Netflix has a storm on its hands.
Hundreds of protesters stood in solidarity with the streaming giant’s employees, who staged a walkout on Wednesday morning in the wake of Dave Chappelle’s inflammatory comedy special The Closer, which has been widely viewed as transphobic.
The walkout came after several days of backlash against Netflix, first for standing by the special, then for temporarily suspending three Netflix workers—one of whom is trans— for attending a high-level meeting about the special, and most recently for firing a Black trans employee who allegedly shared that Netflix had shelled out $24.1 million for the special.
Staffers are now demanding better treatment for transgender workers at the streaming service, alongside a list of other expectations.
In the employees’ letter provided to The Verge, they stated that, “Netflix still has to grow when it comes to content relating to the trans and non-binary community.” The group wants Netflix to invest in trans and non-binary talent and content, recruit trans people—particularly trans people of color—to leadership positions, and to acknowledge potentially transphobic content before it streams.
“We are employees, but we are members, too. We believe that this Company can and must do better in our quest to entertain the world, and that the way forward must include more diverse voices in order to avoid causing more harm,” Netflix trans employees ended the letter.
The blow-up comes after Chappelle’s special premiered on Netflix in early October, and was immediately criticized for homophobic and transphobic comments made—outraging not just Netflix trans employees, but members of the LGBTQ community and its allies.
Comedian Seven Graham, who is intersex, transmasc, non-binary, and uses he/they pronouns, was in attendance at the protest, telling The Daily Beast they felt the special crossed a line.
“I actually found myself crying watching this special, because it says some very difficult, very painful, very untrue things about who trans people are,” Graham said. “This special will be used by people to fuel that transphobia and that has a very real-world effect for trans people. As soon as I heard that trans employees were speaking out and amazing activists like Ashlee [Marie Preston] were stepping up and organizing this demonstration, I knew that I had to go.”
Fellow protester Nick Bewick agreed. “I was angry for days and I am a fan of Dave Chappelle,” he added. “I’ve been a fan since 2003. I’ve seen every single one of his episodes; I’ve seen every single special. Sticks & Stones kind of touched upon a few things, but it didn’t really bother me as bad. This seemed gratuitously aimed at us and it wasn’t funny.”
“It was gratuitously mean,” he continued. “It was gratuitously not funny. It was just self-glorification, self-masturbation— ‘I’m rich and famous, let me spew out all the things that I think,’ as if he was some sort of Messiah. I think he got it twisted. So many people worship him and he’s so out of touch.”
Polly Jean Vernon, who is trans and uses she/they pronouns, previously worked at Netflix as a props master. Vernon said that if she was still working with the company, she would have participated in the walkout. At one time, they admitted that they looked up to Chappelle and his artistry but now can't stand by as people use his jokes to justify their transphobia.
Netflix employees staged a walkout to protest comedian Dave Chappelle’s new comedy special ‘The Closer,’ which they say contains harmful language that ridicules transgender people https://t.co/ixGnvSmSUa pic.twitter.com/UQ1j2YXz1t
— Reuters (@Reuters) October 20, 2021
“It’s not just feelings,” Vernon said, “It’s another punch to the gut. I know that every day when I get up and leave the house, there is a 100% chance that I will experience transphobia in the form of microaggressions or actual aggression.”
As the fury continues to grow, Netflix is trying to do damage control and fast—yesterday backpedaling from an internal memo that Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos had sent out on Oct. 8. In the email, Sarandos stated Chappelle’s comedy special would not be removed because he didn’t feel as if it truly crossed the line of being overly offensive.
“Several of you have also asked where we draw the line on hate,” Sarandos wrote. “We don’t allow titles on Netflix that are designed to incite hate or violence, and we don’t believe The Closer crosses that line. I recognize, however, that distinguishing between commentary and harm is hard, especially with stand-up comedy which exists to push boundaries. Some people find the art of stand-up to be mean-spirited, but our members enjoy it, and it’s an important part of our content offering.”
Then in a second internal letter sent to employees on Oct. 16, Sarandos doubled-down on his beliefs that The Closer wouldn’t “translate to real-world harm.”
“Adults can watch violence, assault and abuse—or enjoy shocking stand-up comedy—without it causing them to harm others,” he wrote.
But that belief is simply not true when it comes to the trans community, three people told The Daily Beast.
“Lives are at stake, whether through anti-trans violence or through suicide,” Vernon said. “Our communities have some of the largest numbers in the books. That’s because we’re surrounded every day by people who watched that special.”
“People don’t understand trans [people] and their first understanding might be [The Closer],” Graham said. “So, we’re breeding, we’re fostering all this hatred, and this special is spreading very basic misinformation. Dave confuses sex and gender.”
“There’s ramifications for this,” Bewick added. “I’m not saying our cause is better than any others. I’m really not. I think that our cause is the newest one and it’s the one where people are dying every day. The people are at the most risk, and they’re the most depressed. It’s the most tender movement, in my opinion. People are dying every day by suicide, by murder, by depression. They deserve to live.”
By Tuesday, on the eve of the planned walk-out, Sarandos admitted that he may not have handled the situation well, confiding to Variety that he “screwed up… internal conversation” while addressing employees’ concerns.
“I should have led with a lot more humanity,” he said. “Meaning, I had a group of employees who were definitely feeling pain and hurt from a decision we made. And I think that needs to be acknowledged up front before you get into the nuts and bolts of anything,” he said. “I didn’t do that.”
Sarandos also backtracked a bit on his views of whether or not on-screen violence could transcend into the real world. But in relation to The Closer being on Netflix, he ultimately said his “stance hasn’t changed.”
Both Vernon and Graham agree that Chappelle’s special should be left up—as a teachable moment for the comedian and to help educate people on why his speech is harmful.
“I’m all for free speech and I don’t want that special to be taken down. I want flags for transphobic content,” Vernon said. “I don’t want books taken out of libraries, I want education around why it was wrong and why we now know better. [Trying] to pretend it didn’t happen, that’s not helpful either and then it gives him a platform of being censored and cancelled, even though millions of people [watched].”
Graham said they hope Netflix commits to putting $120 million—the same figure it had pumped into Chappelle’s past six specials—into funding trans, intersex, and non-binary creative content and elevating the new voices.
“I personally hope that in five years’ time,” they concluded, “[Dave’s] heart was open enough that he will have connected conversations with members of our community, especially the BIPOC members of our community, because that was the thing that was most painful, was the way he was creating this division between the BIPOC community, especially the Black community, and the queer community.”