Amid trans employee walkout, how is Netflix dealing with communication problems and creative freedom?

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

People attend a rally in support of the Netflix transgender employee walkout to protest Dave Chappelle’s new comedy special, in Los Angeles, California, October 20, 2021. Photo by REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni.

Netflix employees walked off the job today at the company’s Hollywood offices. It was led by trans employees and allies who were upset about the organization’s defense of Dave Chappelle’s comedy special, “The Closer,” which included jokes described as hateful towards LGBTQ people. Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos is in full damage control mode today, saying in multiple interviews that he “screwed up” in his response to employees’ concerns. 

Prior to the walkout, the company’s trans employee resource group demanded more representation, plus more films and shows featuring trans actors and creators. They also asked for Chapelle-related imagery to be removed from marketing materials, and a disclaimer added to the beginning of the special that says it includes hate speech, which Sarandos said he would not agree to. That’s all according to Matt Belloni, founding partner of Puck News. 

“[Sarandos] said in the interviews that he believes that Dave Chappelle himself addresses that at the beginning of the special and says, ‘This is going to get a bit rough here.’ And I think he's probably worried about the precedent here,” Belloni tells KCRW. “He doesn't want to … start labeling everything and to be the subjective arbiter of what is over the line that it requires a disclaimer.”

Belloni says Sarandos has made the point that he doesn’t believe Netflix programming would impact people in the real world. 

“But if you take that to its logical conclusion, then what is anybody at Netflix even doing if content doesn't matter at all? I mean, they obviously believe that it does, because they are in the business of trying to move people around the world via storytelling. And he clarified that in these interviews and says, ‘Obviously, I believe that there is great impact in our content around the world.’ He just specifically was talking about incitement in this case, but that's a communications problem. They really screwed that up.” 

Belloni points out that Chappelle’s brand of comedy is about seeing how far he can push issues, but the jokes in the special take it to the next level. 

“There are defenders who say, ‘You guys are all missing the point. This is designed to see how far he can go on these issues, to prove the point that nobody is off limits, everybody needs to be made fun of. And if it's the trans community for … a hour-long special, then so be it.’ But it is bizarre. This is not the first time he's done this. It's been in previous specials. It is way worse this time. And it is pervasive throughout the special.”

He adds that much of Netflix talent, such as Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes, have been silent about the special. Belloni says that might be because there is concern over creative freedom.

“They may not love this special, but they want to stand up for the principle of creative freedom. And ultimately, that is what Netflix is doing here because they are in the business of creative people.”

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