What began with an unexpected photograph became a full-fledged ethical debacle.
The pop culture sphere was consumed this week by the friendship between daytime talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and former president George W. Bush. They sat next to each other at a Dallas Cowboys game on Sunday, leading many to question why DeGeneres, a gay liberal and vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights, appeared to be palling around with a politician whose administration restricted those very rights and, among other polarizing actions, launched a war in Iraq that cost more than half a million lives.
Two points, at the very least, set the controversy apart from others in the comedian’s past: First, though she has proven adept at dodging difficult conversations, DeGeneres chose to address this one head-on. She shared a four-minute monologue on social media Tuesday night, confirming that she is friends with Bush — in addition to many others “who don’t share the same beliefs that I have,” for that matter.
“We’re all different, and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s okay,” DeGeneres continued, equating the scenario to her rooting for another famous friend, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, despite having been invited to the game by the daughter of the opposing team’s owner. “Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them. When I say be kind to one another, I don’t mean only the people that think the same way you do.”
The monologue, which only fanned the flames it was meant to extinguish, leads us to the second point: Several celebrities chose to chime in, whether in favor of the explanation or against it.
The conversation that unfolded from there highlighted a shift in how politics and pop culture interact. Instead of looking to celebrities to endorse politicians, the broader culture seems to pay more attention now to how their politics validate — or undermine — their celebrity. How they wield their influence can be indicative of everything from their level of privilege to their education on the subject at hand.
A few prominent reactions were especially telling in how they reflected on those who voiced them.
Ellen DeGeneres and the privilege of agreeing to disagree
DeGeneres’s friendship with Bush has been described as “unlikely,” but it might not seem that way if you keep a handle on her world. Kindness, as she framed it, is essential to the Ellen brand and has been exercised before by reaching across the aisle. Bush himself appeared on her show in 2017.
Being as noncombative and relatable as possible was once a survival tactic for DeGeneres, as it helped her maintain a presence in the industry after she came out as gay in 1997. But today, “Relatable” is simply the tongue-in-cheek title of a stand-up special she released with Netflix last year. Yes, DeGeneres is “still gay,” as she jokes in the show, but she’s now also a millionaire — the very premise of “Relatable."
In light of this class shift, Constance Grady wrote for Vox that “the niceness Ellen DeGeneres is celebrating in her friendship with George W. Bush — the niceness that she is extraordinarily skilled at performing — is not about kindness for the powerless. It’s about kindness for the powerful, for the people who helped to set in place the problems the rest of us are currently living in.”
To many, DeGeneres’s defense of her relationship with Bush reads as an act of class solidarity, similar to an issue that arose earlier this year when she welcomed comedian Kevin Hart to her show. Hart had just stepped down from hosting the Oscars in light of outrage over old homophobic jokes, and instead of seizing the opportunity to discuss why his remarks had hurt the LGBTQ community, she encouraged him to ignore “the haters” and said she had already called the academy to advocate on his behalf.
“Don’t let those people win,” she said. “Host the Oscars.”
Mark Ruffalo and the comfort of dissent
Few famous people spoke out against DeGeneres’s friendship with Bush, making Mark Ruffalo’s passionate criticism of her monologue even more notable. Sharing a Vanity Fair article on the “limits of kindness,” he tweeted, “Sorry, until George W. Bush is brought to justice for the crimes of the Iraq War, (including American-lead [sic] torture, Iraqi deaths & displacement, and the deep scars—emotional & otherwise—inflicted on our military that served his folly), we can’t even begin to talk about kindness.”
For Ruffalo’s liberal fans, the tweet and its politics only reinforced their support.
Reese Witherspoon and the art of slowly backing away
No current talk show host can match the power Oprah Winfrey wielded to rehabilitate a public figure’s image, but DeGeneres, perhaps due to her cross-country appeal, seems to have gotten the closest. A thumbs-up from her can do wonders, as Hart’s publicity team recognized. It pays to remain in her favor.
This could be why celebrities arrived in droves to compliment DeGeneres’s monologue on kindness, with some — Kristen Bell, for example — going beyond an Instagram comment to devote an entire post to their praise. Reese Witherspoon tweeted, “Thank you for this important reminder, Ellen!” and later, amid backlash from indignant fans, deleted the tweet without explanation.
Jameela Jamil and the humbling experience of getting it wrong
Jameela Jamil, who has been both lauded and criticized for how she champions social causes like body positivity, at first extended this outspokenness to defending DeGeneres’ friendship with Bush. But she quickly deleted those tweets after learning about “the full extent of Bush’s heinous presidency.”
“we weren’t taught much about him at school, we just heard he was stupid...(we were dealing with our own epic nightmare of a prime minister back then),” she tweeted, adding in a reply that she was confused by the “pompous responses” from people who believed she, as a British woman, should’ve known about the president of another country. The main argument among those responses was that former British prime minister Tony Blair, whom she specifically referenced, also backed the Iraq War.
Jamil concluded the tweet thread on a positive note, declaring that she loves “learning and growth.” But of the responses to DeGeneres’s monologue, hers seems to be the clearest case of a celebrity’s interaction with politics decreasing their public favor.
Everyone else and the safety net of keeping quiet
This one might speak for itself.