One of the greatest things the legendary composer Stephen Sondheim ever wrote appears in his musical Into the Woods, which premiered on Broadway in 1986. In the number ‘I Know Things Now’, Little Red Riding Hood sings about the lessons she’s learned after her rather messy entanglement with the seductive Wolf. After talking about taking ‘extra care with strangers,’ she notes that ‘Nice is different than good.’ It’s a phrase I think about a lot these days, and it instinctively pops up in my mind every time I see Ellen DeGeneres.
Ellen, the comedian and actress whose self-titled talk-show is one of the true pieces of 21st century American pop culture phenomena, is a very big deal. Her syndicated series has been on the air since 2003, has won 61 Daytime Emmy Awards — surpassing the record held by Oprah’s legendary show — and their YouTube channel is one of the 20 most-subscribed on the platform. DeGeneres herself was listed by Forbes in 2018 as the highest-paid entertainer in the world. A 2013 poll by Reader’s Digest listed her as the second most trusted TV personality, ahead of Oprah and fellow morning talk-show hosts like Kelly Ripa and Savannah Guthrie. Her influence on entertainment is seismic, as is the impact she has had on American culture at large. When she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the greatest honors that can be bestowed upon an American citizen, President Obama praised her for the changes she helped to advance in furthering LGBTQ+ rights, following her choice to come out as gay in real life and on her successful sitcom, a decision that, in her own words, nearly killed her career. Obama summed up what makes Ellen so popular and beloved in his speech as he issued the award, declaring that ‘Ellen counters what too often divides us, with the countless things that bind us together, inspires us to be better, one joke, one dance at a time.’ She’s nice. The nicest of the nice, the queen of it, so she must be good too, right?
Last year, writer Dan Sheehan tweeted, ‘When you move to LA the first two things that happen are you get a parking ticket and someone who once worked for Ellen will tell you a story about how she’s a monster.’ This wasn’t the first time that social media or celeb gossip circles had convened around the rumor of DeGeneres being a bad boss but it did feel like a tipping point of sorts. The past few months in particular have felt over-laden with this narrative in a way that suggests a rebalancing of the scales. Further horror stories in the vein of anti-Ellen emerged when comedian Kevin T. Porter offered to make some big charity donations for every person who shared a story about their experiences with ‘notoriously one of the meanest people alive.’
When you move to LA the first two things that happen are you get a parking ticket and someone who once worked for Ellen will tell you a story about how she's a monster— Quarantaniel (@ItsDanSheehan) October 7, 2019
Right now we all need a little kindness. You know, like Ellen Degeneres always talks about! 😊❤️— Kevin T. Porter (@KevinTPorter) March 20, 2020
She’s also notoriously one of the meanest people alive
Respond to this with the most insane stories you’ve heard about Ellen being mean & I’ll match every one w/ $2 to @LAFoodBank
None of this is new to anyone with an ear close to the ground when it comes to entertainment gossip. ‘Ellen is mean’ is as common a line as ‘Tom Hanks is a lovely man.’ There’s no surprise in hearing yet another story about how DeGeneres allegedly doesn’t want people to look her in the eye or that she treats her writers like dirt. None of these obvious black spots on her pristine image have left a big enough dent to truly matter to her near-flawless public narrative. Hell, not even crossing a picket line during the 2007/8 writer’s strike could do that. So, what’s changed over the past year or so? Why does it feel like we’ve collectively decided to pull back the curtains a let a little sunshine in on these bleak rumors?
I have a theory.
To be honest, I have a tough time watching a lot of DeGeneres’s show, especially episodes and clips from the past few years. It’s so evident to me that she hates being there. Her audiences scream and clap and dance away to every minor joke or quirk but Ellen herself radiates utter disdain for them, the viewers at home, and the show as a whole. It could be understandable why she’d be tempted to half-ass it now and then after hosting this show, with its unchanging formula, for close to 17 years now, but this apathy is constant. She looks bored stiff by her own series, her interviews with celebrities range from bored to openly hostile, and the only time she seems to perk up is when she has a chance to scare a guest or play one of her wildly sadistic party games (a concept that is now its own successful primetime series.) The current COVID-19 iteration of her show, shot at her luxurious home with no audience, isn’t any more watchable but you do get the sense that Ellen would prefer this version of it over the one with all those pesky commoners in front of her.
It’s that tension between the accepted image and brand of DeGeneres and the colder reality that permanently shines through where Ellen skeptics rule the roost. Ellen (registered trademark) is the kind of concept that no mere human could live up to; A permanently positive and terminally delightful presence who dances through life and appeals to every audience possible. The problem with ‘nice’ is that it’s an utterly indistinguishable concept, one deprived or layers or any real personality. Ellen has to be Nice, or at least a palatable version of Nice that appeals to target demographics without ever offending those who line one’s pockets. It’s not just the show either. Outside of her biggest platform, DeGeneres has myriad products and productions that make bank from this corporate strategy. Like many a female celebrity, Ellen has her own lifestyle brand, named ED by Ellen DeGeneres, which sells clothing emblazoned with slogans like ‘be kind’ and love’, plus shoes, accessories, items for your pets, and homeware. One of her chandeliers will set you back $1,199. You can also sign up for the Be Kind by Ellen subscription box. Four times a year, you’ll get a selection of Ellen’s favorite, handpicked products’ that support some of her favorite charities. The Spring box is currently sold out but you can sign up for the premium waitlist.
Therein lies one of the major issues with the brand of Nice that Ellen has commodified — it’s gutless, lacking in true empathy, and seems designed solely to placate the powerful.
Two incidents that put major dents in Ellen’s gleaming armor involved her dalliances of sorts with powerful men (either equal to or greater than her in social and financial stature) who have faced some form of collective public criticism. First, Ellen became the biggest entertainment ally to comedian Kevin Hart after he chose to give up a gig hosting the Oscars rather than fully apologize for some old violently homophobic jokes that re-emerged on social media. DeGeneres practically rolled out the red carpet for him to give the non-apology tour that positioned him as the helpless underdog, a victim of the internet lynch mob who refuse to understand how truly devoted an ally he is for LGBTQ+ rights. If Ellen likes him then so should all those pesky queers, right? The voices of countless marginalized LGBTQ+ people were deemed unimportant the moment Ellen stepped up and took his side, implying that he was the truly hurt one. To say it left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, including those who had previously celebrated Ellen’s work and achievements, would be an understatement. Still, that felt like the PR boom of the century compared to her friendship with George W. Bush.
After being spotted at a football game chatting jovially to the former President, it seemed natural to wonder why DeGeneres, an LGBTQ+ icon, would want to be associated in any way with a Republican whose courting of the evangelical right helped to empower open homophobia in politics for a whole new generation. DeGeneres decided to use this incident as a ‘teaching moment’ to her audience, lecturing them on the importance of putting aside politics in friendship. The real lesson here, apparently, was in having tolerance for other people’s views, even if they put you directly at risk or harm millions of people. For DeGeneres, the true higher ground was in adhering to a status quo of power and positioning it as love. The segment with her monologue on the issue is listed on YouTube with the title, ‘This Photo of Ellen & George W. Bush Will Give You Faith in America Again.’ If that doesn’t speak volumes about the ultimate objective of Nice Ellen then I don’t know what does.
Ellen is very rich, and there comes a point when you reach a certain tax bracket that enables you to overcome certain societal and systemic obstacles in your life. Being a billionaire won’t stop you facing sexism or homophobia but it does make it a hell of a lot easier for you to sit out the deeper complexities and struggles associated with such marginalized identities. Ellen is wealthy and beloved enough where she can simultaneously position herself as the leading voice of an entire community while roundly ignoring their demands and activism. Ellen’s ‘niceness’ dominates in a way that is ultimately the antithesis of her brand’s intent. True kindness does not demand silence from the oppressed.
There seems to be an assumption from Team Ellen that her brand is strong enough for her to drop the façade in public and emerge unscathed. It doesn’t matter how resentful she seems of the show that made her millions or the fans who stood by her through thick and thin, not as long as she slaps the phrase ‘Be Kind’ on enough t-shirts. Do as she says (or sells), not as she does. It’s blatant hypocrisy but, as has always been the case, when you’re rich, the rules simply do not apply. Nice is more profitable than good.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.