Television

Netflix (Still) Isn’t Your Friend

He stands in a press line with a grizzled goatee and a little bit of a frown
Dave Chappelle in London on Oct. 17, 2021. Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images

In the last week, Netflix’s carefully crafted image as a content creator with a commitment to serving underrepresented audiences has gone up in flames, and instead of dousing the fire, the company’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, has been pouring gasoline on it. What started as a controversy over transphobic material in Dave Chappelle’s new special has grown into a full-blown crisis, culminating in a walkout by the company’s trans employees on Wednesday. It isn’t surprising to find a corporation putting profits ahead of a potential threat to a marginalized group’s safety; even in his initial email assuring Netflix’s employees that he took their concerns seriously, Sarandos couldn’t help bragging about The Closer’s “stickiness.” What is surprising is how long Netflix managed to convince both its users and its workers that they weren’t like anybody else.

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Like most upstart studios, Netflix made inroads by targeting soft spots in the marketplace, areas where Hollywood’s institutional culture was falling short. Although Netflix’s flagship production was the pricey, prestigious House of Cards, its defining hit was Orange Is the New Black, a series that used its pretty white protagonist as an on-ramp to the stories of incarcerated Black and Latina women—and most groundbreaking of all, Laverne Cox’s Sophia, a role which led to her being the first openly transgender person on the cover of Time. In the years that followed Orange’s 2013 debut, Netflix built on the image of itself as a place for diverse talent, both behind and in front of the camera. The company put its money where its mouth is, too, financing projects like Bridgerton, The Chair, and Ava DuVernay’s forthcoming miniseries about Colin Kaepernick, to name just a recent few. But they also put money where their mouth wasn’t, spending eight- and nine-figure sums on action movies by Michael Bay and Zack Snyder, going head-to-head with Hollywood rather than complementing it. As studios like Disney and Warner Bros. launched their own streaming services, they were more inclined to keep their blockbusters to themselves, so Netflix started making their own.

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Netflix, which plans to spend $17 billion on content in 2021 alone, doesn’t just want to be the place where you get the perspectives you can’t find anywhere else. They want to be the Everything Store, the go-to place for red America and blue America, not to mention Africa and Latin America and South Korea. And that inevitably means that some of its representational milestones—shows like Sense8 and GLOW and One Day at a Time—have been cut down in their prime. (As New York Times television critic James Poniewozik wrote, in a column after that last series was canceled, “Netflix isn’t your buddy.”)

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Netflix being Netflix, there’s always something else to watch. And in addition to its vaunted algorithm, the service has built up a network of social media-channels with names like @StrongBlackLead and @ConTodoNetflix, along with the LGBTQ handle @Most, to help viewers find a place to see their own experience reflected back at them. Those accounts don’t just promote Netflix’s diverse portfolio of content. They embody it, writing from a first-person perspective that makes it feel like it’s coming from a well-informed friend rather than a corporate behemoth. I know of several journalists who went from covering culture to working on Netflix’s socials.

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[Read: Dave Chappelle Accomplished Exactly What He Wanted To]

That personalization is a double-edged sword. Netflix has been tremendously effective at getting users to view their attachment to the service as part of their identity, and to respond to criticism of Netflix as if they’re being personally attacked. But it also means that they expect more from Netflix, including that it stands for something in a way no company of its size really can. No one expects ideological coherence from HBO, so it doesn’t feel like a contradiction, let alone a betrayal, to air I May Destroy You one night and Bill Maher the next. (There was a small bump in the road when HBO Max launched and included Gone With the Wind among its slate of classic Warner Bros. movies, but the service added an introduction providing historical context and discussing the film’s racist depictions of the pre-Civil War South, and the furor died down.) But at least some of Netflix’s trans employees believed that the company cared more about them than the pursuit of profit. On the same day that The Closer debuted, Terra Field, whose viral tweets sparked the protests of the special, tweeted about how Sarandos had made Netflix “a great place for trans people to work.” As she admitted in a post this week, “That aged like milk.”

After more than a solid week of criticism, Sarandos altered his messaging, stressing the company’s commitment to developing content by and featuring trans and nonbinary people. But the shine may be permanently gone, along with the sense that Netflix ever deserved it in the first place.

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