What is the difference between a piece of entertainment that is designed to incite hate or violence, versus a piece of entertainment that merely participates in a culture of hate or violence? And what is an employee’s right to critique a piece of entertainment that does either?
These are the questions seemingly at the center of the controversy around Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special The Closer, in which he goes on another diatribe about transgender people in the name of comedy. Following the release and easily foreseeable criticism, Netflix offered up excuses to validate the piece of entertainment and its participation in it, then days later temporarily suspended Terra Field, a trans senior software engineer, along with two other employees.
Like many intra-company conflicts that we cover on the blog, the story of Netflix’s latest Chappelle special is a story of power. Not specifically about Chappelle’s power to be able to punch down on trans women and queer people at large, by making the same jokes he’s made for the past four years. Other people have rightfully told this story, and it remains true regardless of Netflix’s actions in the week-plus since the special’s release.
But Chapelle’s dehumanizing commentaries are not the problem at the heart of the issue. Rather, it’s that the streaming giant has positioned itself as a progressive producer of diverse stories and a champion of marginalized voices—then produced and released a series of anti-trans comedies billed as entertainment which one executive says “exists to push boundaries,” then punished marginalized employees after they dissented.
A day after The Closer dropped on Netflix, Field went viral for tweeting out a thread of the names of 38 transgender and gender non-conforming people who had been killed in 2021 so far, according to an ongoing project by the Human Rights Campaign. “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. “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.”
Field was not the only employee at Netflix making this argument. According to the Verge, employees asked whether trans people were included in the decision to air the special, and how Netflix was going to remedy the fallout, including the harm it has on employees. The publication also added that none of the questions they reviewed had asked for the special to be taken down.
In response, Netflix made the kind of statements you’d expect them to make. Sections of a statement from co-CEO Ted Sarandos via the Verge, emphasis mine:
… It never feels good when people are hurting, especially our colleagues, so I wanted to give you some additional context. You should also be aware that some talent may join third parties in asking us to remove the show in the coming days, which we are not going to do.
Chappelle is one of the most popular stand-up comedians today, and we have a long standing deal with him. His last special, Sticks & Stones, also controversial, is our 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. 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.
In terms of our commitment to inclusion, we’re working hard to ensure more people see their lives reflected on screen and that under-represented communities are not defined by the single story. So we’re proud of titles like Sex Education, Young Royals, Control Z and Disclosure. Externally, particularly in stand-up comedy, artistic freedom is obviously a very different standard of speech than we allow internally as the goals are different: entertaining people versus maintaining a respectful, productive workplace.
Listen here, Sarandos says. Other people are really the ones trying to cancel Chappelle, which we won’t do, because he brings us a lot of viewers and acclaim, and his art, while maybe seen by some as mean-spirited, is really just pushing boundaries. Chappelle’s jokes are entertaining people, and while we acknowledge they’re not respectful to people in our very own workplace, we’re still platforming them, and it’s fine because we gave y’all a documentary about trans people in Hollywood.
Sarandos’ response is a disingenuous interpretation of what is so harmful about such commentary getting such mainstream exposure, as if anti-trans platforms such as Fox News don’t already prove that point about rhetoric against marginalized communities time and again. But it’s also to be completely expected from a company like Netflix, which exudes a thick facade about its values when it comes to telling the stories of people of underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds. It’s the kind of representation that corporations prioritize because it’s popular and only when it’s convenient to them.
This is what I remember from when I used to review Netflix films and TVs as a side gig — I’d request access to a screener and get entire forwarded PR emails emphasizing a story’s commitment to highlighting people of color or disabled people or people with addiction. For example, the synopsis for the 2020 series Gentefied ends with this: “Set in a rapidly changing Los Angeles, the Spanglish dramedy will navigate important themes like identity, class, and balancing insta-fame with translating memes for their parents. But most importantly, Gentefied will settle once and for all how to pronounce Latinx.”
There’s no shame in telling reviewers what your work is about, but there is in hiding behind it.
But, unsurprisingly, Netflix’s commitment to marginalized people goes only so far as their profit margins will allow. If that’s a problem, then, well—need we remind you that Sticks & Stones is the company’s “most-watched, stickiest, and most award-winning stand-up special to date?”
Adding injury is Netflix’s suspension of Field and her colleagues. The company denied Field’s suspension was about her criticism of the platform, claiming it was instead for attempting to confront Netflix’s directors at a quarterly business review meeting, and the resignation of another trans employee. From the Verge, again:
Netflix then suspended Field along with two other employees for trying to attend a director-level meeting they weren’t invited to. Another trans employee is quitting the company over how the special — and Field’s comments — were handled.
In a statement emailed to The Verge, a Netflix spokesperson pushed back against the idea that Field was suspended for tweeting. “It is absolutely untrue to say that we have suspended any employee for tweeting about this show,” they said. “Our employees are encouraged to disagree openly and we support their right to do so.”
It gets even worse. Last night, Field tweeted that she was reinstated (along with the two other employees) after Netflix’s investigation “did not find that [she] joined the QBR meeting with any ill intent and that [she] genuinely didn’t think there was anything wrong with seeking access to this meeting.”
The email goes on to say that—wait for it!—”additionally when a Director shared the link it further supported that this was a meeting that you could attend.”
Netflix assumed Field had “ill-intent” and let Field be vilified by its defenders for trying to attend a meeting, before finding that she had actually been shared the link to this meeting by a director? And all of this could have been resolved with a few Slack messages instead of suspension and investigation? Because a trans employee wanting to speak to the people in charge about the harm a company has done is somehow a breach of etiquette at least and an attack on the company at most?
And here’s the cherry on top: Field, up until the day the special dropped (perhaps a coincidence), was a co-vice president of Netflix’s Trans Employee Resource Group. She was head of the very group that is now planning a company-wide walkout on Oct. 20 in protest of Sarandos’ statements defending their production of The Closer. According to industry watchdog Trans Hollywood, “Netflix Trans ERG has nearly 800 people in the chats.” (I reached out to Netflix PR yesterday asking what means employees have for internal complaints aside from the Trans ERG, and have yet to hear back.)
Rather than be a case of wires getting crossed, this whole episode just becomes more enraging as it’s scrutinized even more. Netflix, under fire from trans employees, activists, and their allies, took this opportunity to paint Field as an insolent anarchist who wanted to storm a director meeting to air her grievances. The truth is that she’s a member of senior leadership who rightfully thought she had an opportunity to talk to the people making the decisions to platform dehumanizing, anti-trans rhetoric.
Not that her role at the company should matter for her to be listened to. But Netflix’s entire mishandling of The Closer and the criticism against it—not to mention its treatment of even its top trans employees—goes to show that for all of its nice platitudes, it’s just like any other corporation that leaves people at the center of the punchline to clean up its messes.