Representation vs anti-trans rhetoric: Netflix wants to have its cake and eat it too
LGBTQ representation that is accurate to people’s lived experiences and doesn’t resort to stereotyping or tokenism is something which is incredibly important in terms of breaking down barriers and giving a voice to long-silenced communities – as is the case when it comes to the representation of any other marginalised group. And so, back when Netflix was beginning to gain real momentum as a streaming service and put out shows like ‘Orange is The New Black’, they were praised for having diverse LGBTQ representation and storylines, the likes of which weren’t commonplace in traditional programming. And Netflix’s platforming of LGBTQ-inclusive programming has continued to today – for example, with the release of the new series ‘Heartstopper’.
All this to say that you would think, given how long Netflix has benefitted from the positive reception of its pro-LGBTQ programming, that the company has some sort of understanding when it comes to the influence they wield with the viewpoints they platform.
This brings us to last week, when the release of Ricky Gervais’s new Netflix special ‘Supernature’ was met with controversy on the back of a series of jokes the British comedian makes about trans people and trans activists.
In the special, Gervais makes light of the use of preferred pronouns and talks about trans people using gender-specific bathrooms, making light of the harmful falsehood that trans women’s admittance into women’s bathrooms puts cis women under threat of sexual violence. Gervais moves to clarify his position after this, stating that in all actuality, he supports people’s right to transition… with the caveat that trans women “meet [him] halfway and lose the c*ck”.
Given the current climate around trans issues in Britain at the moment, most notably with trans people recently being excluded from anti-conversion therapy legislation, it is extremely disappointing to see a major British comic make light of issues that have long been weaponised against the trans community, such as cis women being ‘unsafe’ in trans-inclusive bathrooms. Despite well-documented evidence that trans people are disproportionately more likely to be victims of sexual violence as opposed to the perpetrators, and despite all the damage that this falsehood about trans women being inherently sexually violent has done over the years, Gervais approaches the issue with a levity that, at best, demonstrates his complete lack of knowledge (or perhaps empathy) when it comes to the reality of trans struggles, and at worst, serves to invalidate real issues and normalise anti-trans rhetoric.
However, Gervais’s special is just the latest instance of a Netflix comedy show coming under fire for containing transphobic jokes. Dave Chappelle’s ‘The Closer’, which premiered on Netflix at the end of last year, faced similar backlash due to the derogatory jokes the comedian made at trans people’s expense.
It would seem that while Netflix is perfectly content to profit off LGBTQ media and being LGBT-friendly online, it is more than ready to forego its advocacy for the chance to get its hands on the increased interaction and free publicity that such controversial specials are bound to produce. Because no matter your opinion on the specials’ content, seeing how much controversy has been sparked by them draws in viewers who want to find out for themselves what was said. And Netflix could use the viewership – despite being the biggest streaming platform out there, Netflix viewership has hit a plateau, recently reporting a loss in subscribers for the first time.
In the wake of the controversy, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos offered an unconvincing defence, arguing, “We have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm”. But adopting this stance reads as incredibly disingenuous since it comes from a company that has benefitted for years off praise for recognising the importance of what viewpoints it represents. Netflix can accept the magnitude of its influence when being commended, but denies that same influence when under fire for using it irresponsibly.
It’s Pride month, a time of celebration for the LGBTQ community, and of commemoration for LGBTQ history and the struggles that the community continues to face to this day. And unfortunately, one thing that’s come to be expected during this time is the large amount of companies who, despite not putting in any of the work to create more inclusive workspaces or support the community during the rest of the year, flock to social media to change their icons to rainbows and virtue-signal about their LGBTQ-advocacy for their own benefit.
Like them, Netflix wants to have its cake and eat it too. They want their flowers for recognising the impact of showcasing LGBTQ-positive stories and continue to profit off of them, while absolving themselves of the harm done by promoting specials that spout the same tired, uninformed, anti-trans rhetoric that has harmed the community for decades.
No doubt any Pride messaging to come out of Netflix in the coming weeks is bound to feel hollow coming hot on the heels of Gervais’s latest special. But at the end of the day, Gervais’s opinions on trans people is not what we should be focusing on; we should instead prioritise our attention on listening to trans voices and the voices of the wider LGBTQ community, because these are the people who have lived experiences of the issues at hand, and the ones who actually know what they are talking about.