Dave Chappelle is one of my favorite comedians of all time, but his new Netflix specials, The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas, traffic in jokes that could easily be construed as transphobic.
It’s unsettling to watch all these people laugh at trans jokes when the murder statistics for trans woc’s are horrifying
— Mary H.K. Choi (@choitotheworld) March 24, 2017
Chappelle’s new specials made me laugh, but they also often made me uncomfortable (and not necessarily in the way I think they were intended to). I appreciated Chappelle trying to tackle the idea that for many people, the concept of transgender people is still something they cannot wrap their minds around. But too often he did this by making transgender people the butt of the joke. He spoke from a place that didn’t recognize their struggle as real, and that considered gender non-conforming individuals as somehow disordered, even as he acknowledged their right to self-determination.
Many around the internet are starting to weigh in about this. Eric Sasson writes about this for The New Republic:
Chappelle is even more tone-deaf on transgender issues. He seems to have little interest or patience with any notion of transgender identity, going on an extended rant about how he “misses” Bruce Jenner. He reduces gender assignment surgery to a crude joke about how strange it would be if he and his friend were to go to the hospital one afternoon to “cut their dicks off.” Worse, he acts offended when someone corrects his use of a pronoun, as if it’s somehow a burden on him to have to refer to a transgender woman as a “she.”
A particularly callous part comes when he cites “black dudes in Brooklyn, hard, street motherfuckers, who wear high heels just to feel safe.” You’d almost think that Chappelle is convinced that the progress trans people have made in the last few years has come at the expense of black progress. But discrimination isn’t a zero-sum game. And newsflash—many trans people are people of color. Statistically, they are also the most likely to be sexually assaulted. That Chapelle thinks it’s funny to joke about how they have it better than black men demonstrates the kind of myopic worldview that only a rich male comedian might have.
Chappelle tells a story about being at a party where a trans girl gets high or drunk and proceeds to get sick and pass out. For Chappelle, “Whatever it was, it was definitely a man in a dress.” He moseys over and unassumingly asks, “Is he okay?” He’s admonished for using the wrong pronoun and now is immediately offended. “I support anyone’s right to be who they are inside, but to what degree do I have to participate in your self-image? Why do I have to switch up my pronoun game for this motherfucker?”
And this is the crux of the cisgender problem — cis people’s tendency to center themselves in the transgender experience. These aren’t your pronouns. They belong to the person you’re addressing. Using the correct pronouns isn’t meant to validate someone’s whimsical sense of self; it’s a basic courtesy and shows respect for who someone is. If Chappelle is clutch-my-pearls offended by incidents like this, it’s not because of our demand to be respected, but because of what that demand says about his own fragile gender identity. The one thing I’ve learned about masculinity as a transgender man is that its power and definition relies heavily on how well it performs away from femininity.
Chappelle is well aware that his comedy won’t be taken kindly in the world into which he re-emerged, where language means everything. In Age of Spin, he attempts to a stage an atmosphere in which he is knowingly out of touch and only halfway apologizing for it. (Perhaps this is why Netflix chose it to be the first “episode,” though it was more recently recorded). “I’m 42,” he says, before deadnaming Caitlyn Jenner in order to set up a stale game of oppression Olympics between (white) trans women and black (cis) men. It’s a repeated trope in both specials. He acknowledges the perks of his fame (“I’m black, but I’m also Dave Chappelle,” he says early in Age of Spin, in a bit in which he narrates the story of a friend’s arrest) and suggests that he’s jaded by the game of “who has suffered more” (“You was in on the heist, you just don’t like your cut,” is his reply to a white woman who tries to equate her oppression with his). And yet Chappelle finds himself embattled with other subject positions, convinced black men have it the hardest and conveniently forgetting the existence of black women, black gay men, black trans women, and black lesbians, until they’re needed in service of a punch line.
Both specials lay a trap for the sort of millennial sensibility that gives Age of Spin its name, and where “everybody’s mad about something,” as he says in Heart of Texas. Dave Chappelle is a 40-something who remembers watching the Challenger explosion on a television set wheeled into the classroom. In his world, trans women and gay men are akin to smartphones and the 24-hour news cycle: technological inventions he just can’t keep up with. It’s a very convenient, if not particularly innovative or convincing, gimmick.
Jackson’s whole argument is about how Chappelle’s specials feel frozen in time. I agree wholeheartedly — these jokes won’t age well. For some, they’re already terrible to begin with. When we look back on it in a few decades, we’ll be surprised anyone ever laughed at them.