Last weekend, Ellen DeGeneres was seen at a football game with former US president George W. Bush. The backlash came quickly as many consider Bush to be a war criminal with an abysmally harmful record with the LGBTQ community. It’s a record that has shaped much of the continued difficulties the queer community has experienced and it’s the latter that makes Ellen, an outspoken lesbian in Hollywood, look like a hypocrite. She famously came out of the closet in 1997, faced backlash, but is now one of the most powerful people in entertainment.
This situation isn’t just about Ellen betraying her own community by cozying up to Bush, it’s also about whether or not she’s aligned herself to her wealth and power, and not her identity, and if so, this is a privilege she has enjoyed for the better part of the past two decades. Many wealthy people do the same, without the public scrutiny. The problem with Ellen is that her brand is built on being nice - she has commodified kindness as not only a part of her character, but often sells it as an example to others in instructing them how to be better people. And the cracks in that brand are starting to show. As Constance Grady wrote at Vox, “In our current political moment, niceness no longer appears to be a cure-all. And uncritical niceness may no longer be a viable brand, even for someone as good at wielding it as Ellen is.”
Being openly comfortable with a president who refused to acknowledge and properly classify LGBTQ hate crimes, who often fired up his supporters with anti-gay evangelical Christian rhetoric that solidly remains as strong as the Republican gun lobby (and much more) is not kind. But Ellen and Bush have niceness in common. The veneer of niceness was what Bush often attempted to fall back on during his presidency, a quality that a more vicious president like Trump does not bother to engage in. Bush’s political legacy includes many confusing moments pertaining to the LGBTQ community - he was often punished and pushed around by other more outwardly anti-gay Republicans when he made any movement toward equality, using queer people as political pawns, while attempting to come across as kind and advocating tolerance. This “gentle”, casual homophobia is simply not acceptable by many today; in fact, it is dangerous.
Here’s how Ellen addressed the Bush backlash on her show:
Critics of her response are calling it cringe-worthy and tone-deaf, that she’s out of touch with how the Bush legacy has harmed millions of people, including her own community. But above that, she’s relying on a trope of kindness that cannot work anymore - we know too much. She’s around fancy people because she is a fancy person and positioning herself as an insider’s outsider doesn’t fly anymore. Her argument was less about having to be around people she disagrees with by virtue of her fame- she seems to actually want to be able to be celebrated for being friends with someone with a different opinion. The reducing of people’s humanity for the sake of an opinion is not only unkind, it’s wrong. Principled people who believe in a better, equitable, and respectful world do not reduce human rights to an opinion. Choosing bravery, dignity, and respect should not be considered “unkind”.
But now the conversation has become about grace, forgiveness, and friendship – and this is not surprising but it’s still frustrating. It is a twisted result of the manipulation of language that allows people to automatically make excuses for Ellen, and fail to protect the people who need it. People often get away with oppressive opinions and say that not only do they not know better, are not interested in knowing more, but don’t mean harm. It’s totally dishonest, absolutely harmful - and not nice.