In times of crisis there’s nothing like a common enemy to keep everyone united. Lately the knives seem to be out for a certain dancing talk show host with a penchant for pulling slapstick pranks on unsuspecting guests. With so many legitimate reasons for people to feel furious, frustrated or appalled right about now, it seems strange that the media, and in turn everyone else, is suddenly rounding on Ellen Degeneres as Public Enemy Number One.
Full disclosure, I’ve had a personal soft spot for Ellen since I received her book “My Point… and I do have one” for Christmas in 1995. This was back in the good old days when people used to openly say things like, “Women can’t be funny” and that would be considered socially acceptable. Reading Ellen’s hilarious memoir during that time meant a lot to this impressionable young gal who liked to make people laugh whenever humanly possible.
But even if you’ve never been a big fan, surely there are other candidates more worthy of our ire right now? I decided to investigate why Ellen is suddenly copping it so bad.
In fact, there have been murmurings for some time about Ellen being less cool than the fun and friendly persona she projects on her show. I mean she launched her own Lifestyle Brand in 1995 which is usually the first sign of celebrity megalomania.
Then things seemed to really kick off a couple of months back when she was delivering the opening segment of an episode from her LA mansion and described the lockdown experience as being akin to a prison sentence. It demonstrated a breathtaking lack of understanding about what life is actually like Inside – no Ellen, convicted felons don’t have a personal chef preparing their favourite vegan treats – but also the state of affairs for the average American right now. With unemployment soaring and the healthcare system prohibitively expensive for anyone without a job to fund their insurance, the situation is dire. Food banks across the US are struggling to keep up with demand and millions of people are having to suspend their home repayments. To hear someone worth an estimated $330 million complaining about their lot, well it does suggest she is deeply out of touch. But surely this is the case for many of the celebrities we revere, so why come after Ellen in particular?
Maybe it was this combined with the way she ends every episode by encouraging her audience to ‘be kind to one another’ that started to grate on people. If you go around saying things like that long enough, someone’s going to start looking at your personal track record.
Perhaps this is what prompted Buzzfeed journalists to begin investigating whether the transcendental meditation fan was actually living by her principles. Certainly the number of disgruntled former employees they were able to unearth in a short time suggests that something is rotten in the state of The Ellen Show. Most of the anger and examples of maltreatment were directed at the show’s producers rather than the pixie-cropped star herself but as the article rightly stated, she ought to bear some responsibility for the environment that she creates from the top down. You can’t tell your fans to be kind when the people who work for you are being treated like dirt.
But also, let’s get real here. A lot of people who make it to the top in any industry are not the nicest. One in every five CEOs is a psychopath, claims a US study that was reported in The Washington Post. Even if that’s not scientifically accurate I think anecdotally we can all think of a couple of high-ranking arseholes off the top of our heads. Money and power often does that to people.
The question is, how much have we latched onto this thrilling, newfound hatred for a once beloved star just because it feels good to see someone fail? As a society, we have an illustrious history of putting people on pedestals only to gleefully tear them down when we need the comfort of someone else’s shame and humiliation to keep us warm. Is this just another example of that?
Also, if Ellen were a man, would we feel so mad about the idea that she’s not necessarily nice? Who knows if, for example, Jerry Seinfeld is actually a good guy in real life. Remember the time he dated a 17-year-old and dropped her off at school each day in his Porsche? Jerry’s longtime collaborator Larry David has built his whole show, Curb your Enthusiasm, around his deeply unlikeable personality traits and people eat it for breakfast because it’s brilliantly funny and joyfully torturous to watch.
One thing that Ellen has done however and that the world will forever be in debt to her for, is having the courage to come out as lesbian on her TV show in the late 90s. It doesn’t seem that long ago and yet it was effectively the dark ages when you look at the homophobic sentiment that surged when she did.
Appearing on the Oprah show on the same day as the episode aired, Ellen was calm and brave as audience members asked her offensive and painful questions like why she had to shove the message about her sexuality “down their throats”. One women stood up and asked irately what she was supposed to say when her son asked her, ‘Mommy, what’s gay?’. Ellen replied politely, but with a voice full of emotion, that she should tell him what it is, because he should know.
Even Oprah recalled that the most hate mail she’s ever received came as a response to that episode. And while we’re on Oprah, who even knows if she is actually nice behind closed doors? I will love her to the ends of the earth but I’d say there’s a strong possibility she can be awful.
For Ellen, the coming out episode resulted not only in her show being cancelled one season later amid criticisms that it was ‘too gay’ but her career fell into the doldrums for nearly 10 years after. Honestly, if I’d been through all of that I might have started giving zero fucks about other people too.
So returning to my question of whether Ellen is actually a good sort these days with a firm handle on reality, I’d say the answer is potentially not. Should she make sure that there is a fair and respectful work culture on her show? Absolutely. But let’s not forget that she has had an incredibly positive impact on the world, displaying a level of courage that most of us will never need to call on. So does she deserve to be the object of people’s rage and condemnation for a second time in her life? I think that fury could be better directed elsewhere.