thoughts on the Netflix walkout

Hi. Long time no update.

This post is a bit late. And partly that’s because it’s my style but it’s partly because I’ve been wrestling a lot with the intersectionalities of this one, and asking quite serious questions about whether my voice as an affluent white dude is what this situation really needs.

So instead I worked on a long post about That Fucking Kidney Story, which I thought felt like safer content, and while I was working on it I stumbled across this post pleading people to take the Netflix walkout as seriously as a new hit TV show, or … well … That Fucking Kidney Story.

And that did make me have a rethink.

Although ironically the conclusion I came to is that the things I was planning to say about That Fucking Kidney Story were actually important to this story as well.

Like always, this post is going to get rambly. If you want a tl;dr, I did ultimately come to the conclusion that I should cancel my Netflix subscription in protest, but specifically in protest over the company’s shitty treatment of its workers, not over The Closer on its own. I won’t necessarily leave it cancelled forever, I think Netflix needs to be held accountable for this, I don’t think it needs to be driven to bankruptcy.

Anyway, let’s get started.

The Kidney Story Isn’t About Kidneys and This Isn’t About the Closer

I haven’t watched the Closer.

There are two reasons for this. Okay, three reasons, partly it’s just that I’m not a fan of American standup. But the first real reason is that I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that you’ve got to have personally financially supported and consumed something to have an opinion on its contents if you know what those contents are. The second reason is that the Closer itself isn’t actually why I’m cancelling my Netflix subscription, or why I’m writing this post. The Closer is the symptom, it isn’t the cause.

The reason I found Kidneygate fascinating enough to write a 5000+ word unpublished blog post about it is that it read, to me, as a microcosm of the way in which mainstream institutional power weaponises marginalised people against each other. If I ever actually publish the post I’ll go into this in exhaustive detail but, in short, what really bugged me about That Fucking Kidney Story was that it ultimately boiled down to a white male New York Times journalist with two kidneys taking a complicated and nuanced dispute between a working class white woman with one kidney and a middle class woman of colour and inviting the internet to debate which of them was The Worst.

So much of the discourse around Kidneygate has been about framing it as a “Rorcshach test”, implicitly implying that if you side with the middle-class woman of colour then you hate kidney donors and want them to die, and if you side with the working-class white woman you’re a racist and that the only truly correct answer is to be a white, male neoliberal enlightened centrist. It’s classic divide and rule, breaking everybody who isn’t a white, affluent, heterosexual, cisgendered man with a platform in a major public newspaper into ever smaller and smaller groups and forcing them to fight each other for the few scraps of equality the kyriarchy is willing to toss down to them.

And the discourse around The Closer and the subsequent walkout of trans Netflix employees and their allies has been framed similarly. This is about White trans people, the mainstream discourse is saying, versus a Black comedian.

This is actually why it took me a while to come to the conclusion that, yes, cancelling my Netflix subscription was the right thing to do. Because for a while I did feel ambivalent. After all, Netflix hosts a lot of content I find objectionable. It hosted Little Britain for a while, which includes a famously transphobic recurring sketch (it’s a sketch in which the entire joke is that the protagonist is a trans woman who doesn’t pass and loudly demands “I’m a Lay-dee”, and yes technically she’s framed as a “transvestite” but, well, if she was assigned male at birth but clearly expresses a strong desire to be treated as a woman that’s … like … the definition of gender dysphoria and is also the whole joke). It’s also done a bunch of collaborations with Ricky Gervais and the only reason it’s not working with J. K. Rowling is that she’s too big to be pitching made-for-TV scripts to streaming services.

If it was just about cancelling Dave Chappelle I’d be far more on the fence here.

But it’s not.

Divide and Rule

When Netflix made the decision to air the Closer a transgender employee named Terra Field posted this twitter thread. It consists, you will note, primarily of a list of murdered Black trans women, and indeed explicitly highlights the privilege of White trans women relative to Black trans women (“I’m a white woman, I get to worry about Starbucks writing ‘Tara’ on my drink”, she says). It made no calls for Chappelle’s show to be removed from the streaming service, it sought only to state that minimising the reality of trans experience was harmful, and that treating trans issues as only affecting White people was false and harmful specifically to trans POCs.

She was then suspended from her job at Netflix.

And yes, Netflix say this was unrelated. And maybe it was.

But at that point I have to ask myself who I give the benefit of the doubt: a transgender woman who was just suspended by her employer days after publicly criticising them, or a multi-billion-dollar tech corporation.

Trans employees organised a walkout at Netflix and Netflix fired one of the organisers.

That organiser was black, transgender, and currently pregnant.

Again, they said it was unrelated.

One of the things that I sometimes find clarifies my thinking in situations like this is to compare shitty behaviour by corporations with petty crimes committed by regular people. Especially because “corporate personhood” is an actual legal doctrine.

In a situation like this it’s really easy to look at what Netflix has done here and say things like “well they claim they weren’t retaliating against their trans employees, and I guess we just have to take their word for it” or “well sure this is shady but lots of other corporations do shady things.”

But imagine if an ordinary person tried to pull that shit in a court of law. Imagine you were on trial for, say, shoplifting. If you said you didn’t do it, would the jury take that as somehow binding, like they couldn’t just call you on your bullshit if you were obviously lying? If you said “well lots of other people shoplift and get away with it” would the judge throw your case out? Of course not.

We should treat corporations accused of mistreating their employees with at least as much rigour as we treat a teenager accused of stealing a can of Pepsi.

Especially if—to extend a metaphor—that teenager is applying for a summer job as a security guard.

Netflix Isn’t Parler

Part of the reason I think it’s so important to hold Netflix specifically accountable for everything that’s gone on here is that Netflix doesn’t bill itself as a neutral platform.

There are plenty of platforms that are. I’m not boycotting YouTube because it hosts alt-right channels. I’m not boycotting Facebook over the fact that plenty of bigots are also on Facebook. But Netflix is different.

Admittedly Netflix doesn’t come out and explicitly describe itself as progressive. It’s a corporation so it doesn’t really describe itself as anything if describing itself as that thing could cause it to lose a single dollar of profit. But it does make a lot of hay (and more importantly a lot of money) by presenting itself as uplifting marginalised voices. Hell it’s even made hay-slash-money out of attempts by conservatives to boycott it over its excessively progressive programming.

Ted Sarandos, co-CEO and chief content officer of Netflix even doubled down on this position when he reiterated Netflix’s commitment to “diversity” saying:

“We are working hard to ensure marginalized communities aren’t defined by a single story. So we have ‘Sex Education,’ ‘Orange is the New Black,’ ‘Control Z,’ Hannah Gadsby and Dave Chappelle all on Netflix. Key to this is increasing diversity on the content team itself.”

Hannah Gadsby in particular wasn’t especially happy with being weaponised against other LGBTQ+ people here (her reply, in true Australian style was “fuck you and your amoral algorithm cult”). But more generally there is something profoundly wrong with Sarandos’ framing.

Because what does he mean when he says he’s “working hard to ensure marginalised communities aren’t defined by a single story” in defence of Chappelle’s comments about transgender people in The Closer?

Read as charitably as possible, he’s saying that Netflix is committed to diversity and that supporting Chappelle’s particular brand of edgy comedy is part of their commitment to supporting African-American performers which is totally unrelated to their commitment to supporting LGBTQ+ performers. That wouldn’t be a great argument—it would still be a petty divide-and-rule tactic that framed trans people and African Americans as two irreconcilable groups with no possible common interests—but at least it would only be a non-sequitur instead of something a whole lot worse.

Because read less charitably but perhaps more accurately he seems to be saying—or at least strongly implying—that Dave Chappelle’s comments about transgender people are part of Netflix’s commitment to diversity as it relates to LGBTQ+ people specifically. That sentiments like “I’m team TERF”, “gender is real” and “Now… I am not saying that to say, that trans women aren’t women. I’m just sayin, that those pussies that they got… You know what I mean?” (I’ve not watched the special in question but I have read a transcript) are somehow themselves a valid take on the trans experience.

I should stress I’m not making an “own voices” argument here. I’m not saying that the issue is that Dave Chappelle isn’t transgender. It’s perfectly possible for people who aren’t part of a community to speak to or about that community in a way that is reflective of that community’s needs and experiences and makes the people in that community feel both heard and seen.

The Closer most certainly isn’t that.

And as far as Dave Chappelle is concerned, it’s not a problem that it isn’t that. Hes not the one framing the unexamined TERF talking points in The Closer as an important part of Netflix’s commitment to “ensur[ing] marginalized communities aren’t defined by a single story”.

Netflix is.

Netflix has a brand image that is overwhelmingly left-leaning and progressive. Its content is curated and managed.

The closest thing I’ve been able to find to broadly right wing comedy on Netflix is Jeff Foxworthy. He’s a conservative Christian who endorsed Romney in 2012 and donated to Bush in 2000. But his Netflix content is extremely apolitical (about the edgiest thing he says in the one sample I could find online was “one hundred percent of Black men who shave their heads look cool, fifty percent of White men who shave their heads look like they’ve just murdered their parents”). I tried looking to see if there was any, say, pro-life content on Netflix and found this list of pro-life content on streaming services. Virtually none of it is on Netflix and most of what is on Netflix isn’t explicitly pro-life it’s just generally life-affirming or about human rights in a very broad way. The closest thing to a Pro-Trump documentary seems to be Trump: an American Dream which was fairly early in the administration, from a British company and neutral-slash-anti in tone. Across a wide range of US-centric political talking points, Netflix nails its colours extremely firmly to the progressive mast.

And yeah, this isn’t scientific. I haven’t watched every single program on Netflix so maybe there’s this whole dark underbelly of alt-right content that I’m missing. But in general I think it’s safe to say that Netflix is not and does not pretend to be a neutral platform. It provides liberal-leaning content for liberal-leaning viewers. There are plenty of viewpoints that it definitely does not platform. There are plenty of things that it seems you definitely can’t say in a Netflix show. It’s just that “being trans is like wearing blackface” isn’t one of them.

It is in this specific context that Netflix’s response to the controversy around the Closer is so unacceptable.

The issue isn’t that Dave Chappelle reiterated some TERF talking points. It isn’t even that Netflix hosted a show in which Dave Chappelle reiterated some TERF talking points. It’s that Netflix seems to have committed firmly to the position that TERF talking points are not only compatible with but are in fact a necessary part of a content offering that prioritises telling a diverse range of LGBTQ+ stories.

That, let’s be clear, is fucked all the way up.

We Did Not Get Here By Accident

The article that kicked this off pleads with readers to pay attention to the Netflix walkout instead of the new hot TV show or “That Fucking Kidney Story.”

But here’s the thing.

“That Fucking Kidney Story” is about live kidney donation.

America has a chronic kidney shortage. Depending on which way you do the maths and which numbers you believe, preventable deaths in the USA as a consequence of this kidney shortage range from 12-13 a day to more than forty thousand a year (more than all gun deaths combined). One of the things that it outrageous about the “Fucking Kidney Story” is the way the original New York Times article frames the act of donating a kidney as selfish and attention seeking, going so far as to effectively weaponise a woman of colour in order to characterise Dawn Dorland (the kidney donor in the article) as an entitled racist Karen, pretty much entirely so that the article’s readership don’t have to feel obliged to do anything about a real systemic problem in American healthcare.

I don’t blame Jude Doyle (author of the original “please care about this” article) for feeling frustrated that a deliberately sensationalised story about “Bad Art Friends” was sucking up all the oxygen while trans Netflix employees were fighting to get their employer to recognise that their existence isn’t a both sides issue.

I blame a system where marginalised people are forced to minimise the life-or-death struggles of other marginalised people in a vain effort to get somebody, anybody to pay attention to their own life-or-death struggles.

In March of this year, a British woman named Sarah Everard was abducted, raped, and murdered by an off-duty police officer. It was later revealed that her killer had arrested her under the pretence of her having violated lockdown protocols, and when this was revealed the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police said that she “shouldn’t have submitted to arrest” (so if you’re keeping score, if you resist arrest and a police officer kills you, it’s your fault, and if you don’t resist arrest and a police officer kills you, it’s also your fault). When women protested and held vigils and demanded change to a system that empowers male police officers to commit this kind of crime they were spied on and arrested in droves.

And so what is British Home Secretary Priti Patel doing to ensure the safety of women?

She’s ordering the “woke police” to stop recording offences committed by trans women in female crime statistics.

Let’s be clear. This is deliberate divide and rule.

Actually protecting women is difficult and expensive. Demonising transgender people is easy and free.

The more I sit here, the more I realise how fucking furious this whole situation makes me.

But, let’s be clear, I’m not angry at Dave Chappelle. He’s just doing the style of comedy he’s always done and getting angry at him for it isn’t going to change anything. And anyway getting angry at comedians for telling jokes is just playing needlessly into the hands of right-wing pundits who are itching for a chance to tell me to “get a sense of humour.”

I’m angry at Ted Sarandos for firing and suspending trans employees for speaking out and for smugly insisting that hosting transphobic content on Netflix is part of their desire to “ensure marginalized communities aren’t defined by a single story”.

I’m angry at Priti Patel and Boris Johnson for cynically exploiting trans panic to cover their gross mismanagement of the UK’s police forces and somehow managing to spin an outcry by British women based on a murder by a cisgendered male police officer into an excuse to attack trans rights

I’m angry at every politician and pundit and journalist and CEO that’s ever got a cheap vote or made a quick buck teaching vulnerable people to hate and fear each other instead of the people who are actually making the fucking decisions.

I’m just generally angry.

thinking

33 Responses to thoughts on the Netflix walkout

  1. willaful says:

    You make some great points here. We cancelled Netflix and put as the reason “in support of your trans employees.”

  2. PL says:

    You make very strong points here and I am grateful to you for posting this and giving your take. This post has done more to make me question my Netflix subscription than much I’ve seen online revolving around this issue.
    This will be a conversation I will have with my family as to why I believe cancelling our subscription is necessary, as is telling Netflix the reason why. My kids need to be involved in conversations about issues like this, to understand why speaking out and acting matters.

    (The other story will now forever be referred to as “That Fucking Kidney Story” by me and I welcome your take on that also, based on the references you’ve made to it here.)

    • You may not welcome it – it’s a fucking long post, also I’ve cannibalised bits of it for this post because the core thesis was the same.

      The Netflix thing is complex and I do think it’s a matter of individual conscience; but I think it’s important to remember that, as consumers, we do actually have power and should try to use it. Rather than just assuming There’s Nothing We Can Do TM.

  3. Kamala says:

    Thank you for this. I very much enjoy how you are able to take complex issues and break them down into logical and rational pieces. You are able to elucidate many issues or feelings that I just flail at without being able to express exactly why something feels wrong or right. From my perspective that is your superpower. Are you into long, flowy capes, tights, and boots?

    I am also plain angry in general these days. Angry and afraid of the future environmental and governmental collapse. And I am so angry at many corporations and at many people in positions of power. And many other things.

    Sigh

    <3

    • Thank you for the kind words. I do generally try to retain a hopeful outlook on stuff because, well, if you don’t you collapse into a horrible pit of despair. But it sometimes quite difficult.

  4. This is very well written and explained. As a trans man, I’ve had a lot of feelings about this (along with trans rights and humanity being up for debate in the guise of the so-called ‘culture wars’, which is a Whole Other Thing) but not the mental or emotional bandwidth to properly articulate the several kinds of wrong about how the Netflix walk out has been handled, and how that’s generally been lost in the noise of the Fucking Kidney Story. I’m also writing Netflix about why I’m cancelling my subscription. Thanks for this post.

    • Thank you for the kind words. I’m always quite hesitant in posting about topics that speak to other people’s experiences more than they speak to my own because I’m very conscious that the world does not need more people like me sharing their opinions. But I’m glad you found this useful.

  5. Liv Rancourt says:

    Posted this on the family chat thread so when the kids try to log into Netflix and can’t, they’ll know why.

  6. Jenni says:

    Was literally texting my friend with “but it’s Netflix I’m really mad at. I’m just too tired to explain why.” and then this popped up on my feed. So thanks! Blog post shared!

    • Yeah, I think sometimes the problem with big faceless corporations is that it can be very hard to explain precisely why they’re the ones to blame (although, spoiler, they almost always are). I’m glad you found this post helpful!

  7. Becs says:

    Thank you for this post. I was not paying attention and realize I need to dig deeper into these issues and think more critically about them and take action. I have got to do more than liking a post on social media and be fucking better as an advocate and ally.

    One of the reasons I really love your writing is that you are not tl;dr and write fully and freely about the issue with sidebars and then synthesize everything meaningfully. Thank you.

  8. Cara says:

    This was extremely educating to read. I already knew about “That Fucking Kidney Story” and always thought it strange that on the basis of minute, super small sized, particles of info that barely hold up a hint of the actual story, we were judging actual people so harshly. It felt vaguely dehumanizing and also sad how we all were *discussing* it like a book’s plot.

    I actually didn’t know about the whole netflix fiasco on account not having a subscription. So, after reading this post, i had to go and check out the actual piece of comedy (if we can even call it that) on youtube. It was repulsive. That is all i can say. Why would we *joke* about something that affects and hurts so many people so lightly? It made me deeply sad.

    Why does humour always have to kick someone down? Why can’t it just be fun and enjoyable to everyone?

    And your point about corporations in positions of huge power and influence, dividing communities fighting for more or less the same thing was thought provoking. Thank you for writing this <3

    • Yeah, the kidney thing is genuinely difficult and I agree the quasi-fictionalisation of it especially problematic, especially when it was clearly done so deliberately. But actually one of the things I found quite heartening in that in the weeks since it initially launched social media has fairly emphatically called bullshit on the whole thing. So, increasingly, a lot of the discussion is now, in fact, about irresponsible journalism which I think is very worth discussing.

  9. Lala says:

    The white lady in all that fuckery was just so, so lame.

    • Assuming you’re talking about that fucking kidney story I’ve got a whole long post about this but I think part of the reason she comes across as “so so lame” is that the original article was deliberately framed to make her look “so so lame” because, when you strip it all down, there otherwise isn’t a story there.

  10. Анна says:

    1. I liked Hannah Gadsby and her Australian style. Short and emotional. I guarantee that she didn’t spend days pondering this answer, and then as many more days pondering whether it was worth giving such an answer)
    2. I will not be able to cancel Netflix because I have never had a Netflix subscription. But in this case, I would most likely cancel it. But not because of The Closer. I haven’t watched the Closer too.
    3. I do not like employees who, instead of discussing the issue with the employer, write indignant texts on social networks. I don’t like employers spying on their employees on social media. But in any case, you can’t fire people just because they have their own opinion. Censorship applies only to cases of threat to life or health.
    And yes, that’s right. “Netflix is”.
    4. I found out about the story about the police officer only from this post on your blog, and it’s terrible.
    5. Good, strong post.

    • I think a general take here is that people respond in different ways. For what it’s worth, Hannah Gadsby’s full reply was actually longer, and I don’t know how long she thought about. I tend to prefer to talk about these things long-form because I’m a novelist, not a comedian. And I tend to seriously question whether I’m the right person to be talking about them because people who look and talk like me still run huge chunks of the world.

      I can see where you’re coming from regarding going to your employers than tweeting about them, but I think my take is that this kind of thing is usually a symptom rather than a cause. In the absence of information, I’ll always give workers the benefit of the doubt over corporations, and if someone feels the need to whistle blow or go to social media, I’ll assume it’s because they couldn’t raise the matter internally.

      But I’m glad you found the post strong in general.

      • Анна says:

        It was a joke about Hannah Gadsby, of course. Although this is exactly what I would say in a similar situation. This is true. I think I understand why I am not a novelist 🙁
        It so happened that in the situation that you described, I have been from both sides (at different times in my life). Yes, I was often forbidden to write about my company on my blog. Because I wouldn’t write just praise. And no, I did not fire anyone for critical posts (even about me, although there were such, of course), although I know a lot of people who would have been fired.
        This is the only reason why I wrote that I would prefer that people first go with their complaints to the management of the company, and only then, if they have not achieved a solution to the problem, they would write about it on social networks. Although, of course, if they were fired for this, the problem is most likely in the heads of the company’s management. Therefore, I agree with you. <3

  11. Gwen says:

    This may or may not be relevant to your understanding of the situation, but one of the people that was fired publicly disclosed proprietary Netflix financial information, which alone is cause for termination. There is no possibility of not understanding or not knowing what not to disclose…and in my mind it suggests that the person posting felt it more important to share information than keep their job.

    • More information may have come out since but my understanding is that propriety information was released (not very much propriety information, just what they’d paid Dave Chapelle) but that the person who was fired denies it was them and, indeed, explicitly condemned the leak to other organisers of the walkout, expressing the fear that it would harm their message.

      And maybe not that’s true but it comes down to whether you take the word of an employee or a multi-billion dollar tech company, and as I kind of suggested in the post I tend to side with labour over capital.

  12. chacha1 says:

    Stand-up comedy rarely makes me laugh (and often annoys me even if it does), so obviously I haven’t seen The Closer. We canceled Netflix less than six months after subscribing because we didn’t find it added value to our lives. Now I’m extra glad we didn’t keep it ‘because it’s cheap.’

    Why is transphobia a thing? I honestly don’t understand it. How does gender dysphoria injure anybody except the person experiencing it? Sigh.

    • I mean, the boring answer to why transphobia is a thing is that stirring up hate, fear and anger is a lot easier than actually helping people.

      • chacha1 says:

        It does seem so, but I actually don’t get that, either. I mean, it takes time and at least a little bit of effort to be hateful. (Though it may be the default setting for some people.) Whereas it takes no time and no effort to just live and let live.

        Me: See a person you don’t understand (e.g. mad sportsball fans)? Their existence has no effect on your actual life (e.g. they are not in my house doing their noisy pointless thing)? Choices: a) say ‘huh’ and go read a book; b) try to understand. Option B rarely costs anything, and it sure adds to the interest level of Life.

  13. Monika says:

    I love your post. You’re so thoughtful and explain everything so well and it really gets to the heart of the matter. Thank you. *-) I haven’t watched the Fucking Kidney Story or the Closer, but read the transcript and have been following the story and have been discussing it with friends and am horrified.

    Netflix just won 44 Emmys, the most of any network for the first time in history so they probably DGAF, but I wish they would. All of these corporations need to be held to account as they are taking over the world (*cough* Facebook). I feel it’s important to act for equality by either giving or removing support, and cancelling a subscription is an easy thing you can do from your home that makes an impact. I mean, at least I hope it does.

    • Unfortunately, I think these corporations have basically already taken over the world. Although I do think it’s important for consumers to remember that we can actually choose to stop giving them our money at more or less any time. At the ones that don’t provide essential services…

    • willaful says:

      (I wound up reading the comment here because I just finished reading TFKS. And I’m struck at this moment by how exceptionally easy a form of voting with my dollars this was? Because I wanted to leave CVS over their 504 accomodations lawsuit, and trying to figure out how to manage that was so stressful, I literally cried with personal relief when they withdrew it. And it’s so impossible not to use Amazon at least some of the time.)

  14. Secret Alter-Ego says:

    Really insightful. Thank you.

  15. Thank you for your thoughtful reflections on this. I admit to not keeping up with the news most of the time, so I hadn’t heard about this before. I appreciate being made aware of.

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