Chappelle Goes There

Is ‘The Closer’ bigoted against trans people, just voicing an unspoken truth, neither, or both?

Dave Chappelle is in big trouble (again) for his newest (and possibly his last ever) Netflix comedy special, The Closer, which spends roughly half of its run time discussing the way LGBTQ issues are currently shaping everyone’s lives.

Since this is a review, I will now cut to the chase: The Closer is funny, compelling, harsh, humane, and at times what gender activists would consider bigoted. There’s plenty to enjoy (MLK speechifying about gloryholes! More please!), and also plenty to criticize.

Gender, or biological sex?

In recent years, some humans have come to see the world through the lens of gender. Meaning, they believe that biological sex as observed at birth means nothing compared to how a person feels, or identifies, as male or female. Anyone who feels like a woman, is a woman, they believe.

Chappelle, on the other hand, sees the world through the lens of biological sex. Just as all other mammals do. And birds. And reptiles. Plus fish, amphibians, insects, etc. The entire animal kingdom and Dave Chappelle believe biology has a little something to do with whether one is male or female.

He clearly also believes the world is big enough to accommodate both points of view, and that both views are worthy of consideration. However, he takes issue with the way some folks who see the world through the lens of gender consider those who see the world through the lens of biological sex as hateful bigots.

Chappelle’s recent body of Netflix work follows a formula: In regular life, he doesn’t tweet, and grants almost no interviews, and so after traveling around the world talking to people about how his jokes make them feel, he then gets back on stage and records himself responding to the issues people have with him, for like $20-million a pop. To me, this tactic isn’t as funny as his older, less defensive material. To quote Chappelle in The Closer: “Leave that shit in the comments section.”

The Closer and Chappelle’s other recent specials are also, to be sure, meaner than, say, Killing Them Softly. The Closer goes in so hard on trans people at times, Chappelle recalls his own overblown insult-comic character, Reggie Warington, from the movie Nutty Professor. Chappelle seems meaner now because, these days, he doesn’t seem to be joking. Half of The Closer has the tone of a gender critical TED talk. The special shows him to be in top form as a compelling speaker and interesting thinker, but the real jokes are fewer.

Chappelle also clearly believes it his duty to say things that society isn’t allowing us to say; not necessarily because it’s hilarious, but because he isn’t supposed to say it. And so Chappelle has homed in on the one current important topic that society most pressures us not to question, not even in a good faith critical way: gender ideology. He seems fascinated about why this one topic is so off limits, and why the powers that be take it more serious than his core issue, racism.

He uses mediocre rapper DaBaby, who shot and killed a teenager in a WalMart, but was only later cancelled over his homophobic words, as a prime example. Chapelle wonders aloud how it came to be that liberals seem to consider “misgendering” a more serious crime than murder. That’s not an unfair question–just one that our current version of polite society demands that no one ask aloud. Polite society definitely doesn’t allow Chappelle to proudly call himself a member of “team TERF” (short for trans-exclusionary radical feminist). And yet he does call himself that, like it’s no big deal–as if to say, Maybe it is no big deal.

White-driven

The most controversial view he airs, as he did in Sticks and Stones, is that transgender activism has seen so much surging success so quickly (with even President Joe Biden calling it “the civil rights issue of our generation”) because it is a white-driven movement. “I have never had a problem with transgender people…” Chappelle states in The Closer. “Clearly, my problem has always been white people.”

Although many disappointed culture writers have claimed that Chappelle’s approach to the topic in The Closer “erases Black trans people,” statistics do show that among the small percentage of humans who identify as trans (between .6% and 3% depending on your source), it is true that between 60% to 80% of trans people are in fact white, and only 16% are Black. Though people often credit non-binary persons of color with providing the backbone of the trans rights movement, they nonetheless represent a small sliver of an already small community, and so it isn’t disingenuous for Chappelle to look around at the world and come to the conclusion that transexuality constitutes a largely white phenomenon.

As usual, Chappelle dances between intelligent empathy and very harsh jokes that would make Joan Rivers blush. He does declare anti-trans bathroom laws “mean,” and points to the fact that they help no one. But then he says transwomen represent to some biological women what blackface represents to Black people. The idea of white men identifying into any oppressed class (in this case women, the planet’s largest oppressed group) obviously strikes him and his many liberal fans as not unacceptable, but still a little bit off, and worthy of discussion.

Depending on where you’ve coming from, it might be easy to see modern day Chappelle as weirdly obsessed with this small community. But these days we’re all supposed to focus on trans people, as Congress bandies about new legislation hoping to replace biological sex with gender in a legal sense, making it officially a hate crime for biological women (even those who have been specifically traumatized by biological males) to gather or organize without including transwomen of the male sex.

Average people won’t keep their opinions to themselves as legislatures craft laws allowing teens (the most capricious group on Earth) to circumvent their parents’ control in order to seek hormone treatments and cosmetic surgery. By disallowing anyone from questioning these legal changes to their lives and their children’s lives out loud, gender activists are practically summoning Dave Chappelle like he’s the Candyman. I’m almost afraid that even writing this ambivalent essay will prompt him to record a whole new Netflix special about trans people, even after he promised in The Closer to never discuss it publicly again.

Don’t do it Dave. Please just drop it.

He had a trans friend

Chappelle’s crowning touch in The Closer is its ending: a long, well-told story about his friend and collaborator, trans comedian Daphne Dorman. This bit, amplifying her voice and legend, remains poignant despite its resemblance to the corny way racists might bring up their one Black friend. Obviously, having one trans friend doesn’t absolve him from transphobia–but having one trans friend is a lot more meaningful than having no trans friends. Chappelle pours his love and empathy for Daphne all over his audience, before announcing that she killed herself after being exiled from trans Twitter for defending his (and comedians’) questionable mode of communication. Chappelle later announces he set up a trust fund for Daphne’s child. Her family also gave The Closer a big public thumbs up.

As a longtime fan, I would say Chappelle is doing two things with The Closer: First, he’s expressing some things that people consider bigotry but are not in fact bigotry. That maneuver is valuable if activists are asking the world to officially switch up our whole system and suddenly preference gender over biological sex. He’s letting the air out of an over-hyped topic, and allowing people to discuss it in a healthier, more open way, which needs to happen. Second, he’s saying bigoted things, at least by the standards of gender activists. I would forgive him for this if I thought he were joking; his other jokes about marginalized people do seem to be just for laughs, but he falls into lecture mode too often to think he isn’t just airing his real views about how trans women aren’t the same as biological women.

I’d argue, though, that while gender activists see Chappelle’s using jokes to question their ideology as transphobic, any truly transphobic person would probably see The Closer as way too sympathetic to trans people.

You could construe the overwhelming fan support for The Closer and the head-on way it deals with these sensitive topics as “the majority of people are bigots.” Or maybe it means that most people relate to the way comedy deals with these serious issues. In the same way that some people enjoy the horror genre (aka fake murder), many other people relate to the way comedy viscerally uses unreality to comment on reality. Rather than try and falsely paint Chappelle’s legions of fans and supporters as conservative or right wing, perhaps it should be understood that liberals and progressives, in general, see nothing wrong with varying points of view, and accept that some people see the world through the lens of gender, while others see it through the lens of biological sex. Maybe that’s no big deal.

Despite Chappelle’s “habitual line stepping” in The Closer, he has clearly tapped into questions and concerns the masses have been cowed into avoiding. And for better or worse, that makes for a pretty compelling watch. Even when it isn’t traditionally hilarious.

Either way, I’m really glad he’s done talking about that shit.

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Michael Patrick Welch

Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans author and journalist. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vice, Oxford American, Columbia Journalism Review, and many other great venues.

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