I Was Wrong About Ellen
This story is long overdue. Over a year ago, I wrote about some of the criticism Ellen DeGeneres got regarding her friendship with George W. Bush, and… I defended her.
Consider this my formal retraction — and one that’s been a long time coming.
I’m not afraid to be wrong. I don’t have a problem with admitting I was wrong, either. But I have been sitting on this story for a long time because the reality is so damn sad.
Did I believe in Ellen because I’m totally naive? As a person on the spectrum of autism, I do tend to struggle with the idea of manipulation, deception, and general hypocrisy. But I’d like to think I’ve learned how to be much wiser about people as I’ve gotten older. And for the most part, I think I have gotten better at recognizing toxic people. But alas, my discernment is far from perfect.
When it comes to Ellen DeGeneres, I stood up for an over-privileged white lady because I liked her message. I wanted it all to be authentic. And I really wanted to think she practiced what she preached. No, I didn’t understand her friendship with people like George W., but I wanted to believe it existed because her message of kindness was real.
For a long time, though, I failed to recognize how her connection to certain people and her attitude about the whole thing was pure privilege. Friends tried to tell me. Strangers tried to tell me.
But I still didn’t get it.
I failed to look more critically at Ellen, the way I typically would do with other celebrities or wealthy televangelists. That was irresponsible on my part, particularly as someone who makes their living discussing cultural issues so often.
Had I looked closer, I probably would have seen how unkind Ellen can be. Because it’s not as if she truly goes out of her way to hide who she is.
I just didn’t pay attention.
Yesterday, Twitter celebrated the anniversary of Ellen’s awkward AF interview with Dakota Johnson. The one where Dakota corrected a lie the TV talk show host was trying to push.
When Ellen suggested that the Fifty Shades of Grey star had snubbed her by not sending an invitation to her thirtieth birthday party, Dakota set the record straight.
“Actually, no, that’s not the truth, Ellen,” she said.
“You were invited," the actress continued. “Last time I was on the show last year, you gave me a bunch of s*%t about not inviting you, but I didn’t even know you wanted to be invited. I didn’t even know you liked me!”
Ellen wouldn’t let it go. “Of course I like you,” the host insisted. “You knew I liked you! You’ve been on the show many times and don’t I show like?”
“But I did invite you and you didn’t come,” the actress explained.
The cringefest continued with Ellen insisting that couldn’t be true. Dakota finally called on The Ellen Show’s executive producer, Jonathan Norman, for support. “Ask everybody,” she said, gesturing around the stage. “Ask Jonathan, your producer.” Off-camera, someone concurred that Ellen had indeed been invited to the party, and then the comedian asked out loud why she didn’t go.
In the end, Ellen appeared to make up some shit about how she had a “thing,” and that the party was probably too far away, like in Malibu.
In reality, though, the party took place on October 5 last year, and Ellen was seen the very next day in Texas getting chummy with the former President — and famously anti-LGBTQ — George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys game.
All things considered, it’s sort of strange how much Ellen tried to drag Dakota over a birthday party, and it gave great insight into the perceived self-importance of the comedian.
The interview didn’t recover. Dakota made the supposed faux pas of mentioning Tig Nataro, and called them her favorite comedian.
Ellen punched right back.
“I was just talking to my favorite actress the other day,” she replied. “Jen Aniston.”
To make matters worse, Ellen announced that she should get credit for introducing Dakota to Tig in the first place.
“Tig is hilarious,” Ellen agreed. “But you saw her first at my birthday party, so I feel like I introduced her to you.”
But Dakota wasn’t having it. “I had left your birthday party before that happened,” Dakota replied. Ellen immediately wanted to know why she left early and the actress replied that the interview really wasn’t going well.
You can watch the entire devastatingly — or, deliciously — awkward “conversation” for yourself.
To be honest, I never looked too closely at the jokes Ellen made, or just how uncomfortable she’s made so many celebrities feel. In hindsight, I now see a certain sort of cruel undercurrent in her whole routine. I can’t believe I missed this, but Ellen seems to get off on embarrassing other people, and it frequently crosses multiple lines.
I made the rookie mistake of defending someone because I liked them and liked their message. Which wasn’t any different from the people who defend their friends over abuse allegations, because they think they’re so nice. Looking back on all of it, it’s hard to believe that I was that silly about the whole thing.
Had I spent some time watching the show — instead of just a few funny clips over the years — I might have realized that she uses discomfort as a crutch in her comedy. And that doesn’t really jive with the whole queen of nice facade, does it?
Not when you’re willfully forcing people to admit pregnancies, divulge intimate details of their love lives, or basically looking for their weaknesses as your general interview technique.
Nope, I was wrong about Ellen, and it feels a lot like being wrong about white privilege, racism, or any other allegation of abuse. It was easier to believe that the funny, rich, white lady who starred in Mr. Wrong was the real deal. Easy to think she really did want to help other people and make this world a better place.
But I’ve noticed a disturbing trend while watching some of her old interviews lately. She doesn’t seem to know how to back down or apologize. When people tell her she’s wrong, or when they even admit that something has hurt them, Ellen doesn’t empathize.
She just keeps digging.
In that infamous interview with Dakota Johnson, when the actress admitted that she didn’t know if Ellen even liked her, the talk show host tried to convince her that she should have known or felt differently than she did.
Ellen, as the “Be kind” lady easily could have apologized, or expressed some regret that Dakota had been uncertain. Instead, she doubled down on the shame to tell her that she was wrong and should have known better.
It’s just another form of gaslighting. Instead of acknowledging that relationships are hard — and I’d suspect that especially goes for celebrities — Ellen doubled-down on the idea that she had always “shown her like” to Dakota.
Hmm. This could have been a teachable moment. Maybe Ellen isn’t as nice and friendly as she likes to think she is.
There are a lot of people who would argue that none of this matters. As in, who cares if a talk show host is really as nice as her celebrity persona heavily implies. I’d argue that it matters because the celebrities we revere do shape our culture in many ways — like it or not.
And Hollywood has a long history of letting various abuses slide. Our reactions to allegations of abuse among celebrities frequently parallels the complex nature of our feelings about abuse among the rest of us. Just look at our supremely divided reactions to the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard saga.
We’re only human, and we’ve all got a strong disposition to believe the strangers we like. Often, we won’t even contemplate the possibility of their guilt.
Plus, our persuasions frequently favor those with privilege. White people, slim bodies, pretty people, rich people, those who happened to do something “really nice” one time on TV… the reasons vary, but they’re frequently pretty lame.
To be honest, I mistook some of the hardships Ellen went through earlier in her career as a lesbian for “proof” that she couldn’t really be so terrible.
Obviously, that’s ridiculous, but it’s the sort of concession many of us make with privileged people. “Oh, they couldn’t possibly do that,” we say to ourselves. Except yes, yes they can.
It’s unseemly, but anyone can be morally deficient despite various niceties, like giving away cars on TV.
So, what’s the lesson here?
Well, for one thing, accountability matters. It’s not enough to act like a decent person on TV and then treat the people who work for you like trash. But more than that, we — the viewers, the audience, the people marketing with Ellen and the rest of us who are being marketed to — have voices and our voices are powerful.
The tide is finally turning with Ellen because people are using those voices.
Dakota Johnson showed us how to not take crap from a pushy and rude person with a huge personality. But, she’s not the first person to do it. Back in 2016, Michelle Obama had enough of Ellen’s antics in CVS and point-blank told her she’s annoying.
Three years earlier, Ellen pressed Taylor Swift to the verge of tears as she mocked the musician’s dating history and insisted that she’d had a relationship with Zac Efron.
“Stop it, stop it, stop” Swift screamed. She told Ellen, “This makes me feel so bad about myself. Every time I come up here, you put a different dude up there on the screen, and it makes me really question what I stand for as a human being. There’s never been two guys on the screen two visits in a row. It’s sad.”
The point is, how can we as a culture truly practice kindness when our loudest voices on the matter are enormous hypocrites? Ellen is the “Be Kind” lady. Melania Trump is the “Be Best”/ “don’t bully” lady.
And it’s nothing but lip service.
The good news, of course, is that we all get a vote. We voted out Trump, and now, we can use our voices and choices to stop enabling Ellen too.
For further reading: