TRANSCRIPT: TransLash Podcast Episode 30, ‘Netflix v. The Trans Community’

Imara Jones: Hi, fam. It’s Imara. Welcome to the TransLash Podcast, a show where
we tell trans stories to save trans lives. Today we’re talking about Netflix and
everything that’s happened in the months since Dave Chappelle came out with his
Netflix special, The Closer. As you know, that content went nuclear. We took a deep
dive into why these jokes were so damaging to trans people, putting our lives at risk
in collaboration with the Cancel Me, Daddy Podcast just after the special aired. More
than Dave Chappelle, I am curious about what all of this says about Netflix itself,
about the outsize influence of this most powerful player in Hollywood, and about the
contradictions.

One might even say dangers at the heart of technology and media platforms whose
global reach grows by the year. That’s why the pushback from trans employees and
allies of Netflix in the wake of The Closer matters. Not only might it signal broader
changes in Hollywood, but their demands might point to an even more profound shift
required to make sure that media platforms driven by algorithms aren’t weaponized
against vulnerable groups. That’s why today we’ll be speaking with B Pagels-Minor,
the Black trans employee fired from Netflix, about how the company has handled all
of this.

B Pagels-Minor: I have gotten dozens of messages from my former Netflix
colleagues from every other type of colleague I’ve ever worked with reminding me of
the value that I have in society. What I mean by that is there are people who said, for
instance, “You were the embodiment of Netflix values.”
Imara: Then I’ll be talking with Zoe Schiffer, a senior reporter at The Verge about
how Netflix’s management ended up in this mess and what might be next for the
streaming giant.

Zoe Schiffer: While I think it’s very admirable that employees are pushing the
company to do better, I think that when Ted Sarandos comes out and the first thing
he’s saying is, “Look, it costs us this much and it’s popular with our audience,” I think
we have our answers right before us.

Imara: Before we get to the show, I want to keep thanking everyone writing podcast
reviews and shouting out our show. Here’s one from Sandycom. “I’ve been listening
to the TransLash Podcast since the first episode. Yay. I am cis and with each
episode, I learned so much that I never would have to ask a trans person. I am so
grateful for Amara and company’s intelligent, joyful, and generous reporting.” Thanks
so much, Sandycom. I’m so grateful for your company as well. If you tweet at
TransLash Media or leave a review on Apple Podcast, we might read your comment
on the show too. Now, as always, it’s time for some trans joy.

Imara: Something that brings me joy is positive media are representations of trans
people and hearing our stories in all of their complexity. That’s why I started this
podcast. Today I’m highlighting the Trans Journalists Association. It’s a group
dedicated to supporting trans journalists and improving coverage of trans
communities in the media. The importance of their work has been underscored over
the past year by the political and cultural controversies involving our community like
Netflix. The association has a style guide to help reporters cover trans people and issues
with care and respect. Membership is free and the group provides a space for trans
journalists to connect with one another. In full disclosure, I am a member of the
Trans Journalists Association. I know you’re not surprised. Oliver-Ash Kleine is the
founding member of the group. They also happen to be the senior producer for this
podcast.

Oliver-Ash Kleine: Right now in this moment, there is so much anti-trans
propaganda, there is so much misinformation, and a lot of people get their
understanding of trans issues and trans people from media. That’s one of the things
that to me is most important is getting our membership and trans journalists in
newsrooms and places to make editorial decisions and place where they’re reporting
on these issues. That’s not only going to help those individual trans people get jobs
and have more support in those jobs, but that’s going to help create culture change
and help create a world where trans people are more respected and treated with
care in society.

Imara: Oliver-Ash, you and the hundreds of members at TJA are trans joy. With that,
let’s get into it. Joining me right now is B Pagels-Minor. B has been at the center of
so much of what’s happening at Netflix. B was one of the organizers at Netflix’s
employee walkout to protest Dave Chappelle’s anti-trans special and the company’s
response to the criticism. More importantly, B presented the company with a list of
critical changes, including investment in more trans creators, the promotion of trans
people of color to leadership roles, and greater involvement in decision-making from
trans employees overall. B is Black, non-binary, and pregnant. They were hired in 2020
as a senior data product manager and held important leadership roles in both the
trans and Black employee resource groups at Netflix. Yet B was fired shortly after the
walkout was announced. They filed a complaint with the national labor review board
saying that their firing was retaliation for their efforts to hold the company accountable.
B, I’m so sorry about everything that’s been happening to you. I really appreciate you
joining me today.

B: Thank you for joining me too.

Imara: One of the things that you wrote about in your Washington Post op-ed piece,
which everyone should read, is about how you grew up in Mississippi. I’m wondering
if you can just tell us how did you go from growing up in Mississippi to a job in
Hollywood at Netflix?

B: Oh my gosh. It’s so weird, it’s my life and I don’t really understand how this
happened either.


B: I was born in Mississippi. Then I spent most of my childhood going between
Mississippi and Tennessee. I went to high school, for instance, in Memphis,
Tennessee. I was very fortunate, though, because my mother just is brilliant, brilliant
woman who despite the fact that– She actually didn’t graduate from college until a
month before I graduated from college. She was like, “Baby, all I knew was that I
needed to beat my oldest. That’s what I was trying to do.” She just really understood
my brother, my sister, and myself, we were special and that if she just invested in us
and empowered us that we could do anything.

It was my mother who would always say, “Go try that program, go to this summer
program, go do these different types of things.” It was actually going to some of
those summer programs that I realized there were schools outside of the south
because when I first was looking at colleges, all I wanted to do was go to University
of Tennessee because that’s where my friends went to school. I ultimately ended up
actually going to Duke before transferring to Northwestern University. I actually
would say that going to Northwestern is probably part of the reason that I ended up
out here in California.

What ended up happening is that I went from this person who was just like, “Oh, the
best career a person like me can have is an attorney or something like that,” to,
“Actually, I really like technology.” Then if you’re in technology, there’s only one way
to really figure out if you’re really great. That’s to end up in California working for
some of the best tech companies in the world. In 2018, I was recruited out to work at
Apple. When I was at Apple, Apple TV launched. That was the first time that I was
just like, “Oh, content is actually this really, really intriguing concept.”

It just so happened that then I got recruited to Netflix almost two years after I got to
California. I took the role because I was interested in the nexus of technology and
media, and how those two things kind of come together. It all starts with my mother
and her encouragement because she encouraged me to dream big. The bigger I
dreamed, the more I found out. Once you start finding out you can do some stuff, it’s
really hard not to do it.

Imara: When in this journey did you understand the unschooling of your gender
identity as a part of this?

B: What’s so fascinating about it is that I was completely clueless. My mom actually
probably had an idea before I did that I was different in any way. I remember actually
first coming out as a lesbian and then coming out as a butch lesbian freshman year
of college. I called my mother and I’m freaking out. The girl that I’m crushing on,
dating whatever is right there and is holding my hand. I was like, “Mom, I’m a
lesbian.” She was like, “Baby, I bet $100 on this 10 years ago.” I was like, “What?”
She was like, “You watched this show on HBO that was about gay people and you
came into my room crying talking about how mean they are to gay people.” I was
like, “I guess they’re probably gay.”

That was literally my mom’s reaction to that part of it. Then when I came out as more
butch and I wanted to wear men’s clothes, my mom was like, “I don’t really see this
for you, but I’m going to let you go with it.” Unfortunately, my mother passed away in
2012, so before I actually was brave enough to go that next step. In 2014, I met my
current wife. It was really hard because she had a lot more friends who were gender
nonconforming. I started creating relationships with a lot of gender nonconforming
and also trans people.

If I think about it though, what’s really strange about my upbringing is that if I had
seen an example of this, I feel like, when I was younger, it would have totally made
sense to me. Because there were no representation of trans culture, non-binary
culture as I was growing up, I literally had no frame of reference until I met people to
understand how much more I was like those folks than I had been around all the
other people who had been in my life. What’s really interesting is that I also know
because of just how my mother was, chances are she would have been perfectly fine
with it, but I never got to have that chance to find out.

Imara: Given this understanding that you had about how content is really important
for people as we develop our identities and the power of content technology, I’m
wondering if you can first tell us about when you heard of The Closer, this Dave
Chappelle special that was going to come out.

B: Yes. When I first found out about the special, anyone at Netflix who knows about
the fact that we had deals knew that there was going to be another Dave Chappelle
special, the question was really when was it going to come out? I found out a few
days before it was released because some people sent me an email saying,”Hey,
FYI, there’s another Dave Chappelle special coming out on October 5th. It could
potentially be harmful or it could upset people,” essentially was what they said, “You
may want to prepare for that.”

Imara: When did it cause alarm in the ERG, the employee resource group?
Essentially these are employee groups of affinity identities so that people who are
not corporate listening understand what we’re talking about. When did your fellow
colleagues also get wind of this? Did they express concern?

B: Once those external news sources started posting about it, various trans star,
which is the name of the ERG is trans star, ERG group started posting those things
in various channels. One person volunteered to watch it and recap it for the rest of
us, and we just started looking into what the whole special was about at that point.
That’s when people actually started getting upset because initially, the main thing
was, “Oh, he says that he’s turf,” and we’re like, “That’s completely inappropriate and
not okay.”


Then when you actually started digging into it, it”s generally homophobic, it’s
continued misogyny. It is transphobic in terms of also misgendering people and the
use of Daphne. It was very, very traumatizing to the trans star ERG. That’s when it
really became a big deal.

Imara: I’m wondering what you felt your role was in all of this. I think a part of that
would be a helpful grounding in us in your leadership role in the ERG, what role did
you play in the trans-ERG? I think you said it was trans star, is that right?
B: Yes. It’s called trans star. The star stands for all the gender-diverse people under
the larger trans umbrella.

Imara: Under trans star. Also you have a leadership role in the Black ERG. I’m
wondering if you can talk a little bit about that and if you felt, because of that, you’ve
had a particular responsibility in this particular matter.

B: I had this dual role because for trans star, it was very apparent to me the types of
things that needed to do. One, first of all, no one from trans star gets a heads up of
the maliciousness of the content in it. How did people inside of Netflix not realize
how dangerous that content was, and how do we make sure that something like this
doesn’t happen again? I started emailing various content people, the HR teams, the
inclusion and diversity teams to get people together to start having those
conversations.

I’ve never seen people so upset at Netflix. It caused major mental health issues. At
the same time, so I was actually getting messages from Black art members who
were LGBTQ+ who were just like, “I am super uncomfortable with the fact that no
one at Black art is discussing how harmful this special was,” or, “I’m super
uncomfortable with whether I can post something about this.”

Imara: I have to say that for me, I have been heartbroken sometimes at the way in
which I believe that other Black people and other specifically Black gay people, Black
gay men, haven’t responded in a way where I would think would be consistent with
their values around allyship. That just for me has been a really hard part of this on
top of everything else. I can’t imagine what it was like to negotiate that on the inside.
Overall, it just sounds like you’ve been in crisis management for a month.

B: Essentially, yes.

Imara: By the way, you have to show up and do your job and you’re pregnant and
you have a partner, so it’s not like those other things stopped. You and your
colleagues initially conceived of the walkout, as I understand it, as a mental health
day, but then it changed into something else. Can you talk a little bit about where
your thinking was? Because I think some people have painted this as an exercise in
grievance by employees, but I really think it’s important for people to understand that
this grew out of a need for employees to actually take care of themselves.

B: Yes, that’s correct. One, I was trying to deescalate the situation to a certain extent
because people were increasingly getting more angry, especially with the Ted
emails, and I was just like, “This is going to turn into a very volatile situation. This is
not going to work out well, especially for the trans star ask that we were already
starting to develop.” That’s when I announced we should have a trans day of rest,
and that the trans day of rest, everyone who’s transgender should have a whole day
of rest. I also specifically said, “Our allies too, you take your time off, educate
yourself about trans issues.” I had scheduled that for October 20th.

The idea was really solely how can we lower the pressure valve? I also saw so many
people who were just like, “I physically can’t do my job.” I started emailing the VPs of
every single department saying, “Hey, this is what I want to do. Can you help
socialize this into your teams so that no one gets in trouble or no one gets
diminished because they’ve taken this day?” Everyone was agreeing. Everyone was
like, Okay. I totally agree that’s a good idea. We’re going to be great.” It only became
a walkout later when I took a vote from the trans star leadership and the trans star
participants. They were like, “Actually, at this point, we want it to be a walkout and
we want it to be a day of action.”

Imara: As a part of that, can you talk a little bit about the formation of the demands?
B: It’s so funny it started like most things in Netflix start, which is I created a Google
Doc and I started writing down everything people had told me that they would like to
see. Then we refined it for what we thought made sense. The other thing about this
list, in addition to the fact that we don’t want to take down the special and we didn’t
ask to meet with Dave Chappelle, is we didn’t want to fundamentally change the
company or the product either. There’s a value in why Netflix has been successful
and that’s because of its underlying principles and its underlying technology.
The focus really is about how do you create parity in content? That’s by investing in
talent, that’s by investing and promoting content once it gets created, that’s by
recruiting people in leadership. That’s really what it came down to is that as we were
thinking about this, we were just like, “Whoa, what we really want to do is just make
sure that there’s an accountability mechanism that says they will actually make these
investments over the next few years versus paying it lip service.”

Imara: When did you hear that you were going to be fired?

B: We had just finalized the list of ask. I posted the information that this was
becoming a walkout at 3:00 or 4:00 PM. At 5:55 PM, I got a message from my
manager saying that they wanted to have a meeting with me. Then I get on the
phone with her and she’s like, “Oh, this is a very serious meeting. I’m going to bring
in HR and legal.” Then by seven o’clock, I was terminated.

Imara: Right after the demands go up, the company says, “Here’s the door”?

B: Essentially.

Imara: What did they tell you in the meeting?

B: They said that they had been investigating the leaks and it seemed more likely
than not that I was the person behind the leaks.

Imara: Hang on, more likely than not was the–?

B: Yes. They never actually said, “We definitively believe that you’re the one who
leaked the information in that meeting.” It was only later when the press release
came out that I was very surprised to see that. I’ve been having meetings with
various people who were a part of this movement to share this data because we’re
paying an extremely large amount of money for these specials, and I don’t believe
we’re getting nearly their ROI we could be getting. At the flip side of that, if we invest
it in these other diverse buckets of content, we actually might get a greater ROI.
The first call, I talked to them and they were just like, “I do believe you that you didn’t
leak the information, but it’s very clear to me that you also gathered all the
information.” I was like, “Yes, I don’t deny that.” They also brought up this really, I
thought, very interesting thing where they were like, “Also we saw that you forwarded
some emails.” I was like, “Yes. If you check who I forwarded those to, it was to my
wife. The body of the email says, ‘This is such a great email. This is so much better
than the emails Ted’s been sending.'” I was like, “You should be able to see that.
You have access to all of my email data. You can see exactly the type of
commentary I had in these emails.”

I found out in that meeting that they said that’s terminable. That you could actually be
terminated just for forwarding an email. I was just like, “That doesn’t make sense
because I know a lot of us do that.” Then they were like, “Give us 30 minutes to talk
about this and see if there’s any way we can keep you.” Then they did come back in
30 minutes and that’s when they terminated me. What I’m saying is that even in that
conversation, at no point did I perceive it as, “You are the culprit, you are the
absolute terrible person who’s done this thing.”

Imara: When you heard that, how did you feel when they said, “No, we’re
terminating you”?

B: At the time, I felt guilty. I felt guilty because I wanted to be a part of this work. The
reason I decided to come to Netflix was not only because I liked the manager who
was recruiting me, but because I was excited about the potential of influencing
content, of also influencing a company that’s growing at such a rapid rate. I was
heartbroken. I was like, “I cannot believe I’m not going to be a part of this story
anymore.”

Imara: What’s interesting about that to me is that when you then contrast that with
Ted Sarandos’s commentary that he doesn’t believe that there’s a link between
content and real-world harm, that there’s no way that anything that we can be doing
as a company is causing harm in the real world, it seems that he didn’t really have to
look further than his own office building.

B: The ways in which some of his interviews have come across, the ways some of
his emails have come across, obviously he’s completely missed the point. That
particular point was so far out of the bounds of rationality that I was embarrassed for
him because the simple fact is why else would we have ratings on shows? You’re not
supposed to show a rated R show to a five-year-old. Why is that?

It’s because there’s been a determination that they don’t have the skillset or ability to
translate that information that we think that they shouldn’t be exposed to it. We can
definitely say that that person’s perception of trans people could be changed, and
thus the way that they treat a trans person could be fundamentally augmented to be
negative.

Imara: Right. It’s also the entire premise of me and TransLash and my colleagues
that the dehumanization of trans people through culture and portrayal is the
necessary ingredient for the mass amount of violence that takes place against us.
That is to say that these things actually work together. They’re not separate.


B: Exactly.

Imara: The idea that they’re separate is a ridiculous one. It’s even more ridiculous by
the fact that disclosure, which according to The Verge we now know Netflix
drastically underpaid for, that’s the entire point of disclosure is that there’s a real-
world link between portrayals in Hollywood and violence against trans people.
Perhaps not everyone watched it. The only person that’s paid the price in this entire
affair so far and paid the highest price, I should say, is you. Someone who is Black
and trans and non-binary and pregnant is the person rather who’s paid the highest
price so far.


Not Dave Chappelle who is crisscrossing the world on a grievance tour saying that
he’s being silenced, which I continue to be mystified by. Not those saying that this is
a part of cancel culture. Not even some of your former white colleagues who also
spoke up and were courageous and brave throughout this, but you. I’m wondering
how you understand that and how you process that as a Black trans person.


B: It’s taken me a couple of weeks to really digest everything that’s happened. I
remember when the suspensions happened of Terra Field, they suspended her on
one day and it took them three days to investigate and make a determination that
she did nothing wrong and to let her back. Somehow as I was recapping this timeline
in my head, the Bloomberg article comes out on the 13th. By the evening of the 14th,
I’m terminated. I just keep thinking to myself, “If it took three days to investigate to
exonerate someone, it seems like it should have taken at least three days to make
the determination someone was guilty.”


I definitely feel as though it’s a reminder that for some reason, I was more
expendable. I’m not sure how that conclusion can be made because I also was the
person who every time Netflix needed to have someone speak about trans benefits,
trans culture, to speak at the HBCU program that they have, they would ask me to
come talk about being a Black person in Netflix. I did that willingly because I thought
that it was a place that really wanted Black people and Black trans people to be
successful. I’ve converted from this person who felt guilty to a person who’s angry.

Imara: Where in this do you believe is the hope for the possibility of change that the
sacrifice that you’ve made and the pain that’s been endured by people inside the
company and outside the company? I know for me, this has been a really hard
month and I don’t work there. They don’t pay my bills. My colleagues, I don’t go to
work every day. I don’t have to talk to these people, but where for you, if at all,
remains the hope that you began when you started at Netflix and the hope that you
have for how content can make a better world?

B: There’s two things that I keep thinking about. First and foremost, I have gotten
dozens of messages from my former Netflix colleagues, from every other type of
colleague I’ve ever worked with reminding me of the value that I have in society.
What I mean by that is there are people who said, for instance, “You were the
embodiment of Netflix values. Now I wonder if you are simply the value add and not
the values that we’ve written.” I think there’s something powerful about that.
One of the things I think that’s a struggle for so many people is that, especially when
you get to the pinnacle of some of these companies, you’ve worked your whole
career, you’re working in some of the most prestigious companies in the world, it’s so
easy to forget to be hungry, to be passionate about the work that you do. I think that
I’ve helped people reconnect with that passion and reconnect with that hunger. I
think that’s really cool. It doesn’t matter if I have a huge 401(k) or my house is paid
off if there’s nothing for me to hold that up with.

The second part of it is my wife and I spent most of the weekend working on the
nursery for our son because I was just like, “About 35 days, he’s going to be here.” I
know for a fact that by my actions right now, I’ve made the world slightly better for
him. If I continue to do that, if I continue to encourage other people to do that, if I
continue to speak out, it’s going to get even more better for him.

That’s one of the things that’s interesting about all of this is that it’s probably the most
tenuous time of my life for this to happen, but it’s also the time that I’m probably the
most passionate and determined to ensure this world is better because there’s no
way that I want him to have the exact same experience that I did just like my mother
didn’t want me to have the exact same experience that she did. That goal is a center
of my universe.

Imara: You wrote in The Washington Post that you wanted to always do things that
would make your mother proud. I am absolutely positive that as your son looks back
over your life, that there’s so many things already that he will be able to look to with
tremendous pride and gratitude. Thank you so much for joining us.

B: Thank you again for having me.

Imara: That was B Pagels-Minor, a former senior data project manager at Netflix and
leader of that organization’s walkout in demands for change.

Imara: To delve even deeper into what’s going on at Netflix, I invited one of the top
reporters covering the Dave Chappelle saga and the company’s ongoing
mishandling of the situation. Zoe Schiffer is a senior reporter at The Verge and has
broken story after story about this whole ordeal, making her the ideal to help us pull
back the curtain and get a look behind the scenes at Netflix. Zoe’s also written for
Vox and The San Francisco Chronicle among others and is a must-follow if you want
hard-hitting reporting and smart analysis about the world of tech. Zoe has also done
some particularly strong reporting around labor organizing at major tech companies.
Zoe, thank you so much for joining me today.

Zoe: Thank you so much for having me.

Imara: First off, I’m wondering if you can give us a snapshot of Netflix. How big is it?
What’s its reach and how important has it become within the realm of entertainment
in Hollywood?

Zoe: Netflix has this interesting place in both Silicon Valley and Hollywood. It has
enormous sway in Hollywood in particular because it’s producing a lot of the content
that has become wildly popular in the past few years. A lot of the major studios and
the major talent are now really beholden to it. As a company, it’s 12,000 employees.
It’s one of the FANG companies so it’s financially very successful, so it also has that
outsized control and sway in Silicon valley.

Imara: Content-wise, they’ve committed to releasing or initiating $6 billion of content
next year, for example. I think that also gives us a sense– That’s just unheard of for
entertainment companies in the modern era.

Zoe: Exactly. They’ve really taken this dual approach where they’re producing Netflix
originals, which we all know, and the Dave Chappelle special falls in this category
where they get the boutique treatment within Netflix. There’s a lot of attention paid to
this type of content. Then they’re constantly acquiring new titles and licensing new
titles on the platform as well.

Imara: Licensing existing titles that people know like Friends, for example, and a
whole host of other things.

Zoe: Yes, exactly. New content as well. They’re watching Sundance, they’re seeing
what new movies come out and they’re acquiring those for the platform.

Imara: Right. Since, for example, in Hollywood, licensing and producing new content
are both really key parts of the business, it seems like they have outsized influence.

Zoe: Yes, absolutely. There’s no question. I think this really speaks to why we
haven’t heard a lot of the internal turmoil going on at Netflix because employees are
in this position where if you’re on the entertainment side of the house, you do not
want to speak out against Netflix because you can get put on a list and it can
become very, very difficult for you to get hired in Hollywood. We know that
Hollywood operates in this way.

Then if you’re a tech employee, you’re aware of the extent to which tech companies
will go to to stop employees from speaking out. You might have a little more insight
into the NDA that you’ve signed, and those NDAs at Netflix are very, very strict.
There’s this dual-layer pressure to stop people from speaking out.

Imara: You touched upon, for example, that if you’re a person like Chappelle, you
get “boutique treatment” at Netflix with regard to content creation. What is their
relationship with Dave Chappelle and why have they crafted this entire area of doing
comedic specials, which from time to time has been a landmine for the company?
For me, the pull back and forth between them and the comedian Monique speaks to
that.

Zoe: Yes, absolutely. They’ve said outright that the comedy specials that they
produce are wildly popular with the audience. I think personally, there’s this feeling
among executives that they like the content, they like pushing the envelope a little
bit, and they like creating content that sets the cultural conversation. That’s
something I’ve just heard from employees, that there’s this pride that they’re the ones
producing the comedy specials that get talked about day in day out on social media.
This goes back to 2016, Netflix signed a deal with Dave Chappelle to produce six
comedy specials for the platform.

I think he was paid around $20 million for each of them. The company has said now
that Sticks & Stones was Netflix’s most popular comedy special to date. That was
Chappelle’s previous special before the closer. I think we can get a sense of why
they’re so committed to him as a performer and comedian. They’ve paid an
enormous amount of money to Chappelle, much more than some of the other pieces
of popular content that we know about that have been produced lately, and the
content has been wildly successful with the audience.

Imara: Bloomberg reported essentially that Ted Sarandos signed off on the closer
directly. I had done some reading about Netflix, specifically Reed Hastings who is
the founder and now the co-CEO as well, a book that he’d written called No Rules:
Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention. In it he goes into this long conversation about
how they have a dispersed decision-making model. That is to say that they try to
push decision-making to the lowest level, the people that are closest to content or to
conversations with talent because they believe that that drives the best outcome.
For me, the fact that this rose all the way up to Ted Sarandos was a giant red flag to
me personally as a person who’s worked in an entertainment company before
because normally, people want to claim success around content. If they believe that
something’s going to thrive, they embrace it. They don’t want to kick it to someone
else to perhaps get the credit. I’m wondering how that conversation strikes you and
whether or not that is something that is surprising that happened in Netflix.
Zoe: That’s a really interesting point. I think on one level, it’s not shocking to me that
a piece of content that was known to be potentially controversial and that had cost
them $24.1 million would rise up the ranks. The fact that the co-CEO was signing off
on a piece of content I do think is significant. It seems like Netflix went into this
gearing up for a potential PR battle, and had really decided ahead of time that they
were going to stand by the special.

Imara: What do you think this says about Ted Sarandos and his leadership style?

Zoe: I think that that’s such an interesting question and something I think about all
the time. One thing that is on my mind lately, Facebook, for example, has been
getting a lot of criticism, and the tagline externally is the company put profits over
people. There’s part of me that thinks, as someone who worked in tech before
becoming a journalist, it is not at all shocking to me that a for-profit organization is
prioritizing profits.

It’s right in the structure, what is going to be important to these people. While I think
it’s very admirable that employees are pushing the company to do better, I think that
when Ted Sarandos comes out and the first thing he says is, “Look, it cost us this
much and it’s popular with our audience,” I think we have our answers right before
us.

Imara: For me, that response and the Netflix immediate gravitation towards the idea
of for-profit struck me very much as in line with what we’re hearing from Facebook
and what we’ve heard from Mark Zuckerberg for the past now five years. It’s not out
of line. That’s interesting that in this age of understanding the way in which tech and
content can cause real-world harm, that CEOs of these companies and leaders of
these companies still don’t accept that responsibility even though it’s been proved to
be true.

Zoe: Yes, absolutely. I think one thing that’s really important to look at is
fundamentally, as a labor reporter, what I’m interested in is what is the place that
employees have in this conversation? I actually think the place that employees have
in the Netflix controversy cannot be overstated because one thing that’s really true is
while it might not be shocking that Netflix is prioritizing content that they’ve invested
heavily in over their own employees, it’s also true that they, like many other tech
organizations, have positioned themselves as a very progressive employer.
As soon as we have a hypocrisy like that, we have a company that said, “We care
about you as a person, bring your whole self to work. We have inclusive values,” and
then is falling down on those values, I think we have a story. The story here is that it
becomes an unsafe place for trans employees to work if the content that is being
produced from their perspective is directly harmful to their communities.

Imara: Yes, that’s right. Let’s then turn to the employees. Can you talk a little bit
about your sense of whether or not the trans ERG is embraced by the wider
employee set?

Zoe: I really don’t want to speak on behalf of any of the trans employees, but what
I’ve heard so far is that they have a lot of support. There are a lot of allies internally
at Netflix. For example, I think there are about 40 out trans employees at Netflix at
this time, but the actual employee resource group or the Slack channel is well over
1,000 employees. It was 400 when all of this started.

We heard this first hand at the walkout employees saying, “Look, when I first came
here, I was the only trans woman on my team. I would go to the trans employee
resource group meetings, and there were 7 of us in the room and now there’s almost
50. That feels much less lonely than it used to.” I feel like there’s a way in which the
community itself has grown, support has grown, and their influence has grown.
They’ve been able, at least prior to the Dave Chappelle health controversy to have a
bigger role in conversations around phobic content.

Imara: 1 out of 12 employees is now on that slack channel. That’s-

Zoe: It’s impressive. [chuckles]

Imara: -astounding. Did it surprise you that none of the demands of the ERG with
respect to changes that it wanted to see at Netflix did include removing the content?
For example, that most of it was focused on ways that the company needs to change
with respect to how it operates, who it promotes, and the content that gets funded
because they didn’t make it about, as Dave Chappelle is claiming, silencing him.
Although I don’t know how he’s be silenced with the $25 million check in.

Zoe: Sounds phenomenal. Would love to be silenced in a similar way.

Imara: Indeed. At any point, please contact me. Anyone. Did that surprise you with
regards to how the employees are approaching this?

Zoe: I thought it was a very savvy PR move, I guess I’ll say that. I think that
employees at these big tech organizations have learned from one another. I think
Netflix employees were like, “Look, this is already getting bogged down in this
discussion around cancel culture and censorship, and we don’t even want to touch
that. We want to look at the systemic issues of why this content was able to air in the
first place and what we’re going to do to mitigate harm.” I think that that was a very
strategic decision to not get involved in this conversation around whether or not
Dave Chappelle’s special should stay up or come down but really focus on the larger
issues at play.

Imara: I think that that’s right. It also puts the onus right back on Ted Sarandos and
the leadership to respond on that, right?

Zoe: Exactly.

Imara: It gets them out of the conversation that they wanted to have and on the
conversation that’s more difficult for them to have if they really are about creating
content and making the workplace inclusive as they advertise. I think that there was
some real intelligence behind that.

Zoe: Completely. I think there’s discussion around who’s canceling who, which is just
very unfruitful right now. We’re having a really different conversation because the
only person that’s lost their job is a Netflix employee who’s trans, who’s Black, who’s
pregnant. I think when we want to talk about cancellation, that’s the person who’s
faced some real repercussions for after speaking out. Dave Chappelle’s special is
still up and he’s still getting standing ovations.

Imara: You made the point, and this is so true, that people in entertainment do not
want to be labeled as difficult, do not want to be labeled as having called out their
bosses in any way. Normally it is a career killer, not just a job killer. I think it’s
important for people to understand that, but it’s a career killer. We have seen,
however, so many people being willing to take that risk.

Zoe: Yes. I think we have to really look at who actually is speaking out because one
thing we know for a fact is that the majority of Netflix employees who have spoken
out are on the software side of the business, they’re not on the entertainment side of
the business. Talent who’s spoken out are, Hannah Gatsby being one, it’s talent that
has a lot of power and play in the industry.

I don’t know if we can look at this moment and say, “Wow, this is an enormous shift
for Hollywood,” because I think if you’re a tech employee, you do have that
assurance that you can probably get another tech job and there is more of a culture
of speaking out against wrongs and forcing your company to stand up for its stated
values. I don’t know if that’s true in Hollywood to this point. I think that you have to
really reach a certain level where you can afford to speak out before you’re willing to
really do that.

Imara: I have been surprised by the number of people that have spoken out, I have
to say. Angelica Ross who’s connected to Ryan Murphy who has a big deal on
Netflix said something. Jonathan Van Ness, of course, Wilson Cruz. There’ve been a
number of people that I’ve been surprised, I have to say, who’ve weighed in addition
to other people across the country. I’m wondering if you have a sense, it doesn’t
seem like you do yet, but if this does signify that there’ll be certain changes at Netflix
or in Hollywood when it comes to living up to the values that they say that they hold.

Zoe: I think we have to be clear that for Netflix, it hasn’t translated into a business
problem yet. Netflix had its earnings call last week and I don’t think a single analyst
asked about the walkout or asked about the Dave Chappelle’s controversy.

Imara: Wow.

Zoe: There is this question on whether a cultural problem can translate into a
business problem at which point Netflix will be forced to make changes. I do think
we’ve seen points in the past with the Me Too movement where enough people were
speaking out that Hollywood was really forced to change, and people who previously
had tried to speak about and been silenced were suddenly not going to be silenced
anymore. They were able to speak out and continue getting jobs.
I think it’s a little early to say whether this could be another moment like that. I don’t
know if it’s reached that level in the cultural public conversation yet where we could
even speculate about it, but I think that it’s part of this big labor movement where the
balance of power is shifting away from executives and toward workers, particularly
workers who come together and fight for something collectively. That, I think, could
create real lasting change.

Imara: After all of this, do you think that Ted Sarandos realizes that he has a
problem?


Zoe: I don’t think they’ve given us any indication that they regret putting the special
up, but I think that they’ve stuck very, very close to supporting the special and
supporting Dave Chappelle. While I have to imagine that they’re rethinking how they
give employees a heads up of what content is coming down the pike and maybe
rethinking some of their PR strategy around this stuff, I personally have seen no
indication so far that they’re rethinking their content strategy overall.

Imara: That’s interesting to me because I have had people who are producers and
content creators in Hollywood reach out to me and tell me that they had either
canceled meetings with them or had decided not to shop their content with them.

Zoe: This gets back to the previous answer. If it becomes a business problem for
Netflix, I think they will change their strategy.

Imara: Zoe, thank you so much for coming on and for explaining all of the
complexities around this issue with regards to tech and entertainment and labor
issues, employee groups, executive leadership, and trans issues. I think we’ve all
benefited from your reporting. We’ll continue to follow it, and hope that if the story
continues that we can have you back on at some point to help us explain to it all.

Zoe: Thank you, Imara, so much for having me. Thank you for creating a platform for
me and the other people involved to talk about these issues.

Imara: Of course. That was Zoe Schiffer, a senior reporter at The Verge. Thank you
for joining me on the TransLash Podcast. Now listen all the way through to the end
on the show for something extra. If you’ve liked what you heard, please go to Apple
Podcast to rate and review us. You can listen to TransLash wherever you get your
podcast. Please check us out on the web at translash.org to sign up for our weekly
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Twitter and Instagram @translashmedia, like us on Facebook, and tell your friends.
The TransLash Podcast is produced by TransLash Media. The TranLash team
includes Oliver-Ash Klein, Montana Thomas, Jay McCullough, and Yannick Eike
Mirko. Our intern is Miranda Munson-Burke. Alexander Charles Adams does the
sound editing for our show. Our digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano.
The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of ZZK
Records.

What am I looking forward to? It’s hard to say that I’m looking forward to this. Next
week, of course, is trans week of remembrance where we remember all of those lost
to violence. It looks as if this year might beat last year’s record as the most violent
year. That’s just downright depressing and just underscores the work that we have to
do and why this podcast and why TransLash Media and everyone who’s working to
shift culture and end violence in our country are so vital at this moment. At
TransLash, however, I’m looking forward to all of the things we’re going to be putting
out next week.

We are going to be releasing a zine, which is going to focus on the theme of
migration for trans people, migration within our country to escape one part of the
other in order to feel freer. People who’ve migrated from around the world. I’m also
looking forward to the presentation of a commemoration project. What we’ve done in
cooperation with artist Wripley Bennett is whenever there’s been a passing this year,
we’ve done an artistic representation of that person. We’re going to compile those
and put them both in our zine and in an animation that we’re going to distribute
across social media, so I feel good about that as well.

Are just going to be doing a lot of things to spotlight the voices and the importance of
trans week of remembrance leading up to Trans Day of Remembrance on the 20th.
I’ll also be giving a lot of speeches and doing a lot of public events at various places,
so follow me on social media for those. Just all of the things around that, it always is
a week of beauty because of what people produce and create, but also one of pain
and poignancy. I’ll be holding both of those next week.

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TransLash tells trans stories to save trans lives. As a trusted source for journalists, thought-leaders, movement activists, researchers, and those wanting to know about trans people, we produce narratives about and for the trans community—accurately and reliably. At a time when disinformation about trans people is being used to undermine democracy and human rights, TransLash Media serves as a beacon of hope through the voices that we share with the world.

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TransLash tells trans stories to save trans lives. As a trusted source for journalists, thought-leaders, movement activists, researchers, and those wanting to know about trans people, we produce narratives about and for the trans community—accurately and reliably. At a time when disinformation about trans people is being used to undermine democracy and human rights, TransLash Media serves as a beacon of hope through the voices that we share with the world.

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