Ted Sarandos and Netflix’s Disingenuous Defense of Dave Chappelle

Content may not spur real-world harm, but culture does. And Netflix is culture's king.
Ted Sarandos, left, and Dave Chappelle attend the 2018 Netflix FYSee Kick-Off Event at Raleigh Studios Hollywood on Sunday, May 6, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Ted Sarandos and Dave Chappelle attend the 2018 Netflix FYSee Kick-Off Event at Raleigh Studios Hollywood.
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Ted Sarandos, co-CEO and CCO of Netflix, recently reiterated his support of “The Closer,” a new stand-up special from Dave Chappelle, in the face of continued controversy over the transphobic material contained therein. In a companywide memo sent Monday, Sarandos wrote, “While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” a sentiment that’s clueless at best and disingenuous at worst.

In “The Closer,” Chappelle — who has a history of targeting the trans community — declared himself “Team TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminism)” as well as making invalidating comments about the legitimacy of trans women.

“Gender is a fact,” Chappelle said. “Every human being in this room, every human being on earth, had to pass through the legs of a woman to be on earth. That is a fact. Now, I am not saying that to say trans women aren’t women, I am just saying that those pussies that they got… you know what I mean? I’m not saying it’s not pussy, but it’s Beyond Pussy or Impossible Pussy. It tastes like pussy, but that’s not quite what it is, is it? That’s not blood. That’s beet juice.”

At the end of the special, Chappelle promises to stop making jokes at the expense of transgender and LGBTQ people, “until we are both sure that we are laughing together,” adding, “I’m telling you, it’s done. I’m done talking about it. All I ask of your community, with all humility: Will you please stop punching down on my people?” — truly, the “Punch buggy! No punch backs!” of mea culpas.

Since the special’s release, the streaming giant has been subject to criticism from both inside and outside its corporate walls, with executive producer of Netflix’s “Dear White People” Jaclyn Moore announcing her decision to no longer work with the company, “as long as they continue to put out and profit from blatantly and dangerously transphobic content” and GLAAD releasing a statement reading, “Dave 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.”

Further, as Netflix continued its defense of Chappelle, trans employees and allies are planning a walkout protest on October 20 to reiterate dissatisfaction with Sarandos’ aforementioned comments.

Ted Sarandos
Ted SarandosNetflix

It’s possible that Sarandos is speaking from a place of cluelessness; that he does not understand the “real world” or the effect that culture can have upon it.

Perhaps Sarandos and Netflix are unaware that according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), fatal violence against the transgender and gender non-conforming community has doubled in the last six years. Or that a study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law released in March revealed that transgender people are over four times more likely than cisgender people to be victims of violent crime. Beyond murder, the statistic includes any incident of violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and simple or aggravated assault.

Netflix did not respond immediately to IndieWire’s request for comment.

So perhaps Sarandos is unaware of the level of violence faced by transgender people on a day-to-day basis. If only there were some easy to consume pieces of content he could stream to educate him on the realities of the situation.

Oh wait, there is.

Enter Netflix’s “Disclosure.” Released in June 2020, director Sam Feder’s documentary examines the history of transgender depictions in both film and television and the influence that has on the culture at large. The film looks at how trans lives are presented on screen, how that filters into the society consuming such content, and the truth of trans lives as they play out in real life.

“Sure, it’s a film about transgender representation in film and TV,” you say. “Sure, it’s on Netflix. But what does that have to do with violence?” I’m glad you asked.

Laverne Cox "Disclosure"
Laverne Cox, “DisclosureNetflix

“‘Disclosure’ shows audiences that decades-old stereotypes, memes, and tropes in the media both form and reflect our understanding of trans issues. They have shaped the cultural narrative about transgender people, and inform everything from dating and domestic violence,” the film’s official site states (emphasis mine), “to school policy and national legislation. Since 80 percent of the population have never met a transgender person, all they know is rooted in media depictions, which are predominantly problematic and have rarely included participation by actual trans people. ‘Disclosure’ is aimed at that 80 percent.”

In the documentary itself, actress Jen Richards spoke about the connection between trans depictions and reality, in a clip she shared again on Wednesday in the midst of the ongoing conversation surrounding Netflix’s continued loyalties to Chappelle and “The Closer.”

Setting all of that aside, however, there still remains Sarandos’ assertion that content has no real-life consequences. The error in the executive’s argument is a matter of oversimplification. Maybe “The Closer” won’t make a person walk up to a transgender woman and jeer about their genitals or question the legitimacy of their existence. Maybe. But what it does do is contribute to a larger culture that is already biased against a marginalized group. Chappelle, and by extension, Netflix, are punching down. Imagine one of the most powerful companies in the world broadcasting a message of hate regarding your very existence, for millions of people to consume, to further entrench the unfamiliar masses against you. How is that not real-world harm?

Netflix has 209 million subscribers worldwide. That makes up for an unfathomable global audience with unprecedented influence on the global culture at large. There must be some sense of corporate responsibility. You can’t amass an enormous arsenal and leave it on your front yard with a sign reading, “free to good home.” You are culpable for what people do with that arsenal. Netflix should be accountable when it allows programs to spew hate into homes around the world.

And if they want to continue. If they want to opt for algorithms instead of corporate responsibility, that’s fine. But they should own that. And if they want to believe that content cannot bring about negative consequences, then they should embrace the flip-side, which would suggest that content can not spark positive change. No more deals with the Obamas. No more projects with Ava DuVernay to try to right the historical record regarding the country’s treatment of Black lives. No more documentaries about the importance of accurate trans depictions, since none of it could possibly do any good.

Netflix can tell its employees, its creators, the world, anything it wants.

But it should really stop lying to itself.

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