Has Ellen’s DeGenerosity gone too far?

Written by Comment, Featured

Ellen DeGeneres is a TV host who will be best known to students as the presenter of a self-titled, three-quarter-hour-long talk show that tries its hardest to celebrate singing children and to remove any and all entertainment value from whichever memes her production team brings to her attention.

The YouTube channel featuring highlights from the show includes the Jonas Brothers pranking fans, Adam Levine relating an anecdote about his three year old and a video called “Ellen’s New Ways to Eat Cheetos”: you’d be forgiven for thinking she’s not the edgiest of comedians. Indeed, most of those reading this paper (yes, both of you) are likely too young to remember the fifteen minutes she spent in the spotlight as one of the most controversial figures in Hollywood.

Ellen has made a return to controversy, not by pioneering for gay rights but by spending time with George W. Bush

The year was 1997, and whereas nowadays one has to mouth off about safe spaces and “triggered liberals” to be branded a provocateur (bonus points for talking about how your free speech is under threat by, well, exercising your free speech), Ellen’s source of infamy was being gay. A different time entirely, coming out set her career back years. “No-one wanted to hire me, no-one wanted to work with me,” she said in a recent interview with David Letterman for Netflix. Her sitcom – Ellen – was taken off-air shortly after she made the announcement, once sponsors started to dry up. Her career, or career comeback, is a source of inspiration to anyone who has to face the insurmountably difficult choice between what is right and what is easy.

Over two decades later, Ellen has made a return to controversy. Instead of pioneering gay rights, now she has been filmed sitting next to George W Bush. The former US President is perhaps the most controversial in living memory – no mean feat considering one of his competitors tried to reform healthcare in a country where anything vaguely approaching the NHS is denounced as socialist, and another was impeached – and as one can expect in 2019, a twitterstorm developed. Ellen responded with a four minute video going further into detail about the incident, and amidst jokes about her new iPhone and the football game the two were watching at the time, she said “When I say be kind to each other I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do: I mean be kind to everyone”.

Unpacking what she said is tricky: in a time where politics is becoming more polarised and divided, the sentiment is certainly helpful in plenty of contexts, and one people seem to have forgotten. The idea of respecting alternative points of view would certainly help in debates around Brexit, voting intentions and our political leadership, for example.

However, one of the areas where this is less constructive is the legacy of George Bush, or rather the most contentious areas thereof. No-one is upset at DeGeneres associating with Bush because he used federal power to influence state education policy, or because of the finer points of his African aid strategy. Paradoxically, as his time at the helm of the US government blurs further and further into history, his detractors have become sharper and sharper. While not agreed on everything, opposition has become more cohesive and better informed.

The source of upset at what DeGeneres did is far from singular, but the main point of contention is the Iraq War. The conflict has only shaky justification under international law, and according to the 2016 Iraq Inquiry (conducted in the UK), failed to achieve what it set out to and led to destabilisation in the region, with thousands dead and many more injured.

One can disagree on foreign involvement, and the use of conflict in the 21st century, but such a flippant disregard for the law, for human life and for civil liberties are not conducive to peace or to the wellbeing of the international community.

It is a sign of supreme privilege when a deadly belief system can be downgraded to a “different opinion”

DeGeneres wasn’t with Bush to talk disagreements, or to try and put him to rights. She didn’t even consider that: she looked at a man responsible for the deaths of thousands and a war many consider to be illegal, and didn’t see either as important. It is a sign of supreme privilege where a belief system as deadly as Bush’s can be downgraded to a “different opinion”: a “different opinion” that for many has meant death cannot be as insignificant as that. DeGeneres used to be keenly socially conscious, even if meant losing her career, and now it would seem her once razor-sharp instinct for considering the right thing, and not the easy thing, has faded.

Last modified: 27th October 2019

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