In an email obtained by Variety, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos offered an unexpected justification for his continued support of Dave Chappelle's controversial comedy special The Closer. The fact that violent videogames over the last several decades have coexisted with decreasing crime rates, the executive told employees, proves no real harm will come from Netflix's show.
"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.)," Sarandos wrote about Netflix's standup special. "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 [sic] 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 and The Closer have been criticized for transphobic jokes, particularly Chappelle's declaration that he is on "Team TERF"—trans-exclusionary radical feminists, essentially feminists who reject the scientific position that trans women are women. Sarandos made his first defense of the show on October 8, telling employees that "creative freedom ... means there will always be content on Netflix some people believe is harmful." That prompted Netflix's trans employee resource group to plan a company-wide walkout for October 20.
In a followup email sent on Monday, Sarandos acknowledged that some employees are "angry, disappointed, and hurt" by the decision to continue carrying The Closer, but then doubled down on his defense with his comparison to violent videogames.
There's no question that videogame makers and players have gone to great efforts over the years to demonstrate that in-game violence does not turn kids into killers—the question went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that games, like books and movies, are in fact protected speech. That issue is already settled for stand-up comedy specials, so the question here is entirely about the values of Netflix's leadership.
Netflix's position on these issues is increasingly a meaningful one, as the company has further indicated its intent to create games: The Netflix Original film Kate, about an assassin with 24 hours to live, is being made into a game that will be out later this month, and Netflix is also reportedly looking into developing one based on hit series Squid Game.
But as we said in our report on that Supreme Court decision, you still shouldn't let your kids play Bulletstorm. "Harm" doesn't have to mean that there's a direct correlation between games about shooting guns and actual shootings.
GLAAD, an organization founded in 1985 with a goal of "accelerating acceptance for the LGBTQ community," expressed similar sentiments on Twitter: "Netflix has a policy that content 'designed to incite hate or violence' is not allowed on the platform, but we all know that anti-LGBTQ content does exactly that."
While @Netflix is home to groundbreaking LGBTQ stories, now is the time for Netflix execs to listen to LGBTQ employees, industry leaders, and audiences and commit to living up to their own standards. 2/2October 11, 2021
"People who don’t know LGBTQ people, especially trans people, base their perceptions of our community on what they see in the media," a GLAAD rep told Axios. "When those media images are dehumanizing stereotypes and rooted in ridicule, they can and do lead to real world harm and harassment."
Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, whose Douglas comedy special was released on Netflix in May 2020, expressed a somewhat more pointed opinion on Sarandos' position.
Despite the backlash, it seems unlikely that The Closer will be removed from Netflix anytime soon: Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings said on an internal forum (via the New York Times) that Chappelle and The Closer are very popular with viewers, and that Netflix will "continue to work with Dave Chappelle in the future."