridiculing trans people and other marginalized communities. Negative reviews and viewers loudly condemning his latest special is a message to the industry that audiences don’t support platforming anti-LGBTQ diatribes. We agree.”
Nexflix employees have taken to social media to condemn the company’s handling of the special, arguing it could incite harm against trans people.
Jaclyn Moore, a trans writer and showrunner for the Netflix series “Dear White People,” said last week that she would no longer work with the company “as long as they continue to put out and profit from blatantly and dangerously transphobic content.”
Terra Field, a Netflix software engineer who is trans, said the special “attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness.”
On Wednesday, Netflix’s Trans Employee Resource Group staged a walkout in which hundreds gathered in protest of the streaming giant. The walkout coincided with a public rally in Los Angeles organized by activist Ashlee Marie Preston, and a Change.org petition urging Netflix to remove the special. On Wednesday, the petition had gathered more than 10,000 signatures.
How have Netflix executives responded?
Co-chief executives Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos have been steadfast in their support of the special. A discussion from an employee messaging board obtained by the New York Times for an Oct. 14 story showed Hastings speaking out in support of artistic expression.
“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,” Hastings wrote, according to the New York Times. He also wrote that Chappelle was very popular with subscribers, and that the “core strategy is to please our members.” When another employee brought up an opinion that Chappelle has a history of homophobia and bigotry, Hastings said he disagreed and that Netflix would continue to work with the comedian.
In a memo sent to employees last week, Sarandos also affirmed his position in support of the special, according to the New York Times.
“While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content onscreen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” Sarandos said, according to the Times. “The strongest evidence to support this is that violence on screens has grown hugely over the last 30 years, especially with first-party shooter games, and yet violent crime has fallen significantly in many countries,” he continued. “Adults can watch violence, assault and abuse — or enjoy shocking stand-up comedy — without it causing them to harm others.”
On Tuesday, one day ahead of the walk-out, Sarandos walked back some of his comments, saying he “screwed up” his communications with staff members but that his stance on the special “hasn’t changed,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.
“I should have first and foremost acknowledged in those emails that a group of our employees were in pain, and they were really feeling hurt from a business decision that we made,” Sarandos told THR, saying that his memo “lacked humanity, in which I like to and generally do communicate with our teams.” Sarandos added that he does believe that “content on screen can have impact in the real world, positive and negative.”
Sarandos also maintained that Chappelle’s special was in line with the company’s policy on “artistic expression,” and said it wouldn’t be “appropriate” to add any disclaimer about harmful content ahead of the special.
How has Chappelle responded?
Chappelle and his spokespeople have been quiet amid the swirl of controversy. Just days after “The Closer” was released, Chappelle performed at a star-studded show at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, where he was greeted with a standing ovation.
“If this is what being canceled is like, I love it,” he said.
What happens next?
At Wednesday’s rally, the Trans Employee Resource Group read a letter to Sarandos detailing changes they want to see within the company, including a demand that Netflix create a fund for nonbinary and trans talent, revise internal processes for releasing potentially harmful content, add disclaimers on shows with transphobic content, and acknowledge the harm Netflix has caused to the trans community, among other measures, according to the Hollywood Reporter.