About two-thirds of the way into The Age of Spin, the first of Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix specials, Chappelle comes out as a feminist. In some ways, this is not shocking: at this point, feminism has been sufficiently mainstreamed that it would be more surprising for a prominent liberal man to come out against feminism than for it.
But in other ways, it’s deeply shocking because, well, Chappelle spends most of the hour special showing complete and utter disdain for some of the most basic principles of feminism. Though, given that his declaration is almost immediately followed by an assertion that feminist men are known in the streets as “bitch ass n***as,” it is, perhaps, unsurprising that his commitment to the cause might not run particularly deep.
Over the course of The Age of Spin, Chappelle repeatedly shows disdain for anyone of a feminine persuasion. He makes a handful of tired gay jokes that all seem to hinge on the premise that all gay men are swishy, fashion obsessed types. He paints trans women as grotesque caricatures who chop off penises in an attempt to “trick” men into sex (and unironically uses the phrase “discrimination Olympics” while arguing that trans people need to wait their turn for human rights). He attempts to provide context for Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao’s homophobia by discussing the supposedly widespread emasculation of Asian men, which he jokingly attributes both to Hiroshima (which apparently bombed the masculinity out of Japan), and the trend in the Philippines where women traveling abroad to find work leave their husbands at home to take care of the kids.
Yes, “feminist” Dave Chappelle apparently takes issue with men being the primary caretakers in their families.
But for me, personally, the biggest gut punch was Chappelle’s cavalier take on rape. This comes out in a couple of ways. First, there’s the running joke of Chappelle recounting the handful of times he ran into OJ Simpson over the years, a man he paints as friendly, cool, and fun to be around—even while admitting that, yes, OJ probably did it. It is worth noting here that beyond the “it” referred to here (which is, of course, the murder of Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman), there is absolutely no question that Simpson repeatedly abused and assaulted Brown Simpson during the course of their relationship. But apparently, that doesn't much trouble Chappelle, who’s too starstruck to give much thought to the abuse and violence carried out by Simpson’s hands.
Or maybe he just doesn’t think it matters. In a different segment, Chappelle recounts pitching some half-assed superhero concepts to a couple of Hollywood suits. The first—which I won’t go into here—is one more tired gay joke; the second is a Donald Trump-like figure whose world-saving powers are only activated when he lightly touches the vulva of a woman, but because he’s too ugly for women to consent to his touch, he ultimately must resort to rape to save the world.
Chappelle seems to think he’s being very deep as he asks us to consider the possibility that maybe—just maybe!—a rapist might be capable of a great deal of good, too. "That's the dilemma for the audience,” he says, “Because he rapes, but he saves a lot of lives. And he saves way more than he rapes, and he only rapes to save. But he does rape.”
What seems to be lost on Chappelle is this: the notion that rapists do good, that we as a culture might have to wrestle with whether or not that good is outweighed by the harm caused by their rape, is not news to anyone who has been raped. Every time a prominent man is accused of sexual assault, we’re reminded by the press that he does good too. Survivors are made, over and over, to watch as their abusers become celebrated within their industries, win coveted awards, and even get elected president. To ask us to think, really think, about the humanity of a serial abuser, is not groundbreaking or provocative or even particularly deep. And it’s certainly not feminist.
Towards the end of The Age of Spin, Chappelle reveals the real point of his musings on rape. Turning to the topic of Bill Cosby, Chappelle—who claims to feel empathy for Cosby’s victims, despite all signs to the contrary—first compares Cosby’s extensive, repeated history of abusing women to flight training (I’d hate to rewatch to get the exact line, but it’s something to the effect of, “He’s like the Top Gun of rape”), then after a long bit about all the good that Cosby has done for the black community, and what he meant to Chappelle personally, he brings that line back:
He rapes, but he saves. And he saves more than he rapes.
Abuse survivors are used to people treating their pain as collateral damage on some important man’s road to greatness. It’s just painful to see that kind of talk echoed by a man who claims to be a feminist.
Lux Alptraum is a writer, consultant, and comedian with one thing on her mind. This essay originally appeared in her weekly newsletter, The Lux Letter. Past issues can be found here.