Lesbian superhero Ellen Degeneres has suddenly become a controversial figure for attending a Dallas Cowboys football game in the company of untried war criminal George W. Bush. (She also did so at the invitation of Cowboys owner and human turd Jerry Jones, but she didn’t get her picture taken with him.)
Many on the left were shocked, shocked at this turn of events. How could she sit there and yuk it up with W, the man who not only started two pointless wars but also fought tooth and nail against marriage equality? (Her wife Portia de Rossi is sitting to Ellen’s left.)
I can’t say I was similarly shocked. Not that I buy Ellen’s defense that We All Have To Be Nice To Each Other. She can be “nice” to W without chumming it up with him in the owner’s suite. But Ellen has been doing this delicate moral balancing act since forever. It’s an essential feature of her character. It’s a feature that has driven her political influence — and also made her a morally ambivalent figure.
Recall that before her sitcom made history, it was a goofy, soulless laff-fest right out of the 90s network factory. And before that, she’d been a G-rated, politically chaste standup comic. Her coming out (in character and in life) on national television was arguably even more impactful because she’d established herself as a cheery, benign slice of Wonder Bread.
Same with her afternoon talk show, which has made her a beloved figure to millions of Americans. She makes no bones about her lesbianism on the show — but neither does she spend much time on it. It’s just kind of there, and it’s accepted by her audience. Which includes a lot of folks who probably would never have thought of a gay person as a role model and celebrity idol without her example.
Hell, I’d say that Ellen was more responsible than any other person for the rapid acceptance of marriage equality in the United States. She’s been in our living rooms every weekday at 4:00 since the year 2003, when a lot of people thought that marriage equality was an impossible dream. She’s provided a daily example that Gays Are People Too.
On the other hand, her decision to play the inside game also puts her in cahoots with a lot of “bad” people. As it happens, I’ve been spending time lately going down Ellen’s YouTube rabbit hole, watching scenes where she brings a worthy but struggling person or family on the show, celebrates them, and gives them cash or gifts that will pretty much change their lives.
It’s an endearing way to pass the time. But after a while, I started getting a but uncomfortable with the whole display for two reasons. First, it’s not actually Ellen who’s giving away the money, it’s one of her many corporate partners. They get some free ad time on a tremendously popular show for a lot less money than they’d pay for, you know, a 30-second national TV ad on the show. And they get Ellen’s seal of approval. That’s gold, baby.
My second point is subtler. Ellen reminds me of Mother Teresa as depicted by professional crank and Blogger Before There Were Blogs Christopher Hitchens. In his book “The Missionary Position,” he points out that while Mother Teresa ministered tirelessly among the poor, she never ever confronted the root causes of their suffering. She never took her advocacy to the halls of government or the boardrooms of high finance. Which made her an easy, uncomplicated figure to admire.
She brought succor to those whose lives she touched, but did nothing to challenge the social, political and economic forces that create and sustain poverty.
Neither does Ellen.
She can drop $25,000 on the principal of an inner-city school, but she won’t address the structural inequities that turn city schools into hellholes. She can give a working mother a Brand New Car (courtesy of Ford or Hyundai or whatever), but she won’t call out the system that forces so many Americans to struggle just to get by. She can arrange for Home Depot or some such to underwrite a new home for a family with eight foster kids, but that does nothing for all the other families in the same boat.
At the same time, it’s great that Ellen uses her platform to celebrate teachers and single mothers and all those who do good works despite their own straitened circumstances. And if she doesn’t directly confront the root causes of social ills, at least she reminds her audience that there are a lot of struggling people out there. She could just stick to celebrity interviews like all the other talk shows.
Did it turn my stomach just a little bit to see Ellen sitting next to George W. Bush? Yes. Is there a little bit of basketball superstar and Nike pitchman Michael Jordan’s “Republicans buy shoes, too” line (which he may never have actually said) in Ellen? Yeah, sure.
Ellen has accomplished remarkable things in the social justice arena. But she’s done it in her own way. She’s been highly effective at times, and she’s been a little too cozy with the powers and principalities along the way. It’s who she is.