That line encapsulates the controversy around Chappelle and “The Closer,” which has reignited fury over the comedian’s material about transgender women and other LGBTQ people. It has also resurfaced debate about whether stand-up comics should be limited at all in their material. Chappelle’s focus on race alone — while overlooking the experiences of Black trans women and the disproportionate rates of violence they face — has been a particular sticking point.
Chappelle’s flawed framing isn’t new to comedy. A 2016 episode of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” explored similar themes, albeit in a more ambiguous and layered format, to critical and industry acclaim. It offers a case study of sorts for how even the most well-intentioned — and lauded — comedy can reinforce harmful stereotypes.
In the first season of the acclaimed FX series, up-and-coming rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Bryan Tyree Henry) comes under fire for tweeting a profanity-laced message to fans who called him “weird” for saying he would not want to have sex with Caitlyn Jenner. Amid the controversy, he appears on a public-access news show opposite host Franklin Montague (Alano Miller) and Dr. Deborah Holt (Mary Kraft), a White trans issues advocate who accuses Paper Boi of being transphobic and posits that it’s for lack of a father figure. The episode, titled “B.A.N.,” descends into full-tilt parody when the host of “Montague” throws to a segment about a Black teenager who claims to be “transracial.” “I’m a 35-year-old White man,” the 15-year-old says in between footage of him browsing at a farmer’s market and playing golf.
In the episode, written and directed by Glover, Paper Boi grudgingly becomes part of a conversation about transphobia and homophobia in hip-hop. He insists he has no hatred for transgender people but doubles down on his criticism of Jenner — who had come out as transgender a year earlier in a Vanity Fair cover story — and repeatedly misgenders her. “It’s hard for me to care about this when nobody cares about me as a Black human man,” the rapper tells the host. Jenner has been doing “what rich White men been doing since the dawn of time, which is whatever the hell he wants.”
Layers of satire ensure no one who appears on the panel — the condescending White professor, the antagonizing host, Paper Boi himself — goes unchecked. But the fictional show notably includes no transgender panelists. “Montague” ends just as the kicker reveals that the “transracial” teenager is transphobic and against gay marriage.
Even as the episode garnered praise for its unique format (including hilarious commercial spoofs that riffed on very specific aspects of Black culture), some critics were tentative about the transracial gag and whether it made a mocking false equivalence between race and gender identity.
But “B.A.N.” racked up award show accolades; it was among the episodes cited by the Peabody Awards, which honored “Atlanta’s” first season for its “skillful commentary on issues ranging from police brutality and mental health to celebrity and black culture.” Ahead of the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards, where “B.A.N.” was nominated for best comedy writing and earned Glover a historic best director trophy, series writer (and Glover’s brother) Stephen Glover told the Los Angeles Times that the episode is “never about being ‘preachy’ to an issue, it’s more so about seeing how the world actually operates when dealing with these issues, and letting viewers decide what that means.”
Five years later, viewers remain divided on the episode — and many indeed find it transphobic. Raquel Willis, a transgender activist and writer, said that ultimately the “Atlanta” episode and Chappelle’s special suffer from the same problem: “Because ['Atlanta'] ticks off maybe one box in particular around affirming an expanded portrayal of a marginalized group — i.e. Black people — it gets a pass when it missteps on portraying other marginalized experiences,” Willis said. “And that’s not okay.”
Dahlia Belle, a Black trans comedian, criticized Chappelle for refusing to engage with criticism over his jokes. “Did you once again imagine all trans people are white, or do you assume there is some inherent danger awaiting us among the larger Black community?” she wrote in an essay for the Guardian. “And why might that be?”
Other comedians have publicly defended Chappelle’s take. “As a comedian, I don’t want to be censored,” Flame Monroe told TMZ. “As a trans woman, I want equality, and as a Black person, I want fair treatment in this country that we’ve been trying to get for 400 years. … All of this what you can say and what you cannot say is ridiculous.” Damon Wayans also spoke out in support, telling TMZ that comedians were “slaves to PC culture.”
In a 2018 open letter urging Hollywood to actively increase trans representation onscreen and in writing and production roles, GLAAD reported that “80% of people say they don’t know a trans person in their family, workplace, or school.”
“Overwhelmingly, people — even those in power — fundamentally lack the range to talk about the complexity of identity,” Willis said. “We can talk about multiple layers of oppression and systems of oppression without trying to equate them perfectly.”
“B.A.N.” wasn’t the first time “Atlanta” broached the topic. In the show’s second episode, written by Stephen Glover, protagonist Earn (Donald Glover) is arrested and kept in a holding cell with other people in custody. Earn sees a man excitedly strike up a conversation with his ex-girlfriend only to go on a homophobic tirade when other arrestees derisively point out that she’s trans.
“It’s funny because of how real it is, and how specific to Atlanta too. If you’re from Atlanta, you understand that scenario,” Stephen Glover told the Times of the scene. “It’s kind of weird, it’s dramatic and sums up our show in a lot of ways.”
The scene plays out in “Atlanta’s” observational humor, juxtaposing the very real issue of trans women inmates being forced to house with men with other calamities of the correctional system: cash bail, inadequate care for mentally ill patients, and police brutality. Earn observes a mentally ill patient being struck by a police officer. And while Earn attempts to defend the ridiculed man by saying “sexuality is a spectrum,” the scene makes no direct references to the violence trans women face in (and out of) prison, but alludes to the dangerous stereotype that trans women are deceitful and threatening to straight men.
Even if the show’s writers had good intentions for the scene, Willis said, “we’re simply not at a point in our society where we can just throw trans narratives into satire and assume that the general public will actually understand whatever potentially altruistic point you’re trying to make.”
Netflix’s chief executive Ted Sarandos has defended Chappelle — twice — amid the backlash prompted by the comedian’s special, but Sarandos’s “strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm” isn’t a reasonable justification for comedian and writer Ashley Ray. “Do you remember when Netflix re-cut 13 Reasons Why to have suicide warnings and PSAs because people told them it would directly translate to real-world teens harming themselves?” she wrote on Twitter. She noted that Netflix removed a scene from that show two years after it aired. “Maybe Netflix will change their mind in 2 years when they watch Disclosure [a 2020 documentary about trans people in Hollywood] and learn that making fun of trans ppl leads to violence against them.”
Despite the streamer’s stance on “The Closer,” the backlash has been resounding. Poet Saeed Jones, a self-proclaimed longtime Chappelle fan, wrote for GQ that being called “too sensitive, too brittle” about comedy is an argument that doesn’t hold up, especially when intersectionality is at play. “As a gay Black man, even when I’m watching a comedy special, my identity is inconveniently present,” he said.
An increasing number of Netflix employees have spoken out against the special, too, and Variety reports some of the company’s staffers are planning a walkout next week in protest. It’s representative of how far the industry — and our culture — have come in recent years.
“The discourse around gender and, particularly, the transgender experience has shifted even since that ‘Atlanta’ episode,” Willis said. “It’s shifting every day, as more and more trans people find ourselves sharing our stories, building our own platforms and owning our power in new ways.”