This week, British comedian Ricky Gervais released a new Netflix standup special, SuperNature, which has been widely heralded by cultural critics in the media as transphobic, for bits like the one below:
"Oh, women! Not all women, I mean the old-fashioned ones. The old-fashioned women, the ones with wombs. Those fucking dinosaurs. I love the new women. They're great, aren't they? The new ones we've been seeing lately. The ones with beards and cocks. They're as good as gold, I love them. And now the old-fashioned ones say, 'Oh, they want to use our toilets.' 'Why shouldn't they use your toilets?' 'For ladies!' 'They are ladies—look at their pronouns! What about this person isn't a lady?' 'Well, his penis.' 'Her penis, you fucking bigot!' 'What if he rapes me?' 'What if she rapes you, you fucking TERF whore?'"
At this point, deeming standup specials transphobic—and taking to task the company that has platformed them—is a well-polished act. The only thing that's changed since this last happened, to Dave Chappelle, is Netflix's resolve to stand its ground.
In October, Netflix employees crashed a meeting of company executives and staged a walkout over the streaming service's decision to platform the purportedly transphobic special Dave Chappelle—one of the most famous living comedians who dreamed up the character Clayton Bigsby, a blind white supremacist who doesn't know he's black, and spent most of the early aughts crafting absurd skits about race for Chappelle's Show. The protesters technically never called for deplatforming Chappelle but demanded disclaimers before content that promotes so-called hate speech; for the algorithm to suggest "trans-affirming" content alongside specials like Chappelle's; and for the company to prioritize platforming work by trans/non-binary creators.
CEO Ted Sarandos responded that "content on screen doesn't directly translate to real-world harm." But when that failed to pacify the angry hordes, Sarandos claimed he miscalculated. "I should have led with a lot more humanity.… I had a group of employees who were definitely feeling pain and hurt from a decision we made," he told Variety. The company's new policy would involve drawing the line at content that calls for intentionally "physically harming other people." (In the same breath, he hyped a company fund that supports trans and non-binary content creators, catering to one of the employee demands.)
"Does Netflix even care that Ricky Gervais's SuperNature is rife with transphobic TERF ideology?" asks Aja Romano this week at Vox. The answer seems to finally be nope; comedy that pokes fun at extremely online trans activists can in fact be both widely amusing and a moneymaker. And Netflix is in the entertainment business, for which both of those components are important. "We program for a diversity of audiences and tastes; and we let viewers decide what's appropriate for them, versus having Netflix censor specific artists or voices," the company said in a policy update earlier this month. "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."
Ergo, Romano argues, the company is "just fine inflicting bigoted hateful rhetoric on its subscribers" and "with the subsequent real-world harm that comes from amplifying such views."
"At this point, Netflix—the comedy division, if not the entire company—is not just passively supporting transphobic creators, but seem to be actively courting a transphobic audience," adds The A.V. Club's Mary Kate Carr. "The platform's choice to release this special now," writes Romano, "during a wave of unprecedented anti-trans legislation, is unconscionable."
These critics are wrong. The company is not "inflicting" hateful rhetoric on its subscribers; one must consensually opt in to watch it. The "real-world harm" argument goes unsubstantiated yet remains the frequent rallying cry used by many leftists to argue for deplatforming. Recall, for example, the newsroom protest by New York Times staffers, who argued en masse that the paper running an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) calling for military action to pacify domestic protests and riots was putting black staffers' lives in danger.
But does any evidence suggest that, without Gervais releasing comedy specials, Republican legislators would never have had the idea to pass trans bathroom bills? Or that the people who laugh at jokes about how annoying some radical trans activists are on Twitter are the same people who commit violent acts against trans people?
Terms like "TERF"—trans-exclusionary radical feminist—and characterizations of legislation as "anti-trans" are thrown about by activists, often with very little specificity or substantiation, and all kinds of beliefs, real and imagined, properly and poorly characterized, purportedly fall under those umbrellas. Activists frequently claim people like Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, and J.K. Rowling qualify as "transphobic," when they make clear that they support civil rights for consenting adults who have transitioned but remain concerned about puberty blockers being administered to kids (and/or the frequency with which, and age at which, that is currently happening). According to many trans activists, these thinkers' refusal to uncritically accept radicals' arguments wholesale means they've committed apostasy, just as Gervais and Chappelle and Netflix executives have for poking fun at the annoying traits of some of these trans ideologues. Sweeping characterizations, like the ones deployed by Vox and The A.V. Club, collapse crucial distinctions in service of painting Gervais as hateful and bigoted, which he probably isn't.
In his latest special, Gervais tells extremely off-color jokes about all kinds of people and situations: kid funerals; the irony of people who've transitioned genders later wearing strap-ons to have sex; God's thought process when he created AIDS.
Years ago, Louis C.K. joked about masturbating on 9/11 between the first tower falling and the second. Sarah Silverman's 9/11 joke is all about how it was such a terrible day—it was the day she found out the disturbing number of calories present in soy chai lattes. It's doubtful either is glad that terrorists crashed planes into the twin towers, killing nearly 3,000 people over the course of a few hours and saddling thousands of tower evacuees and first responders with cancer and other fatal conditions. But this is what comedians do, something we seemed to understand up until recently: They find creative, subversive, and sometimes shockingly distasteful ways to make light of phenomena we're collectively grappling with: grief, disaster, aging, politics, oddities, subcultures, mortality, plagues.
It doesn't always land; you may not think masturbation and 9/11 combine for comedic payoff quite as well as Louis C.K. does. But you sure as hell have to give comics space to try, and audiences the opportunity to seek reprieve from the world's horrors, delivered magnanimously to us by the funny people.
This is exactly what Netflix aims to do and why more than 200 million people pay for it, seemingly against the wishes of the scolds at Vox, who sanctimoniously announced to no one in particular that they'll "refrain from clapping" for Gervais' standup. As if anyone had asked!