'Laughing in the face of our pain': Netflix employees walk out over Dave Chappelle special

·8 min read

LOS ANGELES – Netflix employees made good on a promise to walk out Wednesday over Dave Chappelle’s transphobic remarks in his new stand-up special, a gesture that was amplified by emotional pleas from supporters who rallied outside company headquarters.

Netflix's transgender employees say executives at the streaming service dismissed their concerns that Chappelle's controversial comments in "The Closer" could lead to violence against the trans community.

The first person to address the crowd of about 150 gathered near Netflix's Hollywood offices was rally organizer Ashlee Marie Preston, who said she and other members of the community had invited Chappelle “on multiple occasions” to have “transformative dialogue, (but) he has made it clear it is not of interest to him.”

Preston also accused Netflix, which has repeatedly supported the comedian in recent days, of “making money off our inability to understand intersectionality.”

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The group's list of demands presented to Netflix executives include "making long-term investments in content from trans, non-binary, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) creators; fully inclusive spaces for trans and LGBTQ BIPOC employees; and accountability when content causes harm," according to a Twitter post by GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy group.

At the rally, David Huggard Jr., a contestant known as Eureka! on RuPaul’s “Drag Race,” said those who enjoy Chappelle’s special are “laughing in the face of our pain.”

During those speeches, a counter-protester – who in contrast to most protestors didn't wear a mask – shouted “I’m just here for the jokes,” and held a sign that said “Dave Is Funny” on one side and “We Like Jokes” on the other. A scuffle ensued, which resulted in someone breaking the sign.

Another counter-protester, comedian Dick Masterson, said he attended the rally to "support Dave (Chappelle)'s statement against cancel culture."

"There's a big problem when people start tying speech to violence, because it is not," he said. "In this country, any speech is allowed, and violence is a hard no. There's a big canyon between those two."

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The contentious debate over Chappelle's comments has generated passionate responses from Chappelle supporters and detractors alike on social media. The issue intensified late Tuesday, as Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos did a flurry of phone interviews in which he admitted he "screwed up" his response to staff but reiterated his support of the comedy special.

Sarandos' latest messaging “speaks to a culture not just at Netflix or this industry, but something at large, which is a lot of people’s first reaction in the light of controversy is to defend the person that they’re closest to without looking at the facts of the situation," Netflix employee Tierra Gonzalez told USA TODAY at Wednesday's rally.

Sarandos allowed that storytelling can sometimes negatively impact society, but said he did not feel "The Closer" needed a disclaimer.

"I should have first and foremost acknowledged in those emails that a group of our employees were in pain, and they were really feeling hurt from a business decision that we made," Sarandos told The Hollywood Reporter. He also spoke with Deadline and Variety. "And I, instead of acknowledging that first, I went right into some rationales."

Dave Chappelle is facing backlash for his controversial Netflix special "The Closer."
Dave Chappelle is facing backlash for his controversial Netflix special "The Closer."

Sarandos noted that Chappelle follows in the tradition of comedians who push boundaries, but told Variety "I do not believe it falls into hate speech" because Chappelle's jokes weren't intended to cause physical harm.

Hours before the walkout, Netflix shared a statement with USA TODAY: "We value our trans colleagues and allies, and understand the deep hurt that’s been caused. We respect the decision of any employee who chooses to walk out, and recognize we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content.”

The negative spotlight on Netflix stands in stark contrast to a recent glow: The content-creating powerhouse, responsible for hits ranging from “Tiger King” to “Squid Game,” won 44 Emmys this year and hit 200 million subscribers. On Tuesday, Netflix reported third-quarter profit and subscriber growth numbers that beat Wall Street expectations.

Dave Chappelle described gender as 'a fact' in his new Netflix comedy special, 'The Closer'

In "The Closer," Chappelle resurfaced a December 2019 controversy in which “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling drew backlash after conflating sex with gender and defending ideas suggesting that changing one's biological sex was a threat to her own gender identity.

"I agree, man. Gender is a fact," Chappelle, 48, said in "The Closer." "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."

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The LGBTQ+ community called Dave Chappelle's remarks transphobic, Netflix suspended several employees

“The Closer” generated backlash on social media from both the LGBTQ+ community and some Netflix employees, who voiced concerns that the special promoted transphobic attitudes at a time when violence against such Americans is on the rise. There were a record 44 killings of trans people in 2020, according to the Human Rights Watch.

Last week, Terra Field, a Netflix software engineer who is trans, was among three employees who were suspended for joining a virtual quarterly meeting of top executives without an invitation. They later were reinstated, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

On Friday, Netflix fired an employee who allegedly leaked how much Netflix had paid for “The Closer” (a reported $24.1 million), along with the special's viewership (10 million).

In an interview with The New York Times on Tuesday, the fired transgender employee, B. Pagels-Minor, who prefers a gender neutral title, said they found Sarandos’ communications to staff “dismissive,” and acknowledged being fired. But “B. categorically denies leaking sensitive information to the press,” said Laurie Burgess, the worker's attorney.

A Netflix representative told the NYT that the employee "admitted sharing confidential information externally from their Netflix email on several occasions.”

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In the course of two memos to staff, Sarandos defended the company’s association with Chappelle, declined to remove the special and questioned the need for alarm.

“While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content onscreen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm," he wrote.

The storm started brewing on Oct. 7, two days after Chappelle's special debuted, when Field fired off a tweet saying: "I work at @netflix. Yesterday we launched another Chappelle special where he attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness – all while trying to pit us against other marginalized groups."

The comment went viral and led to a long Medium essay by Field, who lamented that after going through a similar upheaval in 2019 with Chappelle's "Sticks & Stones" special, the same debate seemed to be starting anew.

"I felt like all the work we did after ‘Sticks & Stones’ was meaningless and that having the exact same internal dialog and pile of emotional labor from the Trans* ERG was just going to get us the same canned statement about ‘artistic freedom’ (and it did)," Field wrote.

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Celebrities assembled for a PSA

In the wake of Chappelle's special, “Dear White People” series producer Jacklyn Moore tweeted last week that she would not work with the streaming service as long as it continues to “put out and profit from blatantly and dangerously transphobic content.”

Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, who was cited by Sarandos in a widely disseminated memo to staff, blasted the CEO on Instagram, writing, "Now I have to deal with even more of the hate and anger that Dave Chappelle's fans like to unleash on me every time Dave gets 20 million dollars to process his emotionally stunted partial world view.”

As part of the walkout, organizers released a public service announcement that included messages from a variety of stars and activists. The PSA was shared on Twitter by transgender actor Elliot Page, who wrote "I stand in support with the trans, nonbinary, and BIPOC employees at Netflix fighting for more and better trans stories and a more inclusive workplace."

Jameela Jamil, star of NBC's "The Good Place," delivered "a message of love and support for those of you taking such a big risk in standing up for what you believe in." And Mason Alexander Park of Netflix's "The Sandman" said changes at the service won't happen until "we give non-binary and trans people like myself more power and more positions to tell our own stories."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dave Chappelle backlash: Netflix employees walk out over trans remarks

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