Illustration by Ellie Montemayor
Note: This is an article that attempts to dissect a recently-released Netflix stand-up comedy special that has generated controversy in the media for its transphobic content. The article takes on the perspective of a transgender individual in the midst of this ideological crisis and addresses the consequences relating to the special, the role of comedy and media in our society and the effects of such offensive content on marginalized communities. It is broken up into two sections, each with its own subsections, that deal with individual pieces of this controversy.
Possible trigger warnings for those sensitive about topics such as suicide and transphobia.
Section 1: The Opener, The Consequence, and the Response
A Netflix blockbuster. A $24 million budget. A 100-person company walkout. And a headline-making controversy. Netflix recently put out a stand-up comedy special by comedian Dave Chappelle and, for the past month, social media has been engulfed in a toxic blaze regarding the trans community, sparked by the embers of Chappelle’s now-infamous special, “The Closer.”
This new Netflix title, released on Oct. 5th, is a heartwarming and endearing comedy about mocking literally every community in existence. In its first five minutes, Chappelle ridicules homeless people, coronavirus patients, sexual assault and rape victims, Black, Asian, and Jewish people and the LGBTQ+ community. Halfway in, he eloquently transitions to a targeted mockery of trans people (so that’s over half an hour of pure, uncut, family-friendly transphobic commentary).
The rest of the special is fixated on the trans anatomy, the Team TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) movement and various anecdotes about his encounters with trans people, including the closing segment where he talks about a former trans friend who died by suicide.
Notable quotes from the special include: “She always said she identified as a woman, and then she went to the top of the roof and jumped off and killed herself. And clearly, only a man would do some gangster shit like that,” “I am a feminist. I’m team TERF!” and “[The LGBTQ+ community], with all humility, will you please stop punching down on my people?”
As expected, the media didn’t take too kindly to any of it. Everywhere from Twitter and Instagram to The Washington Post and The New York Times’ opinions, arts and business columns have torn up the special in a fury-fuelled frenzy, and they’re right to have done so.
Three separate movements have risen up following the special.
The first focuses on corporate interests and the freedom of artistic expression. Many media outlets have taken to citing the special as the epitome of this freedom, arguing that it was an unfiltered, uninhibited series of jokes and call-outs to many parts of modern society where Chappelle is able to talk freely without care and concern over who gets hurt in the process—and that this is what needs to continue to happen if we want a community that truly has “free speech.” This also follows the issues surrounding corporate interests and censorship, and how artists (such as Chappelle in this same special) have complained about having to “pander” and restrict what they say on-stage to fit political correctness agendas.
The second follows Netflix employees’ calls for better workplace practices. Unsurprisingly, more than a hundred employees stormed out in an organized walkout in protest of the special’s release, calling for better treatment of trans employees, the hiring of more trans executives and increased spending and focus on trans creators and projects.
The third is the Team TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) movement. Despite claiming to be a trans ally throughout the film, Chappelle jokes about identifying with Team TERF, effectively aligning himself with their transphobic ideology, especially with his fixation on trans anatomy and his phrase “gender is a fact.” Chappelle’s ultimate non sequitur: give more exposure to a hate group that actively suppresses trans rights, allowing it to thrive off the controversy and generate attention from it. (It goes without saying that the phrase “Team TERF” is all over the Internet now.)
Since its release, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos has made several declarations throughout this controversy affirming his and Netflix’s support for “The Opener,” citing free expression as Chappelle’s right and writing that “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.”
Ted Sarandos, a white, cis, straight, wealthy man thinks that content distributed worldwide and in real-time has absolutely no effect on harm towards marginalized communities. There’s not much to say about this other than the fact that the struggles I’ve faced as a trans person suddenly felt invalidated, and that feeling of worthlessness and self-hate jumped way too high for comfort, as I watched the special. No correlation there at all, right, Sarandos?
Just a few days ago, Chappelle also responded to backlash concerning the film. He talked about how another of his projects, a documentary film called “Untitled,” which was originally scheduled for releases in various major film festivals, has since had its invitations revoked. He continues absolving his actions and sidesteps his role in the controversy, saying, “Everyone I know from [the trans] community has been loving and supportive, so I don’t know what this nonsense is about” and “to the transgender community, I am more than willing to give you an audience, but you will not summon me.”
Firstly, Chappelle knows exactly what this “nonsense” has been about, as he’s the one who caused it all. Secondly, it’s laughable that he thinks we, the trans community, even want him as an audience. His half-assed attempt to stay in control of the situation is pitiful at best. Instead of presenting as assertive and irreproachable, Chappelle just comes across as petty, desperate and unwilling to admit his faults.
Dwarman’s family has taken to social media to address the backlash against Dave Chappelle, saying that he had been an ally to her and them for a long time and that Dwarman would’ve appreciated his jokes; according to them, Chappelle’s jokes were not transphobic. What the Dwarman family doesn’t understand, though, is that having lived with and loved a trans person does not give them the right to speak on our behalf, especially not when on the other side is the trans community itself. Chappelle may have been an ally to Dwarman, but he is not and has never been, an ally of the trans community.
The definition of transphobia is “the dislike of or prejudice against transgender people.” Nowhere does it say “cis people” or “straight people” or “Twitter warriors” or even “trans allies.” Nobody has the right to declare anything transphobic or not except us, the trans community, because in the end, we’re the ones who suffer.
Dave Chappelle does not get an “f-word” pass here, not from Dwarman’s family nor anyone else, and that’s something he has to realize.
Section 2: The (Trans) Community, The Significance, and The Closer
The (Trans) Community
Alright, so Netflix put out a stand-up comedy special by some comedian and things happened because of it. What’s the big deal, why does it matter and why is the trans community (and the media) so up-in-arms over it?
Let’s start (I say, over a thousand words in) with this: I’m a trans woman, and I’m hella proud of it. Chappelle’s griped about dealing with annoying white trans people who use their color, race and wealth to get their way but, luckily for me, I’m an Asian immigrant from a third-world country.
Let me also say that I’m somebody who loves stand-up comedy and can very much appreciate satire and dark comedy. But watching through the special in its entirety, I found approximately none of it funny and approximately all of it offensive. I didn’t laugh, chuckle or smile even once.
Ironically, the first time Chappelle ridicules the trans community is when he pledges his opposition to a North Carolina law requiring people to use public restrooms that correspond to their assigned-at-birth sex, joking about finding himself standing beside a trans person in a restroom. It being a bathroom joke, it is also riddled with references to genitalia. Later, he makes a dig at Caitlyn Jenner’s 2015 Woman of the Year honor, dismissing her designation with “never even had a period, ain’t that something?” When I heard this, I winced.
To Dave Chappelle and anybody who even remotely chuckled at this joke, I say this: many of us in the community suffer every day from gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia. I don’t see myself when I look in the mirror. These hands, these arms, this body isn’t mine—a feeling that I and many people in my community have to contend with each time we get up in the morning. Chappelle probably patted himself on the back while he was typing up this joke for the film’s script; I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened to be the exact same time I sat against the door of my bathroom, tears dripping down my face, too numb, nauseated and dissociative to get up. It’s like laughing about suicide (which, disappointingly, Chappelle also does); playing it off for laughs just isn’t worth it when there’s somebody in the other end who not just gets “offended” but feels real, violent pain.
Clearly, Chappelle is no stranger to the suffering of communities, and his apathy does not paint a good picture of him at all.
Sometime later, he jokes that while the LGBTQ community may have been suffering for decades, the black community has been suffering for centuries—in a sad attempt to excuse his flagrant ridiculing. This comment itself is both untrue and incredibly toxic. We haven’t just been here for decades. We didn’t start at Stonewall. We’ve always been here, and we’ll always be here. More importantly, though, the suffering of one community doesn’t invalidate the suffering of another. That kind of statement, however much humor Chappelle attempts to project, is demeaning and inexcusable.
The part of the special I hate the most is the closing segment, where he introduces a story about Daphne Dwarman, a then-budding comedian and trans friend of Chappelle’s who killed herself two years ago. I don’t hate the story itself, but I hate the way Chappelle uses Dwarman and her image. Much of the closing segment consists of Chappelle talking about past transphobic jokes he’s made and how Daphne would cackle at them despite the rest of the audience gasping in horror.
This story, for me, was just a powdered-up mess of saviorism and whataboutery. Chappelle’s folly here is his adherence to the “I’m not racist; I have a Black friend” fallacy. To me, it just feels like a way of defending every other time he’s made a transphobic joke by claiming that “Daphne would’ve loved it.” But, it doesn’t matter what Daphne would’ve thought, and it’s important to realize that the trans community isn’t just one person.
The trans experience is not a laughing matter. It’s a struggle that too many people have to endure alone, privately and with shame. As someone from a marginalized community himself, Chappelle should know that better than anyone.
This issue goes beyond Dave Chappelle and gets into the heart of comedy itself—and what comedy means in our community.
An interesting conflict that comes into play is this: do we think of the comedian and the man as separate people? Do we believe that Dave Chappelle, the transphobic comedian, is separate from Dave Chappelle, the trans ally?
And the answer is: no, no we don’t.
Comedy is a form of observative media, calling out the issues present in everyday life and dissecting them with a hint of humor. But we’ve seen time and time again that one can’t just observe a system and not affect it.
When viewers leave that auditorium or turn off the TV, those jokes and comments aren’t automatically wiped from their minds. And when we expose impressionable young viewers to these types of media, they take that experience with them forever. The comedian and the man are one and the same because, however much we try to deny it, all media influences.
There’s a lot to unpack from this. Dave Chappelle’s special did not just give cis supremacists a hearty laugh at the expense of trans people—it raised a lot of important questions about the role of media in propagating transphobic (and, really, just generally -phobic) stereotypes and their effects on the community. It also brought up the significance of censorship and corporate centrism in these works.
I know that there are people who’ll complain about their “free speech” being taken away and how we have “fewer freedoms” today than we had ten, twenty years ago. And you know what? Fine. Say what you want, but don’t expect me to worship the ground you stand on after the fact. Just remember that the world we live in today is not the world we lived in ten, twenty years ago, and the reason why we can’t protect everyone’s free speech is because we have to protect everyone’s right to live—including the gay black man from the bank who got beat up at the bar the other night while he was with his boyfriend, the trans Asian waitress from your favorite restaurant who got fired for “offending customers,” and the non-binary white kid from the middle school you used to go to sobbing in their room right now because the world thinks it’s ok to pretend they don’t exist.
The takeaway here is this: it doesn’t matter whether someone claims to be transphobic or not. Saying “I’m not a transphobe” doesn’t mean anything—what does mean something is what they choose to do about those who struggle with gender dysphoria and those undergoing the transgender experience. Do they step up as an ally, or do they laugh in our faces as we beg for mercy? I believe Chappelle has just shown us whose team he’s really on.
And so I ask you this, Dave Chappelle: which one of us is punching down? Because it sure isn’t the 16-year-old trans kid from Bethesda.