Dave Chappelle: Your Homophobic, Transphobic, Misogynistic Rants Aren’t Funny
This article originally appeared in The Establishment.
Rape jokes, transphobic insults, and thoughtless remarks about domestic violence are harmful, not humorous.
“And he saves way more than he rapes, and he only rapes to save. But he does rape.”
This comment — about a fabricated movie plot starring an ugly superhero who rapes women to activate his superpowers and save lives — came not long into one of Dave Chappelle’s new comedy specials on Netflix, which have been glowingly described as “terrific” and “giddily funny” by The New York Times.
The joke occurred before the 22-minute mark — at which point I was sufficiently disgusted enough to turn my television off. But Chappelle, I would come to learn, wasn’t done yet.
Over the course of his two hour-long specials, Chappelle would display a startling amount of bigotry — but rather than face condemnation in the aftermath of this troubling rhetoric, he’s mostly been heralded as a comedic genius. Our cultural embrace of such blatant hate is particularly damning in our current political era — and raises questions about the role of comedy in society.
First, let’s talk about that rape joke.
The debate over sexual assault jokes is, it’s safe to say, a fraught one, even within the feminist community. Some progressives have argued that rape jokes can have a place in comedy, if (and only if) they’re designed to attack perpetrators and rape culture. Amy Schumer’s Friday Night Lights parody about a new coach telling disgruntled football players that they can no longer freely rape comes to mind; so does Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s Golden Globes zinger, “Sleeping Beauty just thought she was getting coffee with Bill Cosby.”
As a rape survivor, I personally draw a more definitive line in the proverbial sand. I am keenly aware that rape is a violent crime that destroys lives, and that those who escape physical injury are plagued by mental and emotional trauma. Some victims never recover and do not survive. To me, rape is never funny.
But even if you’re of the mindset that feminist rape jokes are possible, Chappelle’s joke clearly isn’t one of them. There was no broader target for Chappelle’s joke; it’s only objective was to make light of and normalize rape, using the tired sexist trope of a politically incorrect superhero to do so.
To me, rape is never funny.
If Chappelle’s offensive material was limited to just that one joke, it might be easy to overlook. But a staggering degree of misogyny was evident throughout the comedy special. Just minutes before his superhero “joke,” Chappelle talked about meeting O.J. Simpson and his “soon to be slain wife,” Nicole Brown Simpson, for the first time — reducing the life of a tragically murdered mother and victim of domestic violence to comedic fodder in the span of a few short sentences.
And it wasn’t just misogyny Chappelle displayed.
Resolved to finish the specials, I turned my television back on and watched Chappelle disparage “transgenders,” mock Caitlyn Jenner, and dismiss the necessity of the “Q” in the LGBTQ acronym. After that, he joked even more about sexual assault, calling Bill Cosby “the Steph Curry of rapists” and claiming after 34 rape allegations that he still believed Cosby “only raped 10 or 11 of those people.” He even recalled an incident involving an angry white female audience member who stormed the stage in response to his Cosby rape jokes, referring to her as the “bitch” he thought he was going to have to “kick in the face.”
After a rant on how women’s oppression does not compare to the oppression of Black men in America, Chappelle then had the audacity to label himself a feminist — a ridiculous statement that offended not just because of its disingenuousness, but because it callously dismissed the struggle of Black women in America, who have been in the trenches with Black men fighting to overcome racism and sexism at the same time.
Surely, I thought, this special would inspire widespread outrage.
Surely, I thought, the special would inspire widespread outrage.
True, I saw others online who shared my concerns, and there was some pushback in the media, but overwhelmingly, the response has been positive. The special has been heralded as unapologetic, with special praise heaped upon Chappelle’s willingness to address police brutality. The specials also earned Chappelle an estimated $60 million from Netflix.
Why was he able to get away with such blatant transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny?
It could be because of our cultural stance on comedy, which roughly translates to: Anything’s fair game. Comedians have long argued that their art form is meant to be provocative; that it’s a medium in which “political correctness” is anathema to the cause. But as others have argued, it’s absurd to act as if there is no moral responsibility in comedy. Comedy that targets societal oppression can be funny and incisive, even (or especially) as it stokes discomfort. Comedy that ridicules marginalized groups is just hateful and damaging, evoking more explicit hate speech. Don’t comedians have a responsibility to create content that does not cause harm?
While comedians denounce self-censorship, psychology teaches that what we consume in the media influences the way we view the world and impacts our future behavior. Homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic jokes perpetuate hostility toward targeted groups. This is always wrong — no matter the medium.
Ridiculing marginalized groups through comedy is just as damaging as more overt hate speech.
Another explanation is that Chappelle is able to get away with more because, particularly on matters of race, he has a respected progressive track record.
Indeed, Chappelle claimed to have walked away from a $50 million dollar deal because the Chappelle Show was no longer socially responsible. In a 2006 interview with Oprah Winfrey, he stated the network was pressuring him to perpetuate negative stereotypes about African Americans, which he considered immoral.
But while it’s worth championing Chappelle’s steadfast and brilliant use of comedy to tackle racial injustice, this shouldn’t allow him — or anyone, for that matter — to get away with bashing women or LGBTQ people. Social justice can never move forward without taking into account the needs of all marginalized groups; this is what the crucial intersectional movement is founded upon.
It’s also worth examining the particular dangers of Chappelle’s comedy in the context of our modern political era. Trump earned the presidency despite multiple accusations of sexual assault, a pending rape lawsuit, and open discrimination against women and members of the LGBTQ community. Every joke minimizing sexual assault contributes to a culture in which rape remains heavily underreported due to the kind of victim-dismissal that allowed Trump to enter the White House; every dig at “transgenders” is a cruel attempt to humiliate and dehumanize transgender people at a time when the head of the country’s civil rights office is a well-known transphobic bigot and our presidential administration has rescinded protections for transgender students in public schools.
Under the Trump administration, women and members of the LGBTQ community wake up to the threat of losing our constitutional rights every day. We are violently losing our lives due to widespread hatred and discrimination — and it is no laughing matter.
The world has changed in the decade since Chappelle left his hit TV show, and he has proven his inability to grow and connect with a diverse audience. If his intent was to cause pain by ridicule, he has done so brilliantly. If the goal was to make us laugh, both Netflix and Chappelle need to know this: The American public deserves better. We deserve more than futile jokes delivered by an overrated comic who relies on divisive and insensitive material. The times demand a brand of comedy that is smart, conscious, and reflective of the world we live in today.
Shanon Lee is a Survivor Activist & Storyteller with features on HuffPost Live, The Wall Street Journal, TV One and the REELZ Channel. Her work appears on digital publications including The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, ELLE, Marie Claire and Redbook. Shanon is a Women’s Media Center SheSource Expert and an official member of the Speakers Bureau for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). She is the writer, producer and director of MARITAL RAPE IS REAL, a short film that raises awareness for survivors of sexual assault. Visit her official website at www.mylove4writing.com.