What Dave Chappelle’s Netflix Special’s Trans Remarks Show
If there is brilliance in “The Closer,” it’s that Mr. Chappelle makes obvious but elegant rhetorical moves that frame any objections to his work as unreasonable. He’s just being “brutally honest.” He’s just saying the quiet part out loud. He’s just stating “facts.” He’s just making us think. But when an entire comedy set is designed as a series of strategic moves to say whatever you want and insulate yourself from valid criticism, I’m not sure you’re really making comedy.
Throughout the special, Mr. Chappelle is singularly fixated on the L.G.B.T.Q. community, as he has been in recent years. He reaches for every low-hanging piece of fruit and sups on it gratuitously. Many of Mr. Chappelle’s rants are extraordinarily dated, the kind of comedy you might expect from a conservative boomer, agog at the idea of homosexuality. At times, his voice lowers to a hoarse whisper, preparing us for a grand stroke of wisdom — but it never comes. Every once in a while, he remarks that oh boy, he’s in trouble now, like a mischievous little boy who just can’t help himself.
Somewhere, buried in the nonsense, is an interesting and accurate observation about the white gay community conveniently being able to claim whiteness at will. There’s a compelling observation about the relatively significant progress the L.G.B.T.Q. community has made, while progress toward racial equity has been much slower. But in these formulations, there are no gay Black people. Mr. Chappelle pits people from different marginalized groups against one another, callously suggesting that trans people are performing the gender equivalent of blackface.
In the next breath, Mr. Chappelle says something about how a Black gay person would never exhibit the behaviors to which he objects, an assertion many would dispute. The poet Saeed Jones, for example, wrote in GQ that watching “The Closer” felt like a betrayal: “I felt like I’d just been stabbed by someone I once admired and now he was demanding that I stop bleeding.”
Later in the show, Mr. Chappelle offers rambling thoughts on feminism using a Webster’s Dictionary definition, further exemplifying how limited his reading is. He makes a tired, tired joke about how he thought “feminist” meant “frumpy dyke” — and hey, I get it. If I were on his radar, he would consider me a frumpy dyke, or worse. (Some may consider that estimation accurate. Fortunately my wife doesn’t.) Then in another of those rare moments of lucidity, Mr. Chappelle talks about mainstream feminism’s historical racism. Just when you’re thinking he is going to right the ship, he goes off the rails again, ranting incoherently about #MeToo. I couldn’t tell you what his point was there.