Woke Waterloo at Netflix?

With targeted staff cuts, new corporate ethos, streamer takes stand for creative independence against identitarian conformity.
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Dave Chappelle billboard, The Closer
Netflix billboard above Hollywood Blvd. promoting Dave Chappelle comedy special "The Closer" in October, 2021.
(AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

Dave Chappelle's 2021 Netflix stand-up special "The Closer" sparked protests from the streamer's own employees over allegedly anti-trans jokes.

Now, the platform is drawing an unmistakable line in the sand, proclaiming a corporate culture that prizes individual creative freedom above the collective ideological discipline enforced by cancel culture.

Netflix's updated corporate culture memo says the company won't "censor specific artists or voices," even material employees may deem "harmful."

"If you'd find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you," the memo none-too-subtly hints.

The revelation suggests Netflix, bludgeoned by falling stock prices and a shrinking subscriber base, is declaring independence (at least aspirationally) from the identitarian left orthodoxies shackling the entertainment industry — perhaps taking to heart a social media meme embraced by the right: "Get woke, go broke."

Elon Musk — now mounting his own bid to restore expressive freedom at Twitter — weighed in on Netflix's woes, suggesting the platform had become "unwatchable" thanks to a "woke mind virus" behind content like "He's Expecting" and the "One Day at a Time" reboot.

While the restatement of the streaming platform's company creed might be interpreted as mere words — little more than a calculated feint to placate a customer base weary of cultural revolution and ideological purges — Netflix appears to be backing it up with actions.

Nearly 70 contractors writing for the company's left-wing brands such as the black-centric "Strong Black Lead" and the Asian-focused "Golden" were let go from the company as part of a downsizing effort the company has undertaken over the past several weeks. 

Many of the workers reportedly only discovered their dismissal over Zoom, or by learning via the communication app Slack that their work channels had been shut down. 

Also reportedly suffering firings were the LGBTQ brand "Most" and the Latino-geared project "Con Todo." 

Resentment over the firings swept across social media. Netflix had "hired a powerhouse team of creators from a variety of marginalized communities and they were performing exceptionally well," wrote "empathy worker" Karla Monteresso on Twitter. "Had us all invested in their work." 

Netflix also canceled "Anti-Racist Baby," an animated take on progressive activist-publicist Ibram X. Kendi's book of the same name, as well as "Pearl," Meghan Markle's planned animated project focused on a young girl who draws inspiration from powerful women.

The Netflix pivot comes after it fired veteran actor Frank Langella from a new adaptation of "The Fall of the House of Usher" over alleged on-set misbehavior.

The "Frost/Nixon" star blamed "Cancel Culture" for his removal in an outraged, defiant rebuttal to the charges published by Deadline.com, a left-leaning entertainment news site — an editorial decision which may itself be another sign of an incipient cultural thaw.

Nico Perrino, vice president of communications for FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), applauds Netflix for making a commitment to free expression. Perrino says we've often seen just the opposite, particularly from academia.

"Colleges and university leaders will be wishy washy, issue milquetoast statements in defense of free speech," Perrino says. "Those who wish to censor seize on that weakness, often with success."

Netflix's most recent declaration, he says, "recognizes that America is a diverse place and content needs to be created for a diverse community."

Corporations often bow to woke sensibilities, from sharing pro-LGBTQ+ flags on social media to paying travel costs for employees seeking abortions. The Netflix corporate statement suggests another path forward.

Perrino notes a similar corporate decision made by Coinbase, a cryptocurrency platform.

That company's CEO, Brian Armstrong, announced in 2020 Coinbase will avoid political statements of all kinds. Mass resignations ensued for the San Francisco-based firm. A year later, the company said the decision enhanced its bottom line.

Perrino says Disney, by comparison, initially avoided taking a political side when Florida passed legislation regarding sexual identity content in elementary school lessons. Pressure from progressive activists nudged the Mouse House to change those plans earlier this year.

Jeanmarie Simpson, founding artistic director of the "radically inclusive" Arizona Theatre Matters in Glendale, Ariz., says Netflix's declaration was based on finances, nothing more.

"They're not defending free speech," she says. "There's money to be made [with Chappelle's specials]. There's a market for this ... lots of people will buy this."

She says nonprofit platforms would be more likely to avoid specials like "The Closer." Corporations, by comparison, have different needs.

"As long as you're for-profit, you necessarily must focus on the bottom line," she says.

Simpson acknowledges Chappelle as a comedic "genius." Simpson still loathed his material in "The Closer."

"I think if we believe in the First Amendment," Simpson says, "we have to let people talk about things we don't like and let them fail when people stop listening to them."

"I don't approve of censorship," she adds.

The host of "Deprogrammed with Keri Smith" is also unconvinced Netflix has struck a blow against woke culture, per se. It's just show business, the social justice apostate suspects.

It's all about Chappelle, says Smith, whose podcast helps make sense of her former social justice belief system.

"The company wouldn't have issued this if they didn't have a big star like Chappelle to keep doing specials with," says Smith, who previously served as a comedy manager for acts like Margaret Cho and W. Kamau Bell. "He's one of the biggest comedians of all time who happens to be not woke in some areas. This creates some kind of justification for that."

Another similarly unwoke comic, Ricky Gervais, gets his next Netflix closeup May 24 with the comedy special "SuperNature."

Other industries, Smith cautions, are still doubling down on their woke, identitarian bets. Marvel Comics, for example, just introduced two new transgender mutant heroes, Escapade and Morgan Red.

Smith sees other signs, though, that the current woke mindset may be in retreat.

"The tide is turning, culturally, from the ground up," she says, adding corporations can only ignore the public's desires for so long. 

Just the News Staff contributed to this article.