LOS ANGELES — After getting blowback on Twitter, the social media team behind Netflix’s Twitter handle for LGBTQ+ storytelling unleashed their frustration, saying “this week f—ing sucks.”
“To be clear: As the queer and trans people who run this account, you can imagine that the last couple of weeks have been hard,” Netflix’s “Most” Twitter handle wrote Wednesday. “We can’t always control what goes on screen. What we can control is what we create here, and the POV [Point of View] we bring to internal conversations.”
The candid remarks were unusual for a Netflix handle that usually promotes LGBTQ+ shows and films on the streaming service. But this week, Netflix has weathered a major public relations crisis as trans employees publicly voiced their concerns about comedian Dave Chappelle’s special, “The Closer,” for its disparaging remarks about trans people that they believe could fuel future violence.
Netflix has refused to pull the special, arguing that it supports the creative freedom of its artists even when their material is controversial.
Analysts offered conflicting assessments of how damaging the open disagreement could be to Netflix’s brand, as the company aims to recruit Hollywood talent and employees in a fiercely competitive streaming market.
“It could make Netflix appear to be tone deaf towards concerns that are widely held because they’re allowing this content going forward,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with advisory services firm Enderle Group. “But since the nature of this content is comedy, the upside to them allowing it showcases that they’re willing to continue to support content that is controversial.”
Andrew Rohm, a marketing professor at Loyola Marymount University, speculated that some industry creatives might think twice about collaborating with Netflix as a result of the Chappelle fallout.
“One indirect or longer term effect may be that some producers just may feel differently about working with Netflix in the future,” Rohm said. “People that provide content to Netflix may take offense with this.”
Netflix declined to comment.
The backlash comes as the Los Gatos company has been riding high on strong demand for its foreign language series such as “Lupin” and most recently the Korean drama “Squid Game.” Netflix has also won critical acclaim for series like “The Crown,” racking up 44 Emmys last month. The streamer has been known to be friendly to talent and supportive of inclusive storytelling that highlights LGBTQ+ talent in shows like “Orange Is the New Black.”
Netflix has overcome controversy in the past about the content it serves to its more than 209 million global subscribers. The company was accused of sexualizing young girls in a French coming of age movie, “Cuties.” Netflix later apologized for its promotional artwork because it was not representative of the film and still streamed the movie last year. Criticism was also lobbed against the drama “13 Reasons Why” and whether there was a connection to teenage suicide rates, causing Netflix to remove a suicide scene in 2019.
Chappelle’s “The Closer” premiered on Oct. 5. The company paid $24.1 million for the special, with at least 10 million people tuning in to the special since it launched, according to Bloomberg. The special on Wednesday was third in the U.S. top ten programs on Netflix.
But many trans people and their allies are concerned about language that Chappelle uses in “The Closer.”For example, Chappelle declared himself “team TERF” in support of “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling — who has been labeled a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) for repeatedly expressing anti-trans sentiments.
On Monday, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos reiterated his defense of “The Closer” and argued that “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” according to a staff email obtained by trade publication Variety.
“In his special, Chappelle makes harsh jokes about many different groups, which is his style and a reason his fans love his comedy and commentary,” Sarandos wrote in the memo.
Former studio executive Tom Nunan said Netflix made a brave choice by standing by Chappelle.
“It shows that it’s a place where they want to defend the rights of their artists, even if they don’t always agree with the point of view of their artists,” Nunan said.
While Netflix stood by Chappelle, some employees who disagreed with Sarandos’ decision felt marginalized.
Earlier this week, the company suspended three employees for allegedly attending a quarterly business review meeting where executives would discuss the Chappelle special. The employees have since been reinstated.
Among them is senior software engineer Terra Field, who has been an outspoken critic.
“You cannot trash our community one moment and then complain when we don’t thank you for the scraps you give us,” Field said on Twitter this week.
Next week, members of the Netflix employee resource group Trans* and co-workers are staging a walkout protesting the company’s decision to release “The Closer.” Organizers want Netflix to attach a disclaimer to the special, saying it “contains transphobic language, misogyny, homophobia, and hate speech.”
They also want Netflix to invest more in content created by trans and nonbinary talent and hire more trans people for leadership roles, according to a list of demands reviewed by the Los Angeles Times.
Ann Thomas, founder and CEO of management firm Transgender Talent, believes that Netflix should add a disclaimer during the portion of the episode where Chappelle discusses Rowling’s belief that gender is a fact. The disclaimer could point out that there are medical studies that show being transgender is biological, she said.
“This does affect the audience — what you say — in a huge, huge way,” Thomas said. “That in turn affects the lives of the people that they choose to pick on.”
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