Our collective reckoning with the concept of celebrity and its true societal worth over the past six months or so has been one of many curious side-effects of our current period of unprecedented socio-political change. Between the literal pandemic and the ongoing protests against racism and state-sanctioned police brutality, the actions and rhetoric of famous people have acted somewhere between a frivolous distraction and the signs of true backlash to our current class hierarchy. In short, we’re sick of celebrity bullsh*t and want more than empty words. We saw this in action when Ellen DeGeneres, one of the most popular and beloved figures in modern American media, faced substantial pushback from fans, social media, and even the tabloids after years of bullying and bad behavior rumors finally caught up with the talk-show behemoth. We have little tolerance for the meaningless buzz phrases of ‘be kind’ at the best of times, but especially during a period of tumultuous political change and coming from a white woman who seldom practices what she preaches. Of course, this has not diluted DeGeneres’s popularity with her core audience, the supposed ‘silent majority’ of 30 to 50-year-old white women who Lainey Gossip refers to cheekily as the ‘minivan majority.’ There will always be a gap in the market for lightweight sentiment wrapped up in the sheen of wacky relatability, even as it becomes ever-more unpalatable to the forces of the zeitgeist.
And that brings me to one Kristen Bell.
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This is my first ever bathroom selfie. I'm quite pleased with it. Because #TheWorldNeedsMorePurplePeople is coming out soon!!! And with everything closed, I crafted my own tee shirt before I recorded the audio book this morning from my house. @hartben and I wrote #TheWorldNeedsMorePurplePeople, illustrated by @d_wiseman, as a guide for kids to become #PurplePeople. As @hartben said, "this book is our way to spark some human connection back into the world." I am so very proud of this book, thank you @hartben,@d_wiseman and @randomhouse 💜 #ImAPurplePerson
Bell is probably best known to most of you for her work on beloved TV series like Veronica Mars and The Good Place, as well as her voice, work in Disney’s indomitable animated cash cow, Frozen. She’s been working steadily in film, television, and theater for two decades now and has a solid resume of work under her belt that would be the envy of many a working actor. To use the vernacular of the podcast Who Weekly, Kristen Bell is undeniably a Them, a big-name actor whose face and projects are recognizable to the masses. Of course, even the most hard-working and versatile star in the industry can afford to add a new string to their bow, and Bell has done that with gusto.
Yes, she’s a YouTuber now. OK, that’s not entirely accurate. She’s not out there with her own channel where she’s asking viewers to hit that bell and click the link below for an exclusive deal on Audible. Bell has made a much savvier move by partnering with Ellen DeGeneres and gaining access to her wildly popular channel on the platform. The Ellen Show has over 37.4 million subscribers on YouTube, which is more than the population of Morocco and puts the channel above Rihanna and that company that gave us ‘Baby Shark’ in terms of loyalty. DeGeneres’s show always lent itself well to those ‘viral moments’ that have become a key part of any talk-show’s brand, and she certainly led the way for all the dudes in late-night to follow suit, for better or worse. Ellen loves to bring flash-in-the-pan viral stars onto her show to make them part of her relatable brand but Bell is the biggest star in her roster, and her show on the channel, #Momsplaining, consistently brings in strong numbers.
It’s a savvy strategy: Align yourself with one of America’s most beloved TV stars and build a brand based on a similar strategy of sunshine and relatability. The key difference is, of course, that Bell is a straight woman who is married to a man — actor-comedian-podcaster Dax Shepard — and has children with him. While DeGeneres has never exactly been a radical force on her show, her running jokes about being glad that she doesn’t have kids are as close to transgressive as her comedy gets on a show designed to be the bastion of safeness. Bell gets to fill in that gap and she does it with gusto, letting audiences in on the hilarious trials and tribulations of parenthood.
It’s a curious development for Bell to define her public brand as that of a celebrity mother given that she and Shepard have loudly fought for years for the right to keep their children safe from the gaze of the paparazzi. Bell and Shepard both share images of their kids on social media with their faces blocked out, but she still uses her status as a celebrity parent as a means to further her status and develop her persona beyond that of a mere actor. It’s a difficult needle to thread, to put it lightly.
Bell’s wannabe Ellen status relies on her ability to differentiate herself from DeGeneres while remaining firmly aligned with those same profitable quirks. She has to be bubbly and preach bland platitudes of kindness and show how she’s just like the rest of us, even in her mansion. DeGeneres has had real trouble walking this tightrope over the past decade or so in large part because she is too obviously wealthy and disdainful of her audience to bother showing otherwise. Bell has an advantage over Ellen in this manner but her take on this mold of celebrity is far more reliant on traditional expectations of being a wife and mother. She’s part of the Disney family, she and Shepard have their own line of baby products you can get a Wal-Mart, she wants you to know that she’s out there hustling like all the other moms. She’s even releasing a children’s book — ticking off another box on the Celeb Parent Bingo Card — that uses the beloved-by-white-people model of faux-color-blindness to preach inclusivity.
This image also relies on maintaining one’s marriage as a public spectacle, and this is where a glut of Bell’s issues lie. Bell and Shepard have been together for 13 years, they’ve been married for eight, and they have two daughters under the age of ten. While they aren’t exactly a Clooney-level power couple, they both utilize their marriage for its wacky relatability potential, something that can be highly lucrative to the right audience. Nobody buys the ‘perfect marriage’ shtick but organized chaos is more believable. The problem with Bell and Shepard’s attempts to create an I Love Lucy-style dynamic of their marriage for public consumption is that they don’t seem to possess enough self-awareness to know what works. Frankly, a lot of their conversations about their fights sound seriously toxic.
In March, Bell and Shepard gave an interview with Katie Couric via Instagram Live about their lives in lockdown and their confessions about their fighting made even Couric awkward. They admitted that their most recent fight ended ‘like eight minutes’ before their interview started, and Shepard said of his own wife, ‘America’s sweetheart has character defects.’ In January of this year, Bell described a days-long argument she had with Shepard that was so intense that it caused her to blackout. The topic of the fight? She had left him a note asking him to fold up some towels. No, seriously, that was it. Bell and Shepard see this ‘radical honesty’ about their marriage as a good thing, another sign that they’re just like everyone else, but there are only so many ways you can spin an argument so ferocious that you blackout as anything other than deeply worrying. DeGeneres may bring her wife, Portia De Rossi, onto her show now and then but, all things considered, her marriage is far less of an active tool in her branding. There’s a reason for that, and Bell exemplifies why it can be such a bad idea.
I doubt Bell is going to abandon acting any time soon, and the residuals from all those Frozen DVDs will keep her going for a long time. If she does, however, decide to go all-in on her Ellen-esque evolution then perhaps it would benefit her to consider why the tide has slowly begun to turn on DeGeneres. One can only maintain an image of shambolic personal perfection and positivity guru for so long before the foundations begin to crumble under the sheer weight of fan and industry expectations. Not very relatable, is it?
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