What the Netflix/Chappelle Scandal Can Teach Us About Humanity in Tech and Business
A note from KO Insights CEO Kate O’Neill:
As many of you know, I was an early employee of Netflix, and I have proudly shared stories witnessed firsthand from my time there as examples of strong leadership. But with greater scale comes greater influence, and the discourse of the past few weeks demonstrates how important it is to get that influence right when leading.
A recurring theme in my work is the importance of building inclusive experiences, and creating the best futures for the most people. I’ve also talked about how important it is, during times when a population is harmed by leadership decisions, to listen to people who are directly affected. Moreover, as a bi woman whose own activism has long been intertwined with the trans community, it’s important to me to center the voices of trans people when issues arise that relate to harm.
So with the heat of the immediate news coverage a bit cooled, to help us navigate this discussion with insight and respect, I sought the help of our new team member, Experience Manager Jupiter F. Stone (look for their introduction coming soon!) who brought in today’s guest writer: Chloe Jade Skye. Chloe is a trans woman who follows stand-up comedy pretty closely (having done some herself) — in fact, she had already written an article about this on her blog a few weeks ago. I’m grateful that she shared with us her view on this topic in a way that ties into the KO Insights approach to humanity in tech and business.
What the Netflix/Chappelle Scandal Can Teach Us About Humanity in Tech and Business
by Chloe Jade Skye
There’s been a lot of media coverage recently about the Netflix employee walkout over CEO Ted Sarandos’s handling of the latest Dave Chappelle special, ‘The Closer’. Unless you’ve avoided the Internet or been living under a rock, you probably saw the words, “I screwed up” quoted somewhere, in a headline or tweet, attributed to Sarandos. But that part of the quote, to me, isn’t as interesting as what followed, a.k.a. the reason he screwed up.
“I should have led with more humanity…I had a group of employees who were definitely feeling pain and hurt from a decision we made…[and] I didn’t do that.” The humanity lacking in those internal emails, according to Sarandos, was his statement that on-screen content does not equate to real-world harm. He walked this back in a later interview with Variety, acknowledging that creating real-world change is the reason Netflix exists, and the reason creators and storytellers do what they do.
My question is this: If humanity was missing in internal memos distributed within the company before the launch of a new product, is it not also possible that humanity was missing in the decision-making that went into creating the content in the first place? I find it hard to believe that humanity just happened to slip the minds of the chief decision makers in the final stage of content distribution.
I’ve watched the special, so I can say with certainty that humanity was at the very least not Dave Chappelle’s chief concern. I strongly disagree with Sarandos, and apparently the rest of the Netflix executives, that ‘The Closer’ does not incite hate or violence. I’m speaking as a trans person when I say that even just in the room with Dave during the special, I saw the exact type of hatred that I encounter in my day-to-day life receive standing ovations.
At one point, Chappelle jokes about beating up a woman (because he thought she was a man), and the line “I smacked the toxic masculinity out of that b*tch” receives uproarious applause. He also echoes some of the most harmful rhetoric of the anti-trans movements, going so far as to proclaim himself “team TERF” (TERF stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, a term created by the trans community to refer to the cis women fighting to take away rights from trans children). This line also received a plethora of clap-ter.
But I’m not here to debate whether or not the special does harm. That has been been written about at length by far better-known writers than me. Besides, even if I managed to convince you, it wouldn’t change a single thing about the inner workings at Netflix. So, what am I here to do?
I want to talk about solutions. I want to talk about how major companies like Netflix can put their money where their mouth is, and lean into humanity in a big, bold way. For what it’s worth, Sarandos has already stated that he is “committed to continuing to increase representation on screen and behind the camera,” and has explained that Netflix has a fund set aside for “specifically trans and non-binary content” (this Creative Equity Fund does invest in generating trans content, but that is currently a small slice of the fund overall).
“I want to talk about solutions. I want to talk about how major companies like Netflix can put their money where their mouth is, and lean into humanity in a big, bold way.”
Committing to more diversity and inclusivity on screen is laudable, but doesn’t do anything to prevent further mishaps regarding content that trans and non-binary creators aren’t directly involved with. If a platform invests money into a show celebrating trans people, and simultaneously invests money into a show denigrating those same people, I don’t believe that constitutes “leaning into humanity.” I’d call that “playing both sides,” and what the LGBTQ+ community actually needs is for the company to understand that just because something doesn’t explicitly call for harm doesn’t mean it isn’t causing any.
Someone who is not a member of a marginalized group has no right to make decisions about what does or does not constitute hate-speech against that group. Sarandos, a White, Cis-gender, heterosexual male, does not get to decide whether or not Chappelle’s words cause harm to the LGBTQ+ community at large. Now, I know the decision that ‘The Closer’ is not harmful was not his alone. I don’t have access to a list of all the Netflix executives involved in that decision, but I’m willing to bet there weren’t a lot of members of the queer community seated at the table.
So how do we fix this? How can a giant corporation like Netflix actually emphasize humanity in their decisions and content generation? Rather than come up with my own list, I’m going to use the one put forth by a think tank of trans employees at the company, publicized as a “list of demands,” but that I think is better described as an instruction manual for inclusivity.
Adopt measures to avoid future platforming of transphobia and hate speech. Create a new fund specifically for trans and non-binary talent, both above and below the line. Revise internal processes on commissioning and releasing potentially harmful content, including parties who are part of the subject community. Hire trans content executives, especially BIPOC. Recruit trans people for leadership roles in the company. Allow employees to remove themselves from promotional content. Eliminate posters and murals of transphobic content within the workplace. Add a disclaimer before titles that flag transphobic language, misogyny, homophobia, etc. Boost promotion for trans affirming titles already on the platform. Suggest trans affirming content alongside content flagged as anti-trans.
That isn’t everything, but I paraphrased the key points. Although some of the suggestions apply specifically to Netflix, there’s something on the list that could benefit a CEO at any corporation. Diversity and inclusion does not just mean featuring POC or members of the LGBTQ community in advertisements or content—it means bringing them to the table in positions of power so that we can help ensure, from the top down, that your company’s actions align with your stated values.
I’ll end with an example of this being done right. When it was brought to the attention of John Landgraf, Chairman of the FX network, that 85% of the directors of FX content were Cis White males, he decided to make a change. He made a list of female directors and directors of color and actively sent that list to every producer of every one of their shows, recommending they hire someone from the list. In 2021, only 37% of FX shows were directed by Cis White men, with the remaining 63% made up of diverse and/or female directors. And according to Landgraf, “the quality of work we got from this new crop of directors was actually superior.”
Thank you, Netflix, for making ‘humanity’ a buzzworthy word these past few weeks. We have a long way to go before we achieve it, but it is certainly something worth striving for. I, and many others, will be watching.
Chloe Skye is a trans woman currently living in Los Angeles. She writes, podcasts, and, in her words, thinks too much. You can check out her podcast about women in history, Broads You Should Know, her film review podcast, Modern Eyes with Skye and Stone, or her TV review podcast, Skye & Stone do Television!