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Netflix CEO argues that Chappelle’s new special, criticized as transphobic, is too popular to cancel

Dave Chappelle in “The Closer,” which has been criticized as being transphobic.  (Mathieu Bitton/Netflix)
Dave Chappelle in “The Closer,” which has been criticized as being transphobic. (Mathieu Bitton/Netflix)
By Julian Mark Washington Post

In response to criticism that Dave Chappelle’s new special is transphobic, Netflix’s co-chief executive in an internal memo defended the comedian and said the streaming platform will not remove “The Closer.”

The executive, Ted Sarandos, cited “creative freedom” as one reason the company intends to keep the show online. Pressure to remove the special from Netflix has mounted from inside and outside the company over Chappelle’s jokes about the transgender community.

Sarandos wrote that, although some people may find standup comedy to be “mean-spirited,” “our members enjoy it, and it’s an important part of our content offering.”

“Chappelle is one of the most popular standup comedians today, and we have a longstanding deal with him,” Sarandos added in the memo obtained by news outlets. “His last special ‘Sticks & Stones,’ also controversial, is our most-watched, stickiest and most award-winning standup special to date.”

The memo followed condemnation from Jaclyn Moore, a transgender writer who worked on the Netflix original “Dear White People,” as well as criticism from Terra Field, a transgender software engineer at Netflix. Advocacy groups, including GLAAD and the National Black Justice Coalition, also condemned the special and asked for its removal.

During his routine, Chappelle joked about transgender genitalia, said “gender is a fact” and told his audience he was on “team TERF,” an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. He also defended J.K. Rowling, the author of the “Harry Potter” books, who has been criticized for making transphobic statements. Chappelle was criticized for joking about the trans community in the previous special mentioned by Sarandos, “Sticks & Stones.”

As of Tuesday morning, about a week after its release, “The Closer” was the third most-watched show on Netflix. Although it received a low Rotten Tomatoes score from critics, audiences gave the special a score of 97 out of 100.

Last week, Moore, who also writes for Peacock’s “Queer as Folk,” wrote on Twitter that Chappelle used to be one of her “heroes.”

“But he said he’s a TERF,” Moore wrote. “He compared my existence to someone doing blackface.”

Moore said she was “done” with Netflix.

That same day, Field criticized Chappelle in a tweet for characterizing the community as thin-skinned. “Our existence is ‘funny’ to him – and when we object to his harm, we’re ‘offended,’ ” Field wrote.

“What we object to is the harm that content like this does to the trans community (especially trans people of color) and VERY specifically Black trans women,” Field added.

Two days after Field publicly criticized the comedy special, she was suspended for attending a meeting she was not permitted to attend, a Netflix official confirmed to the Washington Post.

Responding to concerns that the suspension was retribution for criticizing the special, a Netflix official said in a statement: “It is absolutely untrue to say that we have suspended any employees for tweeting about this show. Our employees are encouraged to disagree openly, and we support their right to do so.”

Field did not immediately respond to an interview request.

The National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights advocacy group, said in a statement to CNN that “Netflix should immediately pull ‘The Closer’ from its platform and directly apologize to the transgender community.”

Likewise, GLAAD, a group that advocates for the LGBTQ+ community, tweeted last week that “Dave Chappelle’s brand has become synonymous with ridiculing trans people and other marginalized communities.”

It added that “audiences don’t support platforming anti-LGBTQ+ diatribes.”

In his memo to employees, however, Sarandos said the special’s content does not violate company policy. “We don’t allow Netflix titles that are designed to incite hate or violence,” he wrote, “and we don’t believe ‘The Closer’ crosses that line.”

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