What do fading comedians and conservative political pundits have in common? A tired reliance on throwing transgender people under the bus whenever feasible. Why did the U.S. fail in Afghanistan? According to Ben Shapiro - transgender people. Who is rubbing civil rights success in the face of other minorities? According to Dave Chappelle - transgender people. Need a scapegoat or a punchline? Quick! Transgender discrimination to the rescue!
As a transgender person and a lifelong fan of Dave Chappelle, I am not offended by his performance on "The Closer," I am bored into a stupor by it. Is Chappelle honestly retiring soon enough, if this is the best departure he can muster? Watching him I am reminded more of a playground bully than I am of a beloved performer. I can practically hear the voice of an elementary teacher echoing in my memory, telling me to "just ignore him, he really hates that."
And that sums up what Chappelle was seeking with this (hopefully) final Netflix special of his - attention. I see him as a performer who is no longer quite relevant, past his prime, taking pot shots, causing a commotion, relishing the turbulence, knowing he will be talked about for ages for "going there," for pushing buttons. Masking desperation, Chappelle does what he does best - performing a cool, unflappable, and thereby unaccountable masculinity - presenting himself as unfazed and amused by the tumult left in his wake.
One day we will look back at this time and realize that random, derogatory mention of trans lives is less of a toothless attack and more of a resounding death rattle - in terms of political strategy as well as comedic wit. When you got nothing else, jab 'em right in the trans! Powerful politicians and inflated comedians are less concerning to me than their base supporters - namely throngs of repressed men - enamored by the gall of the men with microphones who say "what is on everybody's mind." This unwavering support conflates "strong masculinity" with the unapologetic, uncompromising bulldozing over of others, especially when those others are women and trans people demanding respect and accountability. Clearly, this has been a formula for overwhelming success in the modern playbook.
What actually does concern me about Chappelle's material, is that for millions of viewers he may be the ONLY education on transgender lives they may ever venture to receive. And that education is simply problematic. When Chappelle rambles on about transgender people he speaks as though Black transwomen do not exist and crudely compares the transgender struggle for rights and protection against the struggle for the liberation of Black Lives. It would be too inconvenient (and plain unfunny) for Chappelle and his core audience to examine how transwomen of color are disproportionately murdered, raped, marginalized, incarcerated and oppressed. Chappelle is, however, uninterested in connecting struggles against adversity and is invested in maintaining the comedic paydirt of blatant ignorance.
Chappelle is not unique or original as a modern comic squeezing out laughs at the expense of trans folks, specifically transwomen. On stage Joe Rogan (no surprise) has ranted about feeling unfairly pressured to praise transwomen as beautiful. His mini tantrum rallies up the solidarity of other poor cis-men in the audience, who are being asked - by absolutely no one - to contribute their patriarchal pronouncement of beauty on people assigned male at birth. Kevin Hart has explained in a skit that he would fuck a new orifice into Caitlyn Jenner, sparing her from the need to have a sex change operation, as though being brutally fucked by a straight man proves Jenner's worth as a sexual object and as a woman.
I do not claim to be well versed on contemporary comedians and their gender related source material, yet I cannot help but notice a trend of straight, cis gender male comics addressing the topic of transgender women as though a right of passage. Although meant for comedic relief, these comics are actually revealing parts of themselves, their own relationship to gender, sex and sexuality and their varying degrees of obsessive control and discomfort regarding their individual narratives of the subject. Are these comics performing comedy or are they just venting on a controversial subject they are both inflamed by and ignorant of, yet like so many in the media, feel an urgent need to address?
No doubt we expect comedy to be provocative, to push buttons, to ask questions, to pitch us into discomfort, embarrassment and ultimately, the release of laughter. I am a big fan of drag queen comedy, which is really the gold standard of offensive comedy. The best kind of comedy lands with the group, and yet no one really wants to be on the butt end of group laughter. Certainly not transgender people who are fighting for rights and recognition at every level of society and have been "the joke" in nearly every community on Earth for too long.
I’m not offended by Dave Chappelle's material because it’s transphobic (and it is), I’m offended because his latest special is unimpressive comedy and does not deserve the attention it has garnered. The best comedy, like the best writing, tends to follow the same pattern: stick to what you know. The fact that Chappelle is clinging to his transgender material is, to my mind, a reflection of his decision to retire with a provocative bang rather than fading away from our collective gaze as he otherwise would. I don't believe Chappelle is an enemy of trans people, I believe he is in a position, like many men with any degree of social power, where he can remain untouched by humility. The "closer" I would really want to see is Dave Chappelle seated at the table with Laverne Cox, having an elevated conversation on race, gender, identity and oppression.