What We Learned From Dave Chappelle's TERF Debacle
Although it seems Dave Chappelle may be apparently un-cancellable even after openly identifying as a TERF (a.k.a a “trans-exclusionary radical feminist," a group that denies the existence of transgender people) in his latest Netflix special, The Closer, it seems the same cannot be said for a handful of the streaming service's employees. As Chappelle's controversial statements dominated the pop-culture lexicon since the stand-up special dropped last week, three Netflix employees were allegedly suspended from the company for attempting to crash a director-level meeting. One of the employees in question was Terra Field, a senior software engineer and trans woman had openly expressed her frustration with Chappelle, stating the star's joke “attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness” in a long, gut-wrenching Twitter thread, discussing how TERF ideology can lead to tangible harm towards the trans community, citing the deaths of 38 trans, and non-binary people – particularly those of color -- this year alone.
“Being trans is actually pretty funny, if you're someone who actually knows about the subject matter," Field wrote. “How could volunteering for a second puberty *not* be funny? That isn't what he is doing though. Our existence is 'funny' to him - and when we object to his harm, we're ‘offended,'” she continued.
“Promoting TERF ideology (which is what we did by giving it a platform yesterday) directly harms trans people, it is not some neutral act,” she added in a subsequent tweet. "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."
When asked about this, erm, oddly coincidental, timing, Netflix denied that Field's thread played a role in her suspension. "It is absolutely untrue to say that we have suspended any employees for tweeting about this show," a spokesperson for the platform told Business Insider after the allegations began making headlines earlier this week. "Our employees are encouraged to disagree openly and we support their right to do so."
Despite this statement of encouragement, the platform has made it clear through their actions where its priorities lie – defending Chappelle rather than listening to the very-real concerns of their trans viewers and employees. “Several of you have also asked where we draw the line on hate,” wrote Netflix co-CEO, Ted Sarandos in an email to staffers, obtained by CNN. “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,” he continued. "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."
Yet the fact that this story has been so highly disputed poses a fascinating question – who truly suffers from cancel culture? The answer? Definitely not Dave Chappelle. In the days following the backlash, the comedian's loyal fanbase shut down any criticism of the star, citing his long-respected influence. In fairness, yes, Dave Chappelle is an extremely influential figure, with a reach that has earned him millions of adoring fans, three Grammy Awards, five Primetime Emmy Awards, and the highly-coveted Mark Twain Prize for American Humor back in 2019, among other awards, and recognition from fellow stars – especially comedians and entertainers of color. Actor, comic, and musician, Donald Glover, cited Chappelle, alongside legendary comedian Bernie Mac, as inspiration for his highly-acclaimed FX dramedy, Atlanta. Former Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, once called him the “black Bourdain," noting how Chappelle, like the late chef Anthony Bourdain, "seeks out people and experience and knowledge and wants to touch it and feel it and be with it on the ground so that he can then channel that through his art, and then re-direct that back to you as something completely different and new." Hell, even My Chemical Romance frontman, Gerard Way recently told Rolling Stone that the legendary comic inspired him to prioritize his mental health after his band broke up in 2013. You know you're influential when young comics, boomers, and former emo kids actively look up to you.
But with great influence, comes even greater responsibility. Even with these impressive accolades, it's important to remember that behind the heroic, pop culture legend of Chappelle is, well, Chappelle the mere mortal, who like all of us, gets things wrong, has made hurtful remarks, and hell, probably even peed in the shower at some point (don't lie, we've all done it). It's also important to note that Chappelle is a 48-year-old comedian. He, alongside his peers like Jerry Seinfeld, and Louis C.K., aren't necessarily known for their easy adaptation to the changing times, many of whom are truly shocked when offensive, tasteless jokes slamming various marginalized communities somehow don't leave audiences rolling in the aisles. In other words, Being famous or beloved doesn't mean you're not immune to really f---ing up and hurting people. On the contrary, when your words, including your proud alignment with TERF ideology, a statement loaded with dangerous – and sometimes deadly -- implications, is broadcast to millions around the globe, you need to be extra mindful of how you use your platform.
Now, it's not up to most of us whether Chappelle should be canceled for his anti-trans sentiments -- rather, that response should be seen by members of the trans and non-binary community who are directly impacted by his hurtful statements by having their existence invalidated to a platform of millions, but that's not the point here. Amid this fiasco, Chappelle has been largely treated with kindness and empathy even after aligning himself with transphobes. Those who held him accountable deserve the same type of respect for speaking about their experience, especially as members of the LGBTQAI+ community who, again, now have to deal with even more empowered transphobes "F"-ing their “S” up – literally.
“…He ended his special with a ‘but I had a trans friend’ story,” recalled Jaclyn Moore, an ex-Dear White People writer/the most controversial woman of the hour in discussing why she will no longer be working with Netflix following Chappelle's special. “He says we don't listen. But he's not listening. Those words have real world consequences. Consequences that every trans woman I know has dealt with. Bruises and panicked phone calls to friends. That's real.” In other words? Words, especially when coming from the mouth of someone so highly-regarded and respected, are more than just that, having tangible, negative repercussions on members of the trans community.
But it seems Chappelle will be just fine. Most public figures – sans for maybe Harvey Weinstein and annoying YouTubers like Gabbie Hanna and Shane Dawson – will manage to bounce back after facing public scrutiny, coming out of the affair with a book deal, some really cringe-worthy material for their latest stand-up show (looking at you, Louis C.K.), and “WAP” cover artist Ben Shapiro kissing the ground they walk on, among other hypothetical consolation prizes.
Yet those who are directly impacted by their wrongdoings aren't usually so lucky, arguably becoming the actual victims of cancel culture. While Chappelle will likely come out of this scandal with his status as one of the world's most beloved comedians untouched, the fate of those employees isn't certain. Those now-suspended Netflix workers will now likely face employment struggles. Their cause for suspension – as well as personal details surrounding their personal identities, perhaps – will become much more public than they likely anticipated. Whereas Chappelle will be celebrated, these people will be condemned, facing the consequences of speaking their truth and doing what's right in standing up for the LGBTQAI+ community, perhaps for the foreseeable future.
In other words, if you chalked up Chappelle's transphobic words as a win for “free speech,” these suspensions should have you absolutely livid.
Top Image: Netflix