Whether they like it or not, media has always been influential
In 2021, it feels strange to still see debate around the influence the media has on real world events. I think of the 1994 movie Natural Born Killers, which was suspected to have inspired a slew of copycat crimes. I think of Stephen King’s 1977 novel Rage, which he allowed to fall out of print after incidents resembling those in the plot occurred after publication. And as a journalism student, of course I think of the industry’s mistakes. How perpetrators of mass violence have been sensationalized, then idolized and imitated. Or what about all the harm the media has caused Indigenous peoples, while ignoring the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirits, Even if a case is covered, the media usually perpetuates racist stereotypes through their coverage.
If you have any doubts about how powerful media can be, might I remind you about how misinformation helped elect Donald Trump in 2016, then caused a domestic terrorist attack at the U.S. Capitol? Or how about how misinformation about COVID-19 has led to confusion and resistance to public health measures? And, combined with centuries-long racist media, led to a spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
That’s why Netflix Co-CEO and Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos’s recent comments about veteran comedian Dave Chappelle’s controversial new Netflix special The Closer are so ridiculous.
Saraondo said, “With The Closer, we understand that the concern is not about offensive-to-some content but titles which could increase real world harm (such as further marginalizing already marginalized groups, hate, violence etc.) Last year, we heard similar concerns about 365 Days and violence against women. While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm. The strongest evidence to support this is that violence on screens has grown hugely over the last thirty years, especially with first party shooter games, and yet violent crime has fallen significantly in many countries. Adults can watch violence, assault and abuse — or enjoy shocking stand-up comedy — without it causing them to harm others.”
Chappelle’s The Closer spends a lot of time (more than you’d think for a 48-year-old straight man) talking about the LGBTQ+ community. Chapelle’s last special Sticks & Stones was similarly controversial, with jokes (or “jokes,” depending on your perspective) about the LGBTQ+ community, abuse allegations against certain celebrities, and his defence of admitted (but unprosecuted) sex offender and comedian Louis C.K.
Chappelle is undoubtedly influential. He’s an Emmy, Grammy, and Mark Twain prize winner, and arguably one of the most influential comedians of the 21st century. While The Closer does not encourage violence against the trans community, it is harmful.
He fixates on the private parts of trans people, mocks the appearance of queer people, uses slurs, and compares trans women to white people wearing blackface.
Chappelle jokes about rapper DaBaby, who recently made homophobic remarks about HIV/AIDS. Chappelle says DaBaby, “Punched the LBGTQ community right in the AIDS.” He goes on to reference an incident where the rapper shot and killed another Black man in self-defense, which did not negatively affect his career. Chappelle says, “In our country you can shoot and kill a n***** but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.” This is the self-proclaimed central idea of The Closer.
“I have never had a problem with transgender people… my problem has always been with white people,” he says. But as Black gay activist and writer Kenyon Farrow points out, Chappelle is playing into, “a 30 year-old campaign carried out by Christian Right groups to use LGBT rights as a cultural wedge issue with African-Americans,” and forgetting how many people belong to both groups. Chappelle posits these communities against each other with stories about encounters he’s had with white LGBTQ+ people. He says he is jealous of the progress the LGBTQ+ community has made over a hundred years, and jokes that “If slaves had oil and booty shorts on, we might have been free 100 years sooner.” It’s clear to me that Chappelle is frustrated. I get the impression through his stories that he thinks the LGBTQ+ community is a way for white people to victimize themselves, get away with racism, and distract from the ongoing struggles of the Black community. I understand why Chappelle thinks this way given his age and the life he has led but it’s still unfortunate to see minority groups still be pitted against each other by white supremacist, Christian, and right-wing structures.
As the National Black Justice Coalition points out in their criticism of the special: “With 2021 on track to be the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the United States — the majority of whom are Black transgender people — Netflix should know better. Perpetuating transphobia perpetuates violence.”
It’s such a shame that Chappelle’s standup in the last few years has come to this. In his early career, Danielle Fuentes Morgan, who teaches a course on African American comedy at Santa Clara University, says that he “punch[ed] up, to speak truth to power, to focus his ‘attacks’ on injustices and institutions with discernibly more power than he had.” Punching up or down is a concept usually discussed in the context of comedy. Punching up means criticizing and mocking a person, group of people, or institution with more power than you. Punching down is the reverse. In Chapelle’s case punching up would be white people, the police, the government for example, trans people decidedly belong to a group with less power than the cis-het millionaire. In The Closer, Chapelle acknowledges that he’s been accused of punching down, and wonders what the phrase means. As Morgan writes, “In teaching Chappelle, it’s become increasingly important to address how a person can be marginalized while also marginalizing others.”
I’ve written about the real world impact media has on minorities before, but comedians are a special case. Culturally, comedians have a bit of an outsider/underdog complex that many can’t shake, even when they become famous millionaires. There’s even a common joke that comedians are themselves a minority group. And so they think they can joke about anything, forgetting they have influence, especially in the era of mass-produced, mass-streamed Netflix stand-up comedy.
Many have pointed out the irony and hypocrisy of Sarandos’ recent claims “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm” even after the platform released Disclosure in 2020, a documentary about the impact of ignorant and inaccurate portrayals of trans people in American cinema. This is the same documentary Sarandos cites in statements following the Chappelle controversy about Netflix’s commitment to inclusion.
No matter what Chapelle, Sarandos, or anyone who whines about cancel culture says, art has impact. Jokes cannot just be jokes, especially not ones aimed at minorities. No, The Closer is probably not going to directly cause someone to go out and commit a hate crime, just like author J.K. Rowling’s trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) essay didn’t. But when hate and ignorance is given a platform, it is normalized and perpetuated and that is what leads to violence and discriminatory legislation.
Photo collage by Catherine Reynolds