In his new comedy special on Netflix, Ricky Gervais mocks “the new women […] with beards and cocks”; he urges trans women to “lose the cock” towards the end of a long tirade about trans people’s anatomy. It’d be easy to call this shocking. But after a moment of thought, there seems little startling at all about a comedian trying to score points off of a marginalized group of people, or a streaming service desperately trying to prove its bona fides as being all things to any potential viewership. Gervais’ schtick is as predictable as it gets — and serves as further proof to an audience that Netflix has approached with simpering, condescending appeals that the streamer is not on anyone’s side but its own.
This special, entitled “SuperNature,” represents a collision between two malign forces. Gervais, since the end of his British comedy series “The Office,” has lived his life in public as an escalating series of bids for attention, often mistaking a substantial portion of the audience’s boredom with his routine as a sign that he was shocking the right people. And Netflix, stung by a recent employee revolt over jokes about trans people in Dave Chappelle’s 2021 special “The Closer,” is repositioning itself as a place where free speech means the streamer financing, distributing, and promoting hateful speech. An internal document about the company’s corporate culture was recently revised to indicate that employees “may need to work on titles you perceive to be harmful.”
That language shifts the blame onto Netflix employees — and, taken to its conclusion, onto viewers. If you have an issue with Gervais graphically describing the things he hates about a group of people already forced to the margins of our society by prejudice and, increasingly, by law — well, that’s just your perception. It may come as a surprise to those who took Netflix at their word: The streamer’s social channels, including one staffed by queer and trans people, have worked to create the impression that the service is a place with a vested interest in celebrating trans people. “[T]hank you for sharing, thank you for your honestly, talent, and kindness. Thank you for being someone queer and trans people can see themselves in both onscreen and off,” read one tweet from the streamer’s LGBTQ-focused Twitter account to the trans actor Elliot Page, who appears on Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy,” the day Page came out. “Throwback to this heartwarming moment on GOOD GIRLS where Ben comes out to his mom as trans,” read another, posted just last month. When Netflix airs something that might be perceived as pro-social, it demands credit; when it mainstreams hateful content — well, then, you have a perception issue.
Seen through one lens, this is a perverse way of celebrating difference. “The Umbrella Academy” (on which Page’s character will come out as trans next season) or “Good Girls” can coexist on a service with a comic who’s willing to perform a disdainful hatred for trans people, just as “The Crown” and “Stranger Things” can live on the same platform as some of the worst TV I’ve seen in my adult life. Netflix has gotten as far as it has by being the streaming service that is all things to all people, the place whose brand identity is simply “entertainment.” (That may account for why its subscriber count has lately been cratering: Its competitors make their name on a curated list of artistic successes, not just a churn of stuff.)
But that doesn’t quite cut it when it comes to Netflix’s paid talent jumping into issues with consequences far beyond the borders of the screen. There is currently, in the U.S., a backlash against queer and trans rights happening in state legislatures that is fostered by the exact sort of disgust Gervais expresses; in his home country, the United Kingdom, a media climate of suspicion and horror around trans people has exploded into view. It’s not Netflix’s job to actively advocate for trans rights, but, first, their social media channels seem not to have gotten that memo, and, second, not actively contributing to a climate of mistrust and loathing seems like a small ask. (This seems important not least because, for those who complain about Netflix being unwatchably “woke” even after the service stood by Chappelle, no amount of anti-trans rhetoric will be enough.)
For his part, Gervais seems happily unaware that he’s on what is currently the winning side, as he performs the rhetorical trick of presenting a dominant opinion as one that subjects him to torment from “the mob.” But, of course, that’s an elegant way to foreclose criticism: Anyone who’s against you is just doing group think or doing cancel culture. Gervais is who he is; his act is familiar. Netflix, by contrast, looks increasingly unsteady as it attempts to have it all ways. It’s hard to imagine a critical mass of people choosing this moment to cancel their Netflix accounts, not least when the Chappelle incident earlier this year already made painfully clear where the service stood. But it’s increasingly plausible that, later this year, say, when Netflix demands credit for treating Elliot Page’s “Umbrella Academy” storyline with care or for greenlighting a new LGBTQ series for a fraction of what it paid Gervais, a large segment of the audience will understand that for the streamer, caring about the rights and the humanity of people just trying to live their lives is an act. And it’s one that can be switched on and off, depending on who’s on camera, and who’s paying attention.