Dave Chappelle’s Netflix Controversy, Explained

The streamer has been called out for giving “dangerously transphobic content” a platform.

Originally Published: 
Dave Chapelle in his 'Dave Chappelle: The Closer' Netflix stand-up comedy special via Netflix's pres...
Mathieu Bitton/Netflix

Though Dave Chappelle is known for his irreverent comedy style, many believe that the transphobic comments he made in his most recent Netflix special, Dave Chappelle: The Closer, crossed the line. The 72-minute streaming stand-up routine drew widespread criticism after its Oct. 5 release, with an executive producer on another Netflix series calling out the streamer for “dangerously transphobic content,” per the New York Times. The controversy has been swirling ever since — on social media, in think pieces, and even within Netflix itself.

Chappelle has not incurred any sort of retribution outside of public backlash, but not all of the streaming service’s employees have been so fortunate. On Friday, Oct. 15, The Verge reported that Netflix fired the leader of a trans employee resource group that had been organizing an Oct. 20 employee walkout in light of the company’s defense of the special. The unnamed former employee, whom the outlet described as Black and currently pregnant, had reportedly been encouraging trans staffers and allies to stage a protest prior to their termination.

“All these white people are going around talking to the press and speaking publicly on Twitter and the only person who gets fired is the Black person who was quiet the entire time,” an anonymous former employee told the Verge. “That’s absurd, and just further shows that Black trans people are the ones being targeted in this conversation.”

A Netflix spokesperson confirmed the employee’s dismissal, per the Verge, citing “sharing confidential, commercially sensitive information outside the company” as the reason for termination. “We understand this employee may have been motivated by disappointment and hurt with Netflix, but maintaining a culture of trust and transparency is core to our company,” the spokesperson explained. (Though it’s unclear if the two are related, Bloomberg published a report that included leaked metrics, including that Netflix shelled out $24.1 million on The Closer.)

Here’s everything else to know about the controversy.

What Was Said In The Special?

After opening with a joke about Black people beating up Asian Americans, Chappelle warned that his jokes were “going to get way worse.” What followed was a series of transphobic statements, with the comedian maintaining that “gender is a fact” and that “every human being on Earth, had to pass through the legs of a woman to be on Earth,” before likening trans women’s genitalia to plant-based meat substitutes.

Also declaring his support for Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who made her own anti-trans comments last year, Chapelle referred to himself as a feminist who’s with her on “team TERF,” an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. “This is a group of women that hate transgender, they don’t hate transgender women but they look at trans women the way we Blacks might look at blackface,” Chappelle said in The Closer. “It offends them. Like, ‘Ew, this b*tch is doing an impression of me.’”

The Emmy-winning comedian also contrasted recent homophobic comments made by rapper DaBaby with systemic racism. “In our country, you can shoot and kill a n*gger, but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings,” Chappelle opined. He also went on to say that “if slaves had oil and booty shorts on, we might have been free 100 years sooner,” ignoring that LGBTQ+ people of color experience racial discrimination as well.

What Fallout Has There Been?

Among the early public figures to address The Closer was Dear White People Executive Producer Jaclyn Moore, who identifies as a trans woman. “I’ve been thrown against walls because ‘I’m not a “real” woman.’ I’ve had beer bottles thrown at me. So, @Netflix, I’m done,” Moore tweeted on Oct. 6, vowing to not work with the company again “as long as they continue to put out and profit from blatantly and dangerously transphobic content.” Noting that Chappelle had previously been a personal hero, she added, “Those words have real world consequences… that every trans woman I know has dealt with. ... I can’t be a part of a company that thinks that’s worth putting out and celebrating.”

Comedian Dahlia Belle penned an open letter to Chappelle in the Guardian on Oct. 9. “As a longtime fan, something I always admired about comedy was its ability to push boundaries and challenge norms,” Belle wrote, in part, calling The Closer “regressive” and stating that the “once-groundbreaking star” had lost his way. “Now it’s 2021, and I think we can all agree that bitter old men griping about progress are killing comedy.”

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos referenced LGBTQ+ creators, such as comedian Hannah Gadsby, while defending the company’s inclusive content. Gadsby, whose stand-up specials are on Netflix, didn’t appreciate the exec’s comments. “Hey Ted Sarandos! Just a quick note to let you know that I would prefer if you didn’t drag my name into your mess,” Gadsby posted via Instagram on Oct. 14. “Now I have to deal with even more of the hate and anger that Dave Chappelle’s fans like to unleash on me every time Dave gets 20 million dollars to process his emotionally stunted partial world view.”

What Has Netflix Said?

In an internal memo obtained by Variety, Sarandos acknowledged the controversy, but defended Chappelle’s “artistic freedom.” He reportedly called Chappelle “one of the most popular comedians today,” citing the company’s “long-standing deal” with him and the fact his also-controversial 2019 Sticks & Stones Netflix show was their “most watched, stickiest and most award winning stand-up special to date.”

“Several of you have also asked where we draw the line on hate,” Sarandos also reportedly 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.”

One day prior to the planned Oct. 20 employee walkout, Sarandos gave an interview to The Hollywood Reporter about his response to the controversy. “When we think about this challenge we have to entertain the world, part of that challenge means that you’ve got audiences with various taste, various sensibilities, various beliefs. You really can’t please everybody or the content would be pretty dull,” he told the publication. “And we do tell our employees upfront that we are trying to entertain our members, and that some of the content on Netflix you’re not going to like, and so this kind of commitment to artistic expression and free artistic expression is sometimes in conflict with people feeling protected and safe. I do think that that’s something that we struggle with all the time when these two values bump up against each other.”

What Have Netflix Employees Said?

Variety reported on Oct. 11 that Netflix had suspended three employees, including a trans person, who spoke out against Chappelle on social media. In a subsequent statement to CNN, Netflix denied that the staffers had been suspended for tweeting about the special, insisting that their employees “are encouraged to disagree openly and we support their right to do so.” Instead, the suspensions reportedly stemmed from the workers crashing a director-level meeting in which Sarandos fielded questions about how best to address the controversy.

Among the suspended employees was Terra Field, a trans software engineer. “Promoting TERF ideology (which is what we did by giving it a platform yesterday) directly harms trans people, it is not some neutral act,” Field tweeted on Oct. 6. “This is not an argument with two sides. It is an argument with trans people who want to be alive and people who don’t want us to be.” In another Oct. 12 tweet, Field announced that she had been reinstated by Netflix after the company learned there “was no ill-intent” in her attending the meeting.

That staff behind Netflix’s Most twitter account, which promotes the streamer’s LGBTQ+ content, tweeted that the week following The Closer’s release had “f*cking suck[ed],” in an Oct. 13 thread. “To be clear: As the queer and trans people who run this account, you can imagine that the last couple of weeks have been hard,” read one tweet. “We can’t always control what goes on screen. What we can control is what we create here, and the POV we bring to internal conversations.”

What Have LGBTQ+ Advocacy Groups Said?

In a statement to Deadline, the National Black Justice Coalition expressed disappointment in Netflix for allowing “Chappelle’s lazy and hostile transphobia and homophobia to air on its platform,” and also called for the company to “immediately pull The Closer from its platform and directly apologize to the transgender community.” The organization highlighted statistics showing that 2021 is on track to the be the “deadliest year on record for transgender people in the United States — the majority of whom are Black transgender people,” noting that Netflix should know that “perpetuating transphobia perpetuates violence.”

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) also released a statement on Oct. 6, explaining their belief that “Chappelle’s brand has become synonymous with ridiculing trans people and other marginalized communities” and that “negative reviews and viewers loudly condemning [Chappelle’s] latest special is a message to the industry that audiences don’t support platforming anti-LGBTQ diatribes.”

Activist Raquel Willis tweeted that Chappelle “reveals the ignorant tensions in the Black community about queerness and transness but doesn’t have the range to turn them on their head. In fact, he underscores the bigoted status quo.” Meanwhile, Roxane Gay wrote a New York Times guest essay titled “Dave Chappelle’s Brittle Ego,” in which she called the stand-up routine “a joyless tirade of incoherent and seething rage, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia.”

Has Chappelle Addressed The Controversy?

While speaking to an audience at an Oct. 7 Hollywood Bowl screening of The Closer, Chappelle reportedly discussed “cancel culture,” announcing with a chuckle, “If this is what being canceled is about, I love it.” After a performance at Hollywood’s Peppermint Club, TMZ cameras captured footage of photographers trying to get his reaction to the backlash. Although he didn’t answer directly, as his car pulled away, he said, “Dumb*ss questions.”

The comedian posted a video to Instagram (with comments disabled) on Oct. 25 that features him addressing the controversy onstage during a show on his ongoing nationwide tour. “It’s been said in the press that I was invited to speak to the transgender employees of Netflix and I refused. That is not true,” he said in the five-minute clip. “If they had invited me, I would have accepted it, although I am confused about what we would be speaking about. I said what I said, and boy, I heard what you said. My God, how could I not? You said you want a safe working environment at Netflix. It seems like I’m the only one who can’t go to the office.”

Despite noting in The Closer that he would no longer be publicly commenting on trans people or issues, he spoke directly to the trans community in the Instagram video. Chappelle said he’s open to a discussion — but under specific conditions, as he refuses to be summoned. “I am not bending to anyone’s demands. And if you want to meet with me, I am more than willing to, but I have some conditions,” he detailed. “First of all, you cannot come if you have not watched my special from beginning to end. You must come to a place of my choosing at a time of my choosing, and thirdly, you must admit that Hannah Gadsby is not funny.”

“I want everyone in this audience to know that even though the media frames it that it’s me versus that community, that’s not what it is,” he continued. “Do not blame the LGBTQ community for any of this. It’s about corporate interests, and what I can say, and what I cannot say. For the record, and I need you to know this, everyone I know from that community has been loving and supportive, so I don’t know what this nonsense is about.”

Later in the video, Chappelle claimed his career is suffering as a result of the controversy. He’s been planning to release a documentary based on his “Summer Camp” comedy series from 2020, but the comedian now says it’s being rejected by distributors and film festivals. “This film that I made was invited to every film festival in the United States. Some of those invitations I accepted,” he said. “When this controversy came out about The Closer, they began disinviting me from these film festivals, and now, today, not a film company, not a movie studio, not a film festival, nobody will touch this film. Thank God for Ted Sarandos and Netflix, he’s the only one that didn’t cancel me yet.” Then, Chappelle told the audience he plans to self-release the film and screen it at 10 of his remaining tour dates throughout November.

Who Has Defended Chappelle?

At the end of his special, Chappelle shared a somber story about a comedian, trans activist, and friend named Daphne Dorman, who died by suicide in 2019, shortly after defending controversial remarks made during his Sticks & Stones special. Chappelle appeared to at least partially attribute Dorman’s death to online harassment stemming from her supporting him. Following the most recent controversy, Dorman’s family continued to defend Chappelle, insisting that he’s “an “LGBTQ ally.”

Meanwhile, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser defended her support of Chappelle during a recent press conference, amid calls for her to rescind Chappelle’s key to the city. “I haven’t considered rescinding the key to the city, and I regard Dave as a friend and as an artist who is a genius,” she said. “Dave has been having this conversation with the trans community for a long time. But you would be, and I don’t think you would understand the whole show, I’m not sure you’ve seen it if you didn’t also understand some of his other commentary about race.”

Comedian Damon Wayans stood by Chappelle, saying that “Dave freed the slaves,” in an Oct. 11 TMZ interview. “The comedians, we were slaves to PC culture and he just, you know, as an artist he’s Van Gogh. Cut his ear off, he’s trying to tell us it’s OK,” Wayans said. When asked about the specific comments Chappelle made about the LGBTQ+ communities, however, he declined to comment.

Is The Closer Still Online?

Sarandos had said that Netflix has no plans to remove the special, which, as of publication on Oct. 16, was the streaming service’s fifth most popular title in the United States.

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