Comedian Dave Chappelle draws in millions of viewers for Netflix. His stand-up shows are very popular, although not with all crowds. Critique on his shows, both internally as well as from the outside, is increasing by the day. The conflict reached a boiling point when Netflix fired a transgender employee who was actively organizing a walk-out in response to the company’s defense of Chappelle’s transphobic comments. A classic tale of free speech versus hate speech is unfolding on the internet. How far can, or should, a streaming platform go in facilitating or protecting hateful content? And can comedy even be hateful? Or is it all just a joke?

Transphobia

Chappelle’s special ‘The Closure’ has, not very surprisingly, put him back into hot water. This time because of transphobic remarks. During the special, he says: “Gender is a fact. 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.” With this, Chappelle seems to argue that gender is binary and only biologically determined. Scientifically, this is wrong. He then continues to make explicit jokes about the bodies of transgender women, such as comparing trans women’s genitalia to plant-based meat. Weirdly enough, he also refers to himself as ‘team TERF’, thereby purposely siding himself with trans-exclusionary radical feminists, like J.K. Rowling.

The comedian then goes on by pitting the black and gay communities against each other. Saying that “if slaves had oil and booty shorts on, we might have been free 100 years sooner.” And it’s not just these two communities. Chappelle then compares the existence of trans people, which he basically didn’t even validate at first, with the existence of blackface.

Let’s not forget that although these recent remarks are utterly disgusting, it’s definitely not off-brand. His transphobia dates well back to 2016 where he said he didn’t want “a woman with a dick” using a urinal next to him. Or when he defended Trump’s transgender military ban. This goes to show that Netflix purposely chooses to ignore all these red flags and continue collaborations with Chappelle. That means they intentionally provided a platform to an openly transphobic, homophobic cishet man, who has stomped on marginalized communities for ‘comedic purposes’ and personal gain for years.

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Free speech versus hate speech

Netflix’s response to it all was, how do I put it? Weak. CEO Ted Sarandos addressed the situation to his employees, in a now leaked memo obtained by Variety. He said: “We know that a number of you have been left angry, disappointed and hurt by our decision to put Dave Chappelle’s latest special on Netflix. With ‘The Closer,’ we understand that the concern is not about offensive-to-some content but titles which could increase real world harm (…) we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.”

Now this rubs me the wrong way. Again, science has proven the correlation between the type of gender perceptions that Chappelle performs and the anti-trans violence in real life. And to what point is something even free speech? Are these jokes still free speech when it costs the lives of others? These jokes actively contribute to the already unsafe environment for transgender people. Whether or not Sarandos believes that harmful content can lead to real-world harm is irrelevant when looking at the facts. And the fact is that 2021 is on track to become the deadliest year for transgender people in the United States alone.

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Is Chappelle a transphobe?

Yes. Regardless of how much he will convince you otherwise, such as when he spoke out against the North Carolina anti-trans bathroom law, he was and still is a transphobe. Chapelle will label all these claims as ‘false’ or ‘framed’, while at the same time continuing to make jokes in which he refers to the LGBTQ+ community as “the alphabet people,” “confusing,” and “gross”.  

My hope is that Netflix will understand the impact they have on their 200+ million users. Certain harmful content just can’t be accepted for publication and distribution. With such a large reach, they are accountable for the image they spread on marginalized communities, and in which ways this image affects the safety of the members of such communities.

So is it all just a joke? I don’t think so. But at the same time, we have to protect the diversity of content. There is a fine line between moderation or regulation and censorship. There is no black and white answer, nor a clean-cut solution. However, there should always be an ongoing dialogue. And Netflix chose to leave the conversation.