Reed Hastings might not have wanted to talk Monday about Dave Chappelle and the controversy around remarks centered on the trans and LGBTQ+ communities in his Netflix special The Closer, but the Netflix staffer who called out the streamer on the “attacks” in the October 5-launched show certainly does – in-depth and at length.
“Dave is not, and has never been, the cause of this problem — he is a symptom of it,” Terra Field said Monday in an essay, “It Was Never About Dave,” posted online just two days before a trans staff walkout at Netflix over the special and the defense offered by co-CEO Ted Sarandos and others.
“That Dave believes the things he says and can say them with relative impunity is a result of the culture we live in: a culture that marginalizes and devalues trans people,” Field, the senior software engineer who was temporarily suspended last week, went on to say. “He contributes to that culture in a very real way, but at least he isn’t out there bragging about how many LGBTQ+ allyship awards he has won while he is doing it,” the self-described “Jersey Girl” Field adds in a not too subtle reference to the likes of Sarandos, who appears in the closing credits of The Closer in a photo smiling with Chappelle.
Read Field’s full essay below.
Having been vilified directly and indirectly over the past two weeks as Chappelle and others have tossed around terms like “cancel culture” and Sarandos has put out not one but two written justifications for the streamer’s more than $24 million special, trans woman Field stresses in her essay that she never wanted The Closer taken down, as the National Black Justice Coalition has demanded.
“Instead, I am asking for Netflix (and other companies with similar levels of influence) to: Stop pretending that transphobia in media has no effect on society (while promoting a documentary about how transphobia in media effects society and other performative allyship); Acknowledge the disproportionate effect this has on marginalized communities; Put a content warning in front of existing content that contains transphobia,” she writes.
With an anticipated earnings report coming Tuesday and Hastings trying to deflect the issue during an appearance at the Milken Conference today, Field spotlights a specific and simultaneously larger matter in her piece – again, without calling out the fumbling co-CEOs by name but not making any secret who she is talking about.
“Often, the people who make decisions in the industry about content at the highest levels (what gets produced, how it is framed, and how it is promoted/marketed) check most or all of these boxes — and almost none of them are trans,” she writes.
“So when a company like Netflix says something like, ‘We do not believe this content is harmful to the transgender community,’ you can be virtually certain that not a single trans person was involved in that decision,” Field bluntly states, turning Sarandos’ stated implications back on him. “And how are we supposed to speak up for ourselves if we aren’t in the room? And how are Black trans women supposed to speak up for themselves if the company doesn’t employ any?”
In a case of onerous bad timing at best and as GLAAD and other spoke up against The Closer, Netflix suspended Field and two other staffers on October 11. No one at the streamer would go on the record, but the reason for the sidelining was whispered to be because the trio appeared at a virtual meeting way above their pay grade.
“It is absolutely untrue to say that we have suspended any employees for tweeting about this show,” a water-carrying Netflix spokesperson claimed of the sketchy suspension and its relation to The Closer. “Our employees are encouraged to disagree openly and we support their right to do so.”
On October 12, Field and the other two staffers were reinstated.
At the time, a company spokesperson said Netflix “will be distributing broader guidance about meetings and clarifying which are for which people.”
Having late last week pink-slipped another employee who leaked financial info to the press in dissent against The Closer, wonder what Netflix will say about today’s essay. A couple of days after the firing, Nanette superstar Hannah Gadsby took her corporate employers to the woodshed. “You didn’t pay me nearly enough to deal with the real world consequences of the hate speech dog whistling you refuse to acknowledge, Ted,” wrote Gadsby on social media Friday. “F**k you and your amoral algorithm cult…”
As of now, Netflix has not responded to request for comment on Field’s latest words.
Here’s the essay:
My last meeting as Co-VP of the Netflix Trans* ERG was supposed to be October 5th. It was a positive day for me, because my ERG work was the most gratifying work I’d ever done — but it was also a huge amount of emotional labor. I was excited to be able to focus more on engineering for a bit. Like I often do, I shared my feelings on the experience in a Twitter thread, including this tweet:
And last, I want to thank Ted Sarandos & @reedhastings for leading a company where an engineer can give them (or anyone else) feedback on what they’re doing and actually expect a thoughtful response, and for enabling us to make Netflix a great place for trans people to work.
— Terra Field (@RainofTerra) October 5, 2021
Well that certainly aged like milk.
That day would also see the launch of a new Chappelle special, “The Closer”. Two years ago when “Sticks & Stones” released, the [email protected] and Trans* ERGs came together and held very candid and vulnerable discussions about how the transphobic content of “Sticks & Stones” contributes to a culture that marginalizes the Trans community and a culture that is particularly violent towards Black transgender women. It was an incredible moment of allyship between our two ERGs, the I&D team, and the content folks at Netflix — and we came out of that meeting feeling like we had a path forward for building greater understanding of the impact content has on our community.
It was during that time that I wrote a memo called “Offense vs. Impact” that emphasized that we were not offended by the jokes and commentary in “Sticks & Stones” — we were concerned about the impact to the lives of people in our community. It contained a list of transgender people who had been killed up until that point in 2019. It changed the course of the internal conversation, and I really felt like people had started to understand.
Two years later, “The Closer” released and the same conversation started again — and again we were hearing statements from leadership that made it sound like we were offended. I was (as my partner calls it) “Jersey Mad” at this point — I felt like all the work we did after “Sticks & Stones” was meaningless and that having the exact same internal dialog and pile of emotional labor from the Trans* ERG was just going to get us the same canned statement about “artistic freedom” (and it did).
So I decided to make a Twitter thread that mirrored my “Offense vs. Impact” memo, but with the current list of trans folks killed in the US so far this year:
I work at @netflix. Yesterday we launched another Chappelle special where he attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness – all while trying to pit us against other marginalized groups. You’re going to hear a lot of talk about “offense”.
We are not offended 🧵
— Terra Field (@RainofTerra) October 7, 2021
I didn’t anticipate this particular Twitter rant would get any more traction than the other Twitter rants I’ve made. Very quickly, I realized I was incorrect.
The past nine days have been an absolute whirlwind for myself, my family, the Trans* ERG and our allies, and the Trans community as a whole. I’ve personally received threats of violence, an enormous amount of transphobic vitriol, and an incredible and heartening amount of support from people I know, people I’ve worked with at Netflix, and people I’ve never met. If we hadn’t made judicious use of Block Party (with help from my partners in reviewing the cesspool that my mentions had become) and some custom tooling my partner wrote, I don’t think I could have made it through this week.
Since I have made it through, I wanted to finally clear up some things.
“OMG DUDER MCMANFACE U DIDNT EVEN WATCH THE SPECIAL AND ALSO YOU’RE A MAN BTW BRO”
Yes I did, no I’m not, and you’re boring 🥱
Why Are You Cancelling Dave?
There have been any number of think pieces and articles in the past week accusing me of trying to “cancel Chappelle”. If you look at my Twitter thread, I think you’ll see that my criticism wasn’t really of Chappelle — I didn’t think the special was funny, but there are a lot of things I don’t find funny. I loved “The Chappelle Show” back in 2005 (when Dave still knew how to punch up instead of down), and I thought 8:46 was powerful (if flawed, but what isn’t?) and his best work in years.
Dave is not, and has never been, the cause of this problem — he is a symptom of it. That Dave believes the things he says and can say them with relative impunity is a result of the culture we live in: a culture that marginalizes and devalues trans people. He contributes to that culture in a very real way, but at least he isn’t out there bragging about how many LGBTQ+ allyship awards he has won while he is doing it.
The Checkbox People
Among the many phrases about the queer community Dave has coined, one standout is “alphabet people”, a reference to number of letters in the acronym LGBTQIA2S+. So today I’m going to talk about another group: The Checkbox People.
The Checkbox People are the most influential people in the world by far. Most of them aren’t even aware of their power, because they’ve never had to spend any time thinking about it, or reflecting on what it might be like without it.
But Who Are The Checkbox People?
The Checkbox People are the people who can check the “default” box in all or many axes of marginalization. I certainly don’t have a comprehensive list, but off the top of my head:
Not living with a disability
The fewer of these boxes you can check, the more profound your level of marginalization will be in our society. I’m white, not living with a disability, and make tech money — and just being able to check those boxes gives me a disproportionate amount of comfort and safety compared to most of the world. If you can check all of them or close to it, you wield a disproportionate amount of power — often times without even realizing it.
Why would someone who checks all the default boxes ever spend time thinking about what it would be like not to? It requires a certain amount of empathy to look at the plight of others and think, “Wow, I bet that is really hard!” and then actually try to do something about it. It also requires awareness — our society is segmented enough that a lot of times it is rare for people who check all the boxes to have meaningful and substantial discussions with those who don’t.
This is why so much of my work at Netflix was trying to open people’s eyes to what it is like to not be able to check many or any of those boxes. Often the way I’d word it when challenging people to think about their place in society is the question, “How often have you had to check ‘Other’ on a medical form?” — it floored me to get responses like “never” — or “How old were you when you first really thought about gender?” — and the most common answer in a room of cis male engineers was sometime in late elementary or middle school, meanwhile I was sobbing because I wanted a Jem doll when I was five but already knew I shouldn’t ask for one.
Once they started thinking critically about their place in society though, they started to come up with very real ways their unconscious bias affected the outcome of their work — from how they would design a web form to the assumptions they would make in Machine Learning models. Not only did they start to realize the problems — they were eager to fix them. All they needed was to be shaken out of their complacency for a moment.
“But how does this relate to ‘The Closer’?”
Often, the people who make decisions in the industry about content at the highest levels (what gets produced, how it is framed, and how it is promoted/marketed) check most or all of these boxes — and almost none of them are trans. So when a company like Netflix says something like, “We do not believe this content is harmful to the transgender community,” you can be virtually certain that not a single trans person was involved in that decision.
And how are we supposed to speak up for ourselves if we aren’t in the room? And how are Black trans women supposed to speak up for themselves if the company doesn’t employ any?
A valid criticism of me being out in front of all this is that most of the women who I evoked in the original Twitter thread are Black transgender women, an experience that I can not and do not claim to share or understand — but before we started talking about it at the company, it just wasn’t being discussed. That feels so much worse to me. I don’t know how to sit here with this much relative power and privilege and not lend it to others.
I do not particularly relish all of this attention, but at least I am in a safe enough position to handle it.
Alright Jersey Girl, you just talked for a while. What do you want?
A lot of people think I am demanding “The Closer” be taken off the service. While others have asked for that (and I certainly wouldn’t be sad to see it go) this is not what I’m asking because at this point, the removal of it from the service would only bring more attention to it and more accusations of whatever the hell “cancel culture” means this week.
Instead, I am asking for Netflix (and other companies with similar levels of influence) to:
Stop pretending that transphobia in media has no effect on society (while promoting a documentary about how transphobia in media effects society and other performative allyship)
Acknowledge the disproportionate effect this has on marginalized communities
Put a content warning in front of existing content that contains transphobia
Prominently suggest Disclosure and other queer and trans content after people consume that content.
Promote queer and trans comedians and talent.
Pay queer and trans comedians and talent and pay them well.
Closeted trans teens who might come across “The Closer” should know that they are valid. That they are more than a joke. This special is going to be to this generation of trans kids what “Ace Ventura” was to mine, and it doesn’t feel good to have been working at the company that put it out there. Especially when we’ve spent years building out the company’s policies and benefits so that it would be a great place for trans people to work.
A place can’t be a great place to work if someone has to betray their community to do so.
The Closer (whomp)
There is so much more to talk about around these topics — and I intend to continue speaking where I feel there is a need, and boosting other voices when needed. If you are a cis person who wants to support the trans community please take the time to learn more about our history (which is as old as human history) and our lives, and ask yourself what it would be like to never be the default. Last, give trans people money. Especially Black trans people.
For my trans siblings: keep waking up every day and being yourself as much as life allows you. Our lives and our stories matter, especially yours.