A lot has been written in the past couple weeks about the transphobic, homophobic, misogynistic, and even anti-Asian content in Chapelle’s latest installment for Netflix. I won’t bore you with rehashing why it’s definitely all these things or why the comedy itself is lazy and dated. Plenty of people have already done that better than I can.
I’d like to talk about something Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos’s has stated during the controversy. Specifically he writes, “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.),” in a leaked company memo. He goes on, “We have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.”
I came out (very quietly and gently and spontaneously) to my mother and aunt about being a trans non-binary person a few years ago. Apparently this was a big shocker to them both, despite over 40 years of signs. My aunt decided to tell her part of the family my news. Unfortunately, my cousin married a toxic hyper masculine Crossfit paleo dude who likes border patrol work. He wears sunglasses and khakis a lot if you know what I mean.
I found out that my aunt blabbed because he started to bully me when no one was looking by muttering enbyphobic things under his breath at family gatherings.
One incident really sticks out: He very loudly announced to the rest of my family at a recent Thanksgiving that he was excited about seeing Chapelle when he was coming to town. He glared menacingly at me the entire time he was speaking exactly as if he were saying something hateful or challenging me to object. (I really didn’t have anything to say on the matter) It was the most aggressive, furious-sounding announcement for seeing a comedian I’ve ever heard. I may be autistic but the subtext was crystal clear in this case. He continued to sulk on the couch and shoot scary looks at me until I left the room.
I got a reprieve due to COVID last year, but now I am sick with dread about how I am going to tell my family, whom I depend on because I am multiply disabled, that I can’t attend any family gatherings that he will also be attending without mentioning this, because they will not side with me. They are not accepting of the changes they see in me, but that is another depressingly common tale.
In another part of my life, I have a friend who is the best friend of one of my best friends. I think that’s the state of things? This person is a stand-up super-fan like myself and at some point it became obvious she thought my stance on criticizing comics was too harsh. Within that strife, she has repeatedly tried to argue with me about the merits of Dave Chapelle’s talent. Although I am invited to gatherings at her place, I am always on eggshells and constantly question whether she is just pretending to welcome me.
Her arguments are standard. He’s just pushing the envelope, and comics have the right to push boundaries, free speech/censorship, cancel culture has gone too far, and (amazingly) he can say what he likes because he’s so talented and “a Black man in America.” I’ve praised his general talent and the brilliance of his earlier work about racism and how he walked away from a big cable deal as has literally every single one of his current detractors. I’ve pointed out that even Louis CK didn’t really get canceled despite sex crimes, because he will always have a following, albeit one consisting of shittier people. I’ve never disputed his ability at comedy or his bravery or insight as a Black man in America. I used to be a huge fan myself.
Chapelle himself seems to be doing better than ever, but by refusing to comment on the fact that Black queer and trans people exist and face the highest degree of danger seems like a willful omission from such a smart guy. The nuance of intersectionality shouldn’t be beyond his demonstrated intelligence. It seems like he’s putting multiply marginalized Black people, especially Black trans women, in greater danger on purpose because to him their transness deletes not just their womanhood, but their Blackness.
But my fellow comedy fan has implied that I should be chill about it because to be upset about what he is now saying is somehow a reflection of racist tendencies on my part. She is choosing to pit my transness (and perhaps my whiteness) against his Blackness and that’s not at all what is happening in my head and heart. Chapelle has a lot of shit wrong with him, but being Black isn’t one of those things. I don’t have a secret racist agenda for not liking the guy anymore. That he proliferates at least three other kinds of bigotry when he himself is an oppressed, brilliant human who claims to be compassionate is an adequate explanation.
How does comedy on a screen put trans people in greater danger? “Harm” can be indirect and while trans people certainly face a lot of direct harm in the form of physical and sexual violence, most of it is social and psychological leading to less obviously direct, but serious and avoidable consequences. For instance, we have enormously high suicide rates and the fear of being safe to leave the house or work with the public is a big reason we live in poverty. Poverty is dangerous.
A lot of the harm we face is systemic – through administrative violence, medical neglect, housing and employment discrimination, the criminal justice system, religious abuse, and family estrangement. Chapelle has created a cute, cool, faux-reasonable yet fact-free framework for discriminating against all types of trans people. For instance, if a doctor who feels icky about trans people can justify not believing a trans person about an ailment because Dave made it seem well-reasoned that trans people are too sensitive and being dramatic, it translates into deadly medical neglect. I hear stories about it every day and that certainly seems direct enough.
Popular, charming bigots make it easier for other bigots with power to enact their bigotry and get away with it.
One of the saddest ironies about the whole mess is that it’s clear to trans people that someone bringing up Chapelle in a challenging manner is a transphobic dog-whistle that sends the message we need to be afraid and hyper vigilant. Chapelle, a Black man in America, has turned his very name into a tool of bigotry. That’s why there are garbage humans who are latching onto him now that he is making them feel smooth about their transphobia. Many are racist shits who are making an exception for him and using their enjoyment of his latest “art” to excuse their own racism.
So that means white people are still using Dave and this time he is allowing it instead of walking away from his recent material. Gross.
As a stand-up super-fan, I am devastated about all this. I dearly want to laugh and not get into pointless fights with friends and family. I didn’t want something I love, that saved my life, to result in so much conflict and the need to write long personal essays that make me sad. Every time a comic I admire shows who they really are, I go through a process of grief. I get no enjoyment from feeling “too sensitive” or having people in my personal life turn it against me. It makes me feel like I am worthless as a friend and loved one and gaslights me about the pain I feel at being demeaned, whether that’s as a sexual assault survivor or a trans person or an autistic person.
I hope Dave understands that his new fan-base is a direct reflection on his soul rather than his talent. I hope his currently devoted fans in my personal life understand that I, and my comfort in their presence, should be more important than jokes to them. I see you.
Comedy doesn’t supersede compassion. Laughs are never as important as lives.