How Netflix Is Changing the Cancel Culture Conversation

Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images
Dave Chappelle
Matthew Belloni
October 25, 2021

Don’t lie, you’ve had the “cancel culture” conversation. Probably many times. It’s an open secret in Hollywood that a sizable chunk of its power players feel the movement toward greater accountability and inclusion in public forums sometimes goes a bit too far. I hate that term, “cancel culture,” but it usually comes up when people criticize the recent shift in entertainment that, very broadly speaking, encompasses everything from aggressive efforts to increase race and gender representation to a lower tolerance for hateful speech and offensive personal behavior.   

You don’t hear it publicly, of course, but it’s a topic at lunch or via texts when a filmmaker is fired over old tweets or a studio apologizes for an insensitive casting decision. Some of it is just backlash from people for whom progressive change is threatening or uncomfortable. Others make a more legitimate point that Hollywood is currently dealing with a lot of threats to its existence that are probably more pressing than whether, say, a gay character is played by a gay actor. Either way, many people are terrified of doing something objectionable and getting called out. 

That’s why it was interesting to pick up chatter this week about the impact of the Dave Chappelle controversy. Netflix co-C.E.O. Ted Sarandos was faced with a choice: Side with Chappelle, defend an offensive, transphobic comedy special, enrage activists and a cross-section of his own employees; or censor Chappelle, please the activists, but damage talent relationships and ignore the preference of the vast majority of the service’s members. The feeling, at least among a few people who I consider bellwethers, was that when Sarandos sided with Chappelle and double-downed after backlash, an industry that had been terrified of offending the sensibilities of vocal minorities, particularly on social media, had finally drawn a line in the sand. “Kudos to Ted,” an executive texted me. “Someone stood up to the mob.”


That’s probably an oversimplification. As I’ve written, Sarandos’ move was based on a business imperative: Netflix wants to be a platform for all content, and it benefits financially if creative people believe that Netflix will defend their work, even if it pisses people off. For Sarandos, there was really no other decision to make.

Yet now Netflix has become an unwitting signpost in the culture wars, and some believe it has signaled a turning point in Hollywood. Will other media companies be less willing to acquiesce to the demands of interest groups? Next time an artist is criticized for going too far or exhibiting terrible personal judgment, will the outlets that work with them think twice about censoring or severing ties? Maybe a stand-up special by a revered artist like Chappelle is simply different from the usual sources of outrage and action. But maybe artistic freedom in the post-Chappelle age now means something slightly different and, perhaps, more free? I don’t know the answer, but it’s an interesting question.  

In 2017, CNN dropped Kathy Griffin after she posted a video of herself with a decapitated Trump head, which she described as “merely mocking the Mocker-in-Chief.” Would CNN defend her freedom to push boundaries today? Would Disney fire Roseanne Barr for her racist jokes on Twitter, like it did in 2018? Would Scarlett Johansson need to step down from playing a transgender character, like she did from a film project in 2018, or would she simply argue artistic license like Chappelle?

It will be interesting to see how companies act going forward, because artists themselves seem to be conflicted. There was a healthy outpouring of support for the Netflix trans walkout on Twitter from activist artists like Ava DuVernay and Dan Levy. But I saw few criticizing Netflix or Sarandos’ decision. Ryan Murphy, an outspoken L.G.B.T.Q. advocate and one of Netflix’s most high-profile creators, has been totally silent on the issue. These are the same artists who routinely criticize hate speech when they see it. Maybe they’re just reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them, or maybe they recognize this issue is dicey for artists who see themselves, like Chappelle does, as button-pushers at times. 

The ongoing Golden Globes fight may be the next chance to see whether the studios and streamers will draw a similar line in the sand. The show, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, are still being held hostage by a group of activist publicists who have demanded a host of changes in response to the group’s practices and lack of Black members. In a letter sent on Friday, the H.F.P.A. explained that it has now made almost all of the changes that Times Up and the publicists together demanded a few months ago (except the one change the publicists really want: an end to press conferences they don’t control), and the group announced that it will award Globes this year even without an NBC telecast. Yet the publicists are still pressuring the studios to maintain the boycott and deny press screenings or at-home screeners.


Privately, many publicists and studio awards executives have reached out to me saying the prolonged boycott is stupid and they feel like they are being held hostage by this militant minority of publicists, who, after all, claim to be speaking on behalf of the talent. But none has said so publicly, and the studios seem terrified to engage with the H.F.P.A; not because they don’t want to, but because they fear the public ire, especially on social media. 

But maybe Netflix’s line in the sand on Chappelle will allay those fears of backlash, or maybe Netflix itself will take a leadership position on the Globes issue and end its boycott now that the H.F.P.A. is reforming itself. It’s OK to be criticized, Sarandos seemed to be saying, as long as there’s a good reason to endure the criticism. That’s a lesson that a lot of people in Hollywood hope will take hold.