Seasoned comedian Dave Chappelle took to the stage once again in his Netflix special “The Closer” and, in this foray, he made comments about transgender people that are just tried and false to be honest. It’s not that Chappelle isn’t funny, it’s that the old jokes about transgender people that reduce them to the way cisgender people see them aren’t funny.
Chappelle has told jokes about transgender people previously that teetered on the line of going too far, but the problem came in this Netflix special when he brought up noted anti-transgender author of the “Harry Potter” series J.K. Rowling. He proudly exclaimed that he is “Team TERF” to a decidedly lukewarm audience reaction. TERF is an acronym that stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. It’s basically someone who doesn’t think that trans women aren’t real women and by extension, trans men not men and nonbinary people to be fictional.
Admittedly, Chappelle tells a decent joke about Rowling before beginning to agree with her disgusting views. Unfortunately, he goes full in on the anti-trans words shortly after.
Chappelle’s words are not just harmful, but they are disastrously wrong. Firstly, when Chappelle quotes Rowling’s “gender is a fact” words, if we’re being generous, he probably means “sex is a fact,” but even that is not correct. Sex is just as much a social construct as gender is.
The term “sex” is a system of categorizing body parts and sometimes people don’t fit into one of the two boxes. Gender works similarly. This isn’t up for debate. Chappelle later commented about the criticism that he isn’t “anti-transgender.” However, Chappelle’s words tell a different story. His words are the same words used by a multitude of violently anti-transgender people throughout history. He can’t simply wash his hands of the language.
This whole anti-trans event at Netflix is really about a larger conversation that so-called “brutal or dark comedy” that purely exists to make fun of marginalized groups is just not funny. It’s not funny because it’s hurtful towards people. It’s not funny because it’s based on a primitive version of reality. The classic “I identify as an Apache attack helicopter” joke used to mock LGBTQ people is based on a contrived version of our current reality. It implies that LGBTQ people have a responsibility to cisgender and heterosexual people to identify openly with their identity as a marker, rather than as a gathering point. There’s not actual humor in it at all.
It must be said that it is completely possible to have comedy that references diverse audiences. There are plenty of comedians who can tell jokes about transgender people that are both funny and pleasant towards those groups.
The matter is most troubling because Chappelle is a great comedian. He’s simply being lazy because anti-trans and anti-gay comedy is easy. Rather than construct a joke that lifts people up with humor, Chappelle chooses to punch downwards on those who need society’s help the most. It reeks of a mediocrity that is so uncharacteristic of Chappelle’s body of work.