If Netflix could be canceled, it seems the last few weeks would have done the trick.
In the avalanche of controversy following the release of comic Dave Chappelle's tone-deaf Netflix standup special, The Closer, no entity took it on the chin harder than the sprawling streaming company.
Most recently, the company faces complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board last week by employees fired or suspended during the Chappelle controversy. They allege the company retaliated against them over their public criticism of the special. Netflix has denied the assertions.
Besides drawing an avalanche of critical reviews and complaints from groups like the LGBTQ+ advocacy group GLAAD and the National Black Justice Coalition, Chappelle's special inspired a walkout organized by Netflix's own transgender employees and their allies, drawing several hundred people to the company's office in Los Angeles office.
But even as Netflix's co-CEO Ted Sarandos has admitted in interviews that he "screwed up" addressing his staff's concerns amid the backlash, he and fellow co-CEO Reed Hastings have stood by the decision to release Chappelle's special. Most recently, Sarandos was photographed with a smiling Chappelle at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies last week.
And it's hard to see how that decision will, ultimately, harm Netflix's bottom line.
As a friend and colleague at NPR recently pointed out to me, Netflix these days seems as enduring as Starbucks or Facebook – bulletproof in a showbiz world where so many, including Chappelle, complain of so-called "cancel culture." Not long after the special dropped, Netflix announced it had reached a total of nearly 214 million subscribers worldwide, with revenues of more than $7 billion — a size which effectively makes it too big to cancel.
It has faced other controversies which brought public anger, like making an episode of Hasan Minhaj's satirical commentary series Patriot Act unavailable to subscribers in Saudi Arabia, after it offended officials there. Or releasing promotional photos for the film Cuties that inappropriately sexualized tween girls. But its subscriber numbers still climb.
Still, I think some of those who crow that protests against The Closer are a waste of time — journalist Matt Taibbi wrote a column on the walkout titled "Cancel Culture Takes a Big 'L'" — are missing something. And they may be misguided by recent history.
Not all responses to controversy involve cancellation
It's true that today's cultural controversies can often bring quick results.
Whether it's the Paramount Network and A&E canceling Cops and Live PD in the wake of George Floyd's murder or former host Chris Harrison getting the boot from The Bachelor for his fumbling response to a racism controversy, consequences can come swiftly when social media-fueled criticism meets skittish media outlets.
That kind of rapid response has led some to expect a cancellation every time a media controversy emerges. But such quick action is a relatively recent phenomenon; Netflix's inability to meaningfully respond to criticism of Chappelle's special feels like a flash back to the bad old days, when media companies often shrugged off the opinions of marginalized groups.
The strategy also comes at a price. It creates a vicious cycle, forcing advocacy groups to press for the most extreme options, just to be heard.
This dynamic also plays into the hands of certain iconoclastic voices in media these days, who have made a point of opposing people pushing for greater care in media's messaging about oppressed groups.
In the eyes of these folks — opinionators like Taibbi, Bill Maher, Joe Rogan and Chappelle — hordes of scolds who can't take a joke are trying to over-police pop culture and silence anyone who dares challenge their orthodoxy.
Chappelle, Maher and others seem eager to look like rebels while assuring audiences that the discomfort they feel over being asked to think differently about gender is actually the fault of the oppressed people trying to fully be themselves in society.
"I'm sure there's a guy in Ohio saying 'I just got on board with gay marriage, could you give me a minute?'" Maher said on his HBO show Real Time.
But what about transgender people who have been waiting more than a minute to be treated fairly and without prejudice?
Maher's words reminded me, sadly, of opinion polls in the mid-1960s that indicated large numbers of Americans feared the pace of integration and expanded voting rights for Black people was moving too fast. Such sentiments forgot that those sidelined by Jim Crow-era segregation laws had already been waiting decades for change.
All of this reaction misses another important point: When a piece of media puts prejudice or stereotypes at the center of its message, so-called "cancellation" doesn't have to be the knee jerk response.
Indeed, removing Chappelle's special isn't even among the list of demands released by Netflix's transgender employee resource group in response to The Closer. Instead, they suggested changes aimed at making Netflix's inclusion strategy more effective, while also eliminating homophobic and transphobic content.
"This is not about taking down content," former Netflix employee B. Pagels-Minor told NPR in an interview. "This is actually about expanding the strategy, making it more nimble and putting out more parity in content that could tell more stories that people would be interested in."
Change in media and society often comes slowly
For much of TV's history, big media companies' responses to calls for change have come more slowly. I remember the UPN network unveiling a comedy in 1998 called The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, centered on a Black butler working in Abraham Lincoln's White House. Yes, they created a sitcom, essentially, about a Black servant during the era of slavery.
I also remember sitting in a press conference for the show at a Los Angeles hotel, waiting for someone from the mostly-white audience of TV critics and journalists to ask why anyone thought this show made sense. It was left to me, one of the few critics of color in the room, to suggest that the premise itself encouraged viewers to laugh at a horrific time period in American history for Black people.
UPN executives complained they weren't joking about slavery in the show as some protestors insisted. But for some critics — myself, included — setting a silly sitcom during this time, with a Black lead character in a city where Black people were still in chains, felt too much like trivializing the subject. Thankfully, within a few weeks, the show was canceled.
Complaints about this stuff often felt like spitting in the wind – resisting a system that was rigged for the benefit of a white-dominated industry which didn't care much for subtle arguments about representation and responsibility.
But slowly, those arguments gained ground; especially in 1999, when the four biggest TV networks advanced a slate of 26 new shows for that fall with no non-white lead characters and hardly any non-white supporting characters (including Judd Apatow's influential, if short-lived comedy Freaks and Geeks, which featured, pre-stardom, James Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen.)
The backlash resulted in the networks hiring senior executives in charge of diversity, starting a slow march toward inclusion that continues. For example, a recent study by UCLA found that – for the first time in the report's history — the proportion of non-white characters in broadcast TV series, 43 percent, is higher than their percentage of the general population.
Often, pushing media companies to live up to their ideals about inclusion and equality is a long game, requiring sustained pressure and constant scrutiny — a much different notion than so-called "cancel culture." Responding to problematic media with a knee-jerk push to cancel people just encourages companies to react without nuance or deliberation when a controversy erupts.
Reducing stereotypes in media, even in standup comedy, often involves challenging powerful people to change how they see something they think they already understand. And sometimes, a new point of view requires admitting old sensibilities are unfair or prejudiced, which feels like an admission of wrongdoing.
It's a lot easier to believe that people pushing for equality are asking for too much, too fast. Even if that belief eventually puts you on the wrong side of history.
Netflix and Sarandos' image take a hit
Netflix has taken an embarrassing public hit. Sarandos, who has crafted an image in the industry as a canny but likable straight shooter, comes off the Chappelle controversy looking particularly ham-handed and hypocritical. Executives at the streamer will be answering questions about transgender employees, transphobia and corporate hypocrisy for a long while – some posed by fellow employees. These are small steps, I'll grant you; but important.
It may not be losing subscribers now, but Netflix faces a challenge to its corporate image as serious as it's seen in a long while. Which means the next comic who wants to pitch a special filled with jokes rooted in transphobia likely won't have much of an audience there.
To be honest, as I get older, I have questioned Martin Luther King Jr's quote about the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice. But when it comes to the issue of inclusion and equality in media, I have seen many times when this is so.
And the reason it so often happens is because of those who will not stay silent in the face of marginalization and unfairness. No matter who accuses them of not getting the joke.