May 24, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Netflix faces new controversy over Ricky Gervais' transphobic jokes

David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images
Photo: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

Netflix has found itself at the center of controversy again over transphobic jokes made during a recent comedy special from comedian Ricky Gervais.

Why it matters: This is the second time Netflix faces backlash over comedians including transphobic jokes in their specials and comes as a wave of anti-trans legislation is hitting states across the country.

  • Comedian Dave Chapelle drew controversy for jokes against the transgender community in his Netflix specials “Sticks and Stones” (2019) and “The Closer" (2021).
  • Workers at Netflix in Los Angeles walked out in protest of how Netflix defended the Chappelle special, Axios' Ina Fried reports.

Driving the news: Gervais’ new Netflix comedy special “SuperNature” faced immediate criticism for his transphobic jokes that were packed with expletives and graphic descriptions of genitals.

  • Gervais said at the end of the special that he supports trans rights but added another transphobic joke in the same statement.
  • Netflix has not replied to Axios' request for comment but said at the time of the Chapelle backlash, "We value our trans colleagues and allies, and understand the deep hurt that’s been caused. We respect the decision of any employee who chooses to walk out and recognize we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content."
  • More recently, Netflix said in a memo that employees may have to work on content they disagree with or "perceive to be harmful."
  • "If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you," the memo said.

What they're saying: A number of prominent critics and transgender activists have shared thoughts on the Gervais special.

GLAAD said in a statement that the special is "full of graphic, dangerous, anti-trans rants masquerading as jokes. He also spouts anti-gay rhetoric & spreads inaccurate information about HIV."

"Attention Ricky and Netflix: people living with HIV today, when on effective treatment, lead long and healthy lives and cannot transmit HIV to others.
"Netflix has a policy that content 'designed to incite hate or violence' is not allowed on their platform, but we all know that anti-LGBTQ content does exactly that. While Netflix is home to some groundbreaking LGBTQ shows, it refuses to enforce its own policy in comedy. 
"The LGBTQ community and our allies have made it very clear that so-called comedians who spew hate in place of humor, and the media companies who give them a platform, will be held accountable. Meanwhile, there are PLENTY of funny LGBTQ comedians to support."
  • Terra Field, a former Netflix employee and organizer of the protest over Chapelle's comedy special, called on followers to cancel Netflix. Field called co-CEO Ted Sarandos "a man who cares less about our humanity than he does who will give him a photo op."
  • Charlotte Clymer, former press secretary for rapid response at the Human Rights Campaign, said she was canceling her Netflix subscription.
  • Activist Erin Reed said Netflix released "its most transphobic show yet" in the same month as anti-transgender legislation has become more prominent.
  • Daniel D'Addario, a critic for Variety, wrote that the comedy special "serves as further proof to an audience that Netflix has approached with simpering, condescending appeals that the streamer is not on anyone’s side but its own."
  • Axios has reached out to GLAAD and Global Action for Trans Equality for comment.

More recently, Chapelle — who opened comedian John Mulaney's "From Scratch" tour — told jokes targeting trans people during his routine, per USA Today.

  • He also recently joked that his recent on-stage assailant was a trans man, too Variety reports.
  • The attacker, Isaiah Lee, said Chapelle's jokes about the transgender and homeless community inspired him to rush the stage at Chapelle's Hollywood bowl performance, CBS News reports.
  • Lee, who was charged with misdemeanors for his attack on Chapelle, was previously charged with attempted murder after he allegedly stabbed a former roommate at a transitional housing facility, KXAN reports.

The big picture: Anti-transgender legislation has been hitting states across the country, including blocking access to gender-affirming care to banning transgender high school athletes.

  • Critics point specifically to a joke Gervais makes about a trans woman raping other women in a women’s restroom, which flicks to a false narrative that has nonetheless led to attempts to legally bar trans people from restrooms, as North Carolina passed the country’s first bathroom ban in 2016, per The Washington Post.

Go deeper ... Netflix under fire for handling of Dave Chappelle's anti-trans comments

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