Cancellations of public figures happen more frequently than that of bad TV series nowadays—making it hard to keep track of whose reputation is still intact. But unless you’ve had your phone on aeroplane mode for the past six months, Dave Chappelle’s latest transgressions against the LGBTQ+ community has probably been on your radar.
Following typically blue jokes from the famous stand-up comedian and actor in his 2021 Netflix special The Closer, many called out his material as transphobic—yet again—which in turn led to a concerted campaign to cancel him to emerge. ‘Cancelling’, in this instance, consisted of various LGBTQ+ people and allies demanding his specials be removed from the streaming giant’s platform and his opportunities to produce content for it be revoked.
Despite these efforts, Netflix announced on 18 February 2022 that Chappelle had just been signed on for four new comedy specials this year alone. In fact, his latest one, Chappelle’s Home Team, is premiering today, Monday 28 February. It’s safe to say that the conscientious effort to have trans voices heard fronted by those who disagree with Netflix’s platforming of Chappelle’s rhetoric were largely ignored.
Netflix’s co-CEO, Ted Sarandos, told staff back in October 2021 that the firm supports “creative freedom—even though this means there will always be content on Netflix some people believe is harmful.” One believer in such harmfulness is trans ex-Netflix employee and systems engineer Terra Field. In a Twitter thread that has gathered just under 20,000 likes so far, Field argued that “promoting TERF ideology […] directly harms trans people, it is not some neutral act.”
Field further implied that Chappelle’s jibes veer closer to hate speech than that of so-called “creative freedom.” Ironically, the latter is often cited alongside our democratic right to free speech and is employed defensively by those accused of unabashed comedy. One of the taglines of The Closer is literally, “comedians have a responsibility to speak recklessly.”
After having begrudgingly sat through Chappelle’s one hour and 12-minute long diatribe against trans women and queer people—among other topics, of course—it became crystal clear to me that the show’s punchline was to exercise the right to “speak recklessly,” meaning to spout transphobic rhetoric in the name of comedy.
Aside from joking about enjoying being molested as a child and claiming that “the feminist movement needs a male leader,” Chappelle made a point of misgendering queer people before mocking the “Adam’s apples” and appearances of trans women. It’s clear from his tone that he’s going for the ‘I’m just saying what you’re all thinking’ tactic to draw laughs from an audience that, let’s face it, is likely to host mostly cisgendered and straight people.
The trouble is, when comedians justify their comedy in this way, they’re not saying what we’re all thinking. Granted, they are saying what they, and, unfortunately, perhaps the majority of mainstream society is thinking—but not everyone.
This highlights a key issue: point of view. To him, cracking jokes about trans people is all well and good because he doesn’t feel the ramifications of such ‘comedy’ himself—as a cisgendered man, it won’t affect him. Chappelle is mocking various members of the LGBTQ+ community without having a clue what it’s like to live that life. His retelling of his brief working relationship with budding trans comedian Daphne Dorman before she tragically took her own life only exemplifies this. Chappelle claims to be allowed to make jokes about trans people yet felt it necessary to justify his cruel remarks by appropriating Dorman’s voice.
As Mean Girls’ Cady Heron aptly said once, “It’s only okay when they say it.” Joking in a self-deprecating way or making observations based on your own experience puts an audience at ease and can educate people. You can inspire compassion through humour in this sense—something that can justify “reckless” comedy.
Field encapsulated this same perspective perfectly in her Twitter thread:
Comedians that poke fun at minority groups of which they are not a part are ultimately validating their audience’s discriminatory views. And judging by the knee-slapping and guffawing of certain members in Chappelle’s live audience, many people do think that the existence of transgender people is a complete joke.
Just because it’s the opinion (private or vocal) of the majority does not make it any less vindictive and mean-spirited. It’s clear Chappelle wants to become a figurehead for being able to speak one’s mind, a thick-skinned hero immune to the duress of cancel culture. But in doing so, he’s undermining basic humane respect, acceptance and kindness.
Taking down The Closer would be argued by Chappelle defenders as unmitigated censorship that breaches the comedian’s right to free speech. But let’s not confuse censorship with basic manners.
After offering a recent joke apology, Chappelle claimed to “love” being cancelled. While he obviously feels no remorse for his mockery of the trans community, he also added at the end of the special that he “won’t make any more LGBTQ+ jokes until he’s sure we’re all laughing together.” Well, Dave, maybe if you let a trans person crack the jokes, we will.
Last week, the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) removed work from its shop by artist Jess de Wahls after receiving multiple complaints about transphobia. The arguments and debates around this single example are a microcosm of the ongoing culture war, not just tolerated but stoked by our government: trans rights, cancel culture, no-platforming. Acronyms abound: TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), GCs (gender critical people), TRAs (trans rights activists).
De Wahls wrote a blog post almost two years ago entitled, rather cynically, “Somewhere over the Rainbow, something went terribly wrong…” It’s not worth reading, filled with disinformation, misinformation, and transphobic dog whistles. It has all the buzzwords and stock phrases of such gender-critical writings: there is little to no original critical thought involved.
De Wahls—who isn’t an academician and, thus, has no permanent relationship with the RA—has received a lot of press in the past week from the usual sources such as citations in columns in The Sunday Times and The Telegraph. It’s the paradox of cancellation: having one’s work ‘cancelled’ elevates their status among certain right-leaning, ‘anti-woke’ commentators. The Daily Mail and, far too often, BBC Radio 4 will jump on board and uncritically give out a platform for sharing and elevating opinions.
The Royal Academy, in the minds of many, immediately became a traitor to women’s rights where previously it had been considered a bastion, when, in fact, the art world is notoriously conservative. It wasn’t until 1922 that the first woman was elected to the Royal Academy—although there were two women among the founding members, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser. And the current President, Rebecca Salter, became the first woman elected to the role in 250 years. It’s just that, now, they have been deemed the wrong kind of conservative—kowtowing to the ‘woke mob’ who are, more often than not, campaigning for progressive inclusion.
Many anonymous Twitter users have pointed out that the RA is happy to still sell work by Picasso, a notorious misogynist. That’s a difficult thread to pull at, though—especially when many at The Telegraph, for example, don’t want Western history and its statues to be threatened or interrogated. Accusing an institution of misogyny as part of this ongoing culture war, while scapegoating the trans community, is much easier than actually addressing the complex mechanisms and legacies of exclusion, racism, and misogyny that permeate so much of our society.
Free speech, and the free market—both core principles of liberalism—apparently have their limits; they apply differently to individuals and to institutions, or so it would seem. Artists should be allowed to say publicly whatever they like, without repercussions; yet if galleries want to distance themselves, they cannot be allowed to.
I found de Wahls on Instagram, where she had posted work by the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist collective that raises awareness about the lack of diversity and representation in the art world. After pointing out that the collective not only supports but includes trans women and non-binary people—“we’ve had transgender and gender-nonconforming members since the beginning”—she swiftly blocked me. It seems that there are limits to the discussion and debate that many people claim are being shut down.
There are occasions to debate with people who have different opinions—and there are times when this is, at best, uncomfortable and unproductive or, at worst, profoundly dehumanising. This was on the tip of many tongues this past week after writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published on her website an essay on cancel culture and trans rights. It was praised by many on the right, but I recommend reading, instead, Aja Romano’s astute and sensitive analysis of the piece.
Anyone who wants to hijack the extension of rights for trans people—for misogyny and violence—is an enemy to us all. There’s no secret organisation funding trans rights internationally, it’s strange how often this conspiracy theory pops up on Twitter.
Prominent gender-critical activists have recently been emboldened by a tribunal that declared their beliefs to be “protected” within English law—many anonymous accounts are now dedicating their lives and livelihoods to opposing trans rights under the guise of feminism. Recently, I attended a talk by a prominent lesbian feminist and activist who noted how in America, progressives and activists look at what’s happening in the UK, aghast. These supposedly liberal groups have the most in common with the furthest-right, Trump-supporting facets of the Republican Party.
Because there are some who ultimately want to use free speech and open debate to restrict the rights of trans people—and then all queer people, and then all women. Prominent gender-critical groups have aligned themselves with pro-life, pro-abortion groups in the US. Their common ground? Wanting to control the bodies of the marginalised.
De Wahls ends her rant by asking, “who really benefits from an imploding liberal and feminist movement?” Whenever people insist on debating the human rights of the most marginalised in society, there are no winners, just a perpetuation of our ongoing, unfair patriarchal hegemony.