The controversy surrounding Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special The Closer, in which the comic made remarks disparaging the trans community, intensified this morning as hundreds of activists and allies rallied in support of a walkout by the streaming giant’s employees. The list of allies included the most notable trans star on Netflix: Umbrella Academy superhero Elliot Page.
Employees are staging the walkout to pressure the company to adopt measures in the areas of “content investment, employee relations and safety, and harm reduction,” according to the company’s trans employee resource group, Trans*.
These measures are meant to avoid future instances of promoting misinformation about the trans and nonbinary community, which activists say have real-life consequences for trans youth — despite an assertion to the contrary by company co-CEO Ted Sarandos. As Ashlee Marie Preston, one of the architects of #NetflixWalkout, explained in a series of tweets:
According to a statement released ahead of the walkout, the ERG’s demands include:
Creating a fund to specifically develop trans and nonbinary talent in front of and behind the camera
Eliminate references/imagery of transphobic titles or talent inside of the workplaces like murals, posters and swag
For Netflix to acknowledge the harm anti-trans content does for the livelihood of trans people
To add disclaimers before titles that use transphobic, misogynistic and homophobic language
To boost promotion for trans-affirming titles like the Laverne Cox-produced documentary, Disclosure
Hours before the planned walkout, Netflix issued a statement in support of the protest action. “We value our trans colleagues and allies, and understand the deep hurt that’s been caused,” the company said. “We respect the decision of any employee who chooses to walk out, and recognize we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content.”
The statement followed Sarandos’s remarks late Tuesday in which he said he “screwed up” his messaging to employees but still insisted he stood by Chappelle and the content of The Closer.
Ahead of the walkout, celebrities and activists — including Preston, Jonathan Van Ness, Angelica Ross, Jameela Jamil, Mason Alexander Park, Kate Bornstein, Our Lady J, Sara Ramirez, Peppermint and Colton Haynes — have vocalized their support.
“We aren’t fighting WITH Netflix. We’re fighting FOR Netflix,” Gabrielle Korn, leader of Netflix’s LGBTQ social media accounts, Most, wrote on Twitter. “We all know how great it can be, & that it’s not there yet. It says so in our culture memo. Recently it feels like the plot has been lost, like leadership thinks we’re already as good as we can be. Clearly that’s untrue.”
“Netflix needs better trans representation at every level, in front of the camera and behind it, within the halls of our offices, in leadership positions and creative positions,” added Korn. “We won’t stop fighting for it until we get there.”
Terra Field — one of three employees suspended for reportedly “crashing a meeting of its top executives” in protest (they were later reinstated and an internal investigation found “no ill intent” on Field’s part) — spoke about the issue in a blog posted to Medium.
“Dave is not, and has never been, the cause of this problem — he is a symptom of it,” Field wrote. “When a company like Netflix says something like, ‘We do not believe this content is harmful to the transgender community,’ you can be virtually certain that not a single trans person was involved in that decision. And how are we supposed to speak up for ourselves if we aren’t in the room? And how are Black trans women supposed to speak up for themselves if the company doesn’t employ any (that our ERG is aware of)?”
B. Pagels-Minor, a former leader of both the trans and Black ERGs at Netflix who was fired last week for allegedly sharing sensitive information about the company, added that the conversation about Black trans lives is way overdue.
“It’s not that we don’t understand comedy. It’s that this comedy has tones of hatred. And what are we going to do to mitigate that?” Pagels-Minor, who is also one of the organizers of the walkout, told The New York Times. “I don’t have any ill will toward Netflix. I want them to be successful, but the only way to succeed is to hold themselves to the values they expound.”
“The special and society generally needs to acknowledge we exist at this intersection and are harmed disproportionally,” Pagels-Minor later wrote on social media. “No one is trying to cancel someone or take their opportunities away. This is simply a long overdue conversation. If we all took the time to listen, we would be much better off and that starts with Ted.”
Sarandos defended the special during its initial backlash, arguing that “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” However, he’s since admitted that he failed to recognize how his choice impacted employees.
“I screwed up the internal communication — and I don’t mean just mechanically,” Sarandos told Variety Tuesday. “I feel I should’ve made sure to recognize that a group of our employees was hurting very badly from the decision made, and I should’ve recognized upfront before going into a rationalization of anything the pain they were going through. I say that because I respect them deeply, and I love the contribution they have at Netflix. They were hurting, and I should’ve recognized that first.”
Still, Sarandos stood by the decision to release the special without content warnings.
“Stand-up comedy is a pretty singular voice art form,” he explained. “The comedians will road test the material for sometimes two years before they record their special so we really don’t get involved and interfere with the material itself, and I think it’s consistent with a brand of stand-up comedy and certainly consistent with Dave Chappelle’s comedy, so I don’t think a warning card or an edit would’ve been appropriate.”
Celebrities — including some who have worked or are still working with Netflix — have also chimed in with their support.
“If you’re not standing up for trans lives, you need to take a good look at who you ARE standing with. Good luck today everybody!” Lilly Wachowski, the trans writer and director behind The Matrix franchise and Netflix’s Sense8, tweeted.
Alyssa Milano, who was arrested on Wednesday protesting for voting rights in D.C., also chimed in on the walkout, telling reporters, “I think Netflix should pull the special and Dave should actually sit down and have a conversation with people from the community so that they can tell him why they were hurt by it,” according to Fox News.
However, podcaster Joe Rogan defended Chappelle on the latest episode of The Joe Rogan Experience, saying that he’s “not a homophobic or transphobic person. He makes fun of himself.”
“Look, it’s fun. It’s just making jokes,” Rogan added. “That doesn’t mean hate. This is the problem with today: If you don’t have an enemy, you make an enemy. And this is a real problem with people. We look for things. When you start equating jokes with real feelings, they’re not the same thing… These ideas that you can’t make fun of are dangerous, they’re not good for anybody… The idea that no fun could be had about any of this is crazy, because idea is then that all fun is done maliciously and out of hate, and we know as friends, that’s not true.”
But Rogan was in the decided minority publicly speaking out.
Developing on the ground…
As trans activists begin to protest outside of the Netflix building in Hollywood, Calif., some reports from the ground are beginning to post on Twitter. Tensions are quickly rising as counter protesters arrive to defend Chappelle’s special.
Matt Donnelly, senior film writer for Variety, alleges that a counter protester experienced violence inside the Netflix courtyard, adding that a trans speaker was also “physically pushed” by an unidentified assailant.
One protester, Lily Weaver, 34, told the Los Angeles Times, “I’m here to support the Black trans people who Dave Chappelle has belittled and erased. I’m here to support the Black, pregnant employee that Netflix fired for standing up to them. It is absolutely disgraceful that Netflix is profiting off of transphobia.
“I think that [Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos] has really embarrassed himself by dismissing his employees,” Weaver added. “The company has embarrassed itself by retaliating against workers who spoke out. And I would encourage Mr. Sarandos to listen to the people who work for him.”
Preston also addressed the “list of firm asks” to reporters.
“The conversation that we’re having today, more than anything, is about the emergence of what I’m calling a ‘hate economy,’” she said. “And it is the capitalization of harm and violence that exists online and onscreen … and the ways in which algorithmic science is being manipulated to take advantage of those moments and to profit from it.”
Meanwhile, Transparent creator Joey Soloway spoke about the long-term impacts of Chappelle’s comments — particularly where he said that “gender is a fact,” a belief that contradicts the argument that gender identity is more complex and nuanced than one’s biological sex.
“This is gender violence,” Soloway said, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “Sharing his outrage as comedic humiliation in front of thousands of people, and then broadcasting it to hundreds of millions of people, is infinitely amplified gender violence. I want trans representation on the Netflix board. A trans person on the f****** Netflix board this f****** week.”
This story is developing…