A comedian-turned-talk-show-host, Ellen DeGeneres has entertained America with light-hearted humor on her show for many years now. She is also a prominent gay icon, one who has helped destigmatise societal attitudes toward the queer community. But last week she waded into controversy when she was spotted sharing a laugh with former Republican President George W. Bush at the Dallas Cowboys-Green Bay Packers game. She also posted a video of herself with him on social media.
Twitter was quick to respond to this. Some Hollywood celebrities like Reese Witherspoon lauded her act, while others, namely Mark Ruffalo, have not been so kind. The initial offense itself, in my opinion, was not deserving of the backlash it received. She had been invited to the game by Charlotte Jones, daughter of Jerry Jones — the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. She thus had no say in picking her seat. Sharing a few light hearted moments with a president accused of waging unnecessary wars is also not abominable. It is her response to the controversy that is problematic.
On her show, Ellen gave a four minute monologue couched in humor addressing the controversy. She said she is friends with George W. Bush and a lot of other people who don’t share the same views as her. She equated her friendship with Bush with that of people who wear fur. She also said we should be kind to everyone, not just people who have the same beliefs as us. She also showed a few tweets saying that her actions made people “have faith in America again.”
Ellen’s speech tried to flip the narrative by portraying her as a kind messiah trying to heal the country in such polarising times. But it did more harm than good. Instead, it eroded her image as a vocal queer rights crusader. She inaccurately equated her friendship with Bush with people who wear fur. What she failed to highlight is that people with a penchant for fox fur can scarcely be compared to a man whose actions in office led to the pointless deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians and American soldiers.
She also asked people to make friends with different ideologies. She was praised for trying to heal the divide by bringing long-lost civility back into public discourse. But I think these commentators conflate friendship with civility. Ellen endorsed her friendship with Bush, which is far more than just being kind to or civil to him. Friendship, I believe, brings with it a degree of latent approval or even legitimacy. This may not be very consequential for ordinary people, but it is for someone who is seen as a queer role model. Bush supported a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2004 — Ellen has banned people from her show for doing far less. This makes her defence not only egregious but also hypocritical.
There might be some who say that Bush’s actions as president happened more than a decade ago and his stance on issues has changed since. Whoopi Goldberg even said on The View that people should be given the opportunity to grow, and I agree with her. People do change — this might be true of a senator who was snapped with blackface in college. But this is not about foolish actions that youthful recklessness might cause. This is about decisions with far-reaching consequences that affect people even today — ones that were made after careful deliberation. While Bush might have changed views on some issues, he is still problematic in many regards. As recently as last year, he supported Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court even after the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford.
Ellen’s holier-than-thou statements on kindness also come from a place of privilege. While she may find it easy to be kind to Bush, those who lost a loved in the Iraq war could be far less forgiving. Bush’s decisions had consequences that people are living with even today, and it is unfair to expect them to befriend someone who supported the war.
Ellen’s statements are inconsistent with her fierce stance on queer rights. And people are not wrong in feeling let down or wronged by a woman who has stood for gay rights on many occasions in the past. In winning George W. Bush’s friendship, Ellen has lost something far more important — her credibility.