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Netflix CEO admits he ‘screwed up’ response to Chappelle backlash, but stands by comedy special

Ted Sarandos noted that Dave Chappelle follows in the tradition of comedians who push boundaries.

The Netflix logo is seen on the Netflix, Inc. building on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California
The Netflix logo is seen on the Netflix, Inc. building on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California.
ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

The controversy surrounding Dave Chappelle’s transphobic remarks in his latest stand-up special intensified late Tuesday, as Netflix’s 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 show.

While the embattled co-CEO allowed that storytelling can sometimes negatively impact society, he said he did not feel Chappelle’s ”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.”

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

The executive’s comments arrived just hours before Wednesday’s planned virtual walkout by Netflix’s trans employees. The protest stems from complaints about Chappelle’s ”Closer” jokes about trans people and his re-alignment with those who believe a human’s sex at birth is immutable. Employees have expressed concern that such rhetoric can lead to violence against marginalized communities.

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.

Here’s what’s at issue and how we got here:

Dave Chappelle describes gender as ‘a fact’ in his new Netflix comedy special, ‘The Closer’

On Oct. 5, Netflix started streaming “The Closer,” a highly anticipated new special from Chappelle that quickly became one of the service’s most-watched shows. In it, the Emmy winner reacted to complaints that his 2019 stand-up special “Sticks & Stones” was “punching down” on the trans community.

Here’s what’s at issue and how we got here:

Dave Chappelle describes gender as ‘a fact’ in his new Netflix comedy special, ‘The Closer’

On Oct. 5, Netflix started streaming “The Closer,” a highly anticipated new special from Chappelle that quickly became one of the service’s most-watched shows. In it, the Emmy winner reacted to complaints that his 2019 stand-up special “Sticks & Stones” was “punching down” on the trans community.

The LGBTQ+ community calls Dave Chappelle’s remarks transphobic, Netflix suspends 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 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 unnamed employee who leaked how much Netflix had paid for “The Closer” (a reported $24.1 million), along with the special’s viewership (10 million).

In a series of tweets, Field said the special “attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness.” 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.

Trans employees plan virtual walkout to protest Netflix’s support for the special

Not much is known about how extensive the walkout will be. According to The Verge and The Hollywood Reporter, a virtual walkout is being organized by Netflix’s trans employee resources group and is focused on Netflix’s Los Angeles offices. In an Instagram post, organizer Ashlee Marie Preston encouraged others to join an in-person rally outside Netflix’s building on Sunset Boulevard.

The goal of the walkout is to “use this moment to shift the social ecology around what Netflix leadership deems ethical entertainment, while establishing policies and guidelines that protect employees and consumers alike,” Preston wrote.

A list of demands the group plans to submit to Netflix will be made public during the walkout, the post says. But Field wrote in an essay Monday on her Medium blog that pulling the special isn’t at issue. Instead, Field wants media companies to “stop pretending” transphobia in media has no impact and “put a content warning in front of existing content that contains transphobia.”

Celebrities assemble 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 Wednesday, organizers also plan to present Sarandos with a public service announcement that will include stars such as Angelica Ross, Jonathan Van Ness, Jameela Jamil and Colton Haynes.

Read more at usatoday.com