The Dilemma of Ellen
A funny thing happened on our way through the pandemic—Ellen DeGeneres lost her luster. And I know there’s a whole bunch of queer people saying, “who cares,” “don’t watch,” “meh,” but for many of us, it’s not so simple.
It was way back in 1997 when Ellen came out to Oprah (because well, she’s Oprah) and then to the world on the cover of Time, her journey culminating with her character coming out on her self-named network sitcom.
And it was a huge deal. Ellen’s Mom was there for her, and for us. There were parents welcoming children home they had long ago kicked out, and queers able to go to work and find a piece of acceptance because they were “just like Ellen.”
Can we name a half-dozen “out” celebrity peers living the mainstream back then? It was a lonely, scary place to be. Today, happily, it’s almost more challenging to find stars who aren’t waving one of our flags. And “then” was a mere 23 years ago.
At the time, everything about Ellen was nice, and genuine, but it wasn’t enough to save her. Ellen was the victim of “cancel culture,” long before it was hip. Christian activists proclaimed her a danger to the country. Her sitcom was taken off the air. Supposed loyal friends abandoned her. There were death threats and bomb threats, and Ellen was going straight to hell.
But sweet-as-pie hid a tough-as-leather core. Ellen didn’t make the haters happy by sailing off down the River Styx. Nope. She stayed in Hollywood, fighting for her life, her career. And then came Anne Heche, and we witnessed the best and worst of public displays.
For the best, it was back to Oprah—their interview was the first time many people got to see an out lesbian couple together—and discover, you know, they weren’t all that terrifying. For the worst, well none of us will ever know why Anne broke down, but for both Ellen and Anne, it was another round of being the butt of every talk show host’s jokes.
Tested again, Ellen hung in there, fighting back. Her voice only, safely, in The Little Mermaid, then the call to host the Oscars, and ultimately, she reincarnated into the rehabilitated Ellen we all know today. Or at least all knew, up until the pandemic, when it turned out, spoiler alert, Ellen might not be the nicest person in the room.
Oh my god, stop the presses. She’s a woman kicked to the curb who, rather than rolling over and playing dead, fought on, clawing her way back, and then surpassing her start to make it to the top. Flash! A person who can do that isn’t always the nicest person in the room.
Now I grant you, when someone’s image is built on “niceness,” not being the nicest is much more complicated. Does anyone remember when Rosie O’Donnell was considered the “Queen of Nice?” Yeah.
Podcaster Kevin Porter asked people for “the most insane stories you've heard about Ellen being mean…” and he’d give money to charity for each answer. Kevin got lots of responses, many obviously fake, all unverified. They included people saying she passed them in the hall without saying “hello.”
Twitter and pandemics can be a deadly combination. Bored people with a snarky platform. Please!
Another “scathing” report comes from a person plucked from the audience to participate in the show. Her complaints against Ellen’s “hostile environment” include being told to jump and clap, not be funnier than the host (Ellen), laugh at the host's jokes, and, here’s the big one, when the cameras stopped rolling for commercials, Ellen didn’t talk to anyone. She accused Ellen of “sitting moodily!” And this merited ink.
My intention is not to defend Ellen’s niceness. Truthfully, she probably isn’t the nicest person in the room. But the Australians have a phrase about “tall poppy syndrome.” The tallest poppy, aka the most successful, must be cut down. And when that syndrome meets women, it’s an unleashing of ugly. Ask Oprah, she’s been there.
When Ellen came out in 1997 she lost her job, and nowhere in the world could two same-sex couples be married. Today, Ellen is fabulously wealthy and we can be married in all sorts of places. And maybe she’s traded a bit of her gay culture for rich culture. I don’t know.
But I do know cancel culture is alive and well. Ellen has offered an apology, but her detractors claim it “rings hallow.” Replacement names are being bandied about.
Most people who change the world are complicated. Ellen changed the world. I know she changed my world for the better. We can ask, even demand, she be better, do better, but only if we are willing to stand with her while she does.##