Happy corporate Pride season from Netflix’s transphobic Ricky Gervais special

OPINION: Dave Chappelle’s “The Closer” prompted a backlash in 2021.The company just decided to double down on the hate

It certainly has been a long time since Orange Is the New Black.

I was closeted and had just graduated high school when the groundbreaking series set in a women’s prison debuted, and, like many queers of a certain age, I can honestly say it changed my life. Netflix was rightfully heralded for shepherding nuanced and complex depictions of queer and trans women over the course of the show, and platformed the rise of stars like Laverne Cox, Ruby Rose, Lea DeLaria and Samira Wiley. The show rocketed Cox in particular into a new stratosphere of fame, winning her (and Netflix) multiple Emmy Awards and prompting her cover-model turn for Time’s infamous “transgender tipping point” edition in 2014.

At the time, Netflix was an edgy new kid on the block, willing to take a shot on shows like Orange where traditional networks may have not. Now, eight years since Cox’s Time cover, the streamer is embracing the “edgy” brand for all the wrong reasons. 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: it’s a comedy special from a cisgender male comedian obsessed with trans peoples’ bodies—and particularly trans women’s bodies. An incredibly rich, powerful person got a huge platform to spew violent rhetoric and hate at a marginalized group. The high-profile bigot spent a good chunk of his supposed “comedy” not doing jokes, but instead lamenting political correctness, pronouns and trans people in bathrooms. Oh, and he also got paid a butt-ton of money to do it.

And no, I’m not talking about Dave Chappelle: this time it’s well-documented transphobe Ricky Gervais in his new special, SuperNature. Because, yeah, Netflix is back at it again with platforming transphobic comedians. 

Of course, all of those things could be said about Chappelle. When Chappelle’s special The Closer debuted on Netflix last fall, it was rightfully hit with a wave of criticism for its dangerous anti-trans messaging. Netflix workers walked out, several were fired and a wave of protests kicked off in subsequent months.

At the time, Netflix boss Ted Sarandos defended the special, claiming it didn’t incite violence. “We don’t allow titles [on] Netflix that are designed to incite hate or violence, and we don’t believe The Closer crosses that line,” Sarandos said. 

And yet here we are doing it all over again. Evidently, the streamer decided the Gervais special which I cannot stress enough, literally suggests that trans women are rapists—also didn’t cross the line. Internal decision-making around this must have been under intense scrutiny since the Chappelle blow-up. The Netflix higher-ups had to know that the Gervais special would prompt blowback similar to what the Chappelle special received. And still the decision was made to release and promote a special where Gervais literally advises trans women to “lose the cock.” 

 

That’s a conscious choice, and a clear signal that despite their Pride programming promotions and queer comedy shows and everything, Netflix doesn’t actually care about us. On the cusp of Pride season, it’s another example of corporate Pride in action. 

What does Netflix owe us?

I don’t expect Netflix, or any company, for that matter, to be my pal. It’s a billion-dollar entity designed to make money, not queer and trans progress. Just like any corporate entity, Netflix is not our friend, nor does it or its decision-makers owe us anything. 

Sure, its offerings catering to me and other queer and trans folks are a lot sexier and more exciting than, say, a bank’s. A show about gay vampires who kiss is a lot more fun than a rainbow bank logo. But at the end of the day, the same critiques of rainbow capitalism we apply to Target or banks apply to Netflix, too. It’s a company out to make money, and it’ll make that money off of transphobes and LGBTQ2S+ folks if it can get that money from both.

Then again, Netflix isn’t necessarily making money like it used to. Shares in the company are down 63 percent from this time last year, as Netflix lost 200,000 subscribers in the most recent quarter. The OG streaming giant is scrambling to bring back eyeballs as the industry consolidates. 

This has prompted changes at the streamer. One of the cruelest parts of all of this bad-press death spiral Netflix finds itself in, is the queer and trans people getting sucked into it. Earlier this month, the company laid off a wave of workers, largely queer people and people of colour working in writing, social media and marketing. The chopping block included queer people behind its popular LGBTQ2S+-oriented “Most” Twitter account, and writers for its promotional site Tudum. 

“These changes are primarily driven by business needs rather than individual performance, which makes them especially tough, as none of us want to say goodbye to such great colleagues,” a Netflix spokesperson said at the time. “We’re working hard to support them through this very difficult transition.”

Industry experts have pointed to the streamer’s huge investment in programming directed at supposedly the widest possible audience, like Stranger Things ($30 million per episode) and Chappelle (whose deal with the streamer is estimated to be $60 million) as signals of its new direction. And that directly comes at the expense of more creator-driven and so-called “niche” content, as well as the actual people who work there.

With all of that going on, the streamer is still pumping out bits and pieces of content for the LGBTQ2S+ community in an attempt to catch our eyes. There are many queer and trans creators with current and upcoming projects on the streamer caught in this PR mess. Queer comics artist Hamish Steele’s delightful graphic novel series is being adapted in an animated series called Dead End: Paranormal Park, set to debut on Netflix in June with a trans lead played by trans actor Zach Barack. First Kill looks like the sort of pulpy lesbian vampire drama we all need. Fire Island’s Joel Kim Booster has an hour-long comedy special set to premiere in late June. The delightfully wholesome gay love story, Heartstopper, just got two more seasons. 

These are all creators whose work is put forward as proof that Netflix does care about the LGBTQ2S+ community, whether in an explicit way or not. It will be boosted during Pride month as part of curated programming on your Netflix homepage. The media that catches fire with the mainstream, like Heartstopper, will get more time and money and investment, while other shows will fall by the wayside and Netflix figures out the most efficient way to make the most money. 

The streamer wants to pump out content with mass appeal, while still giving the image that it supports marginalized folks like queer and trans people. That sort of optics-driven approach was also seen in the wave of queer and trans comedians who just performed at the Netflix Is A Joke festival last month in what openly felt like a face-saving move for the streamer in the wake of the Chappelle blowback, and now feels like tokenism at best. 

Comedian Jes Tom (who, for the record, actually has some fantastic jokes about trans people) has recorded a special with Netflix and previously hosted the “Dear Jes” advice show on the streamer’s social media platform. They captured the conflicted feelings of the folks still at Netflix in a Twitter thread this week.

https://twitter.com/jestom/status/1529136220491730945?s=20&t=VNazKWFAYYB-8SLcqsUxmw
https://twitter.com/jestom/status/1529136912082034688?s=20&t=VNazKWFAYYB-8SLcqsUxmw
https://twitter.com/jestom/status/1529154262458040321?s=20&t=VNazKWFAYYB-8SLcqsUxmw

The accomplishments and milestones of queer and trans creators are lost in the wave of well-earned bad press around the Gervais and Chappelle shit show, plus the layoffs. Instead of apologizing after the Chappelle affair, the release of the Gervais special shows that Netflix is simply going to dig its heels in deeper in its quest to make a buck and find its footing. As The A.V. Club put it, the streamer “is carving out a little niche for itself as the home of transphobic comedy.” But it’s also trying to be the home of LGBTQ2S+ programming, as evidenced by initiatives like its Most Twitter account (which is still actively pumping out gay memes despite the layoffs).

https://twitter.com/Most/status/1528058037327495169?s=20&t=VNazKWFAYYB-8SLcqsUxmw

Because you know what? It sells. The platform is trying to sell to marginalized communities even as it lays off swaths of people from those communities, and puts out content encouraging violence against us. That approach was clear in a company culture memo leaked and published by Variety earlier this month.

“As employees, we support the principle that Netflix offers a diversity of stories, even if we find some titles counter to our own personal values,” the memo read. “Depending on your role, you may need to work on titles you perceive to be harmful. If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you.”

Whether it’s a bisexual couch or rainbow dog poop bags, corporate Pride nonsense always rings hollow. But this year more than ever, any Pride messaging out of Netflix (and there will be loads) is going to feel particularly hypocritical as the company has shown a keen willingness to continue to fund and platform anti-trans hate. 

I guess the message is clear: if queer and trans viewers have a problem with transphobia, maybe Netflix isn’t the best place for us after all.

Senior editor Mel Woods is an English-speaking Vancouver-based writer and audio producer and a former associate editor with HuffPost Canada. A proud prairie queer and ranch dressing expert, their work has also appeared in Vice, Slate, the Tyee, the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Walrus.

Read More About:
TV & Film, Culture, Opinion, Transphobia

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