Ellen DeGeneres and George W. Bush walk into a football game—that sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but on Sunday, Oct. 6, it actually happened. The two shared casual banter, laughter and obvious camaraderie, sparking an unexpected scandal after a video was shared on Twitter countless times.
I understand why Twitter is upset. Since coming out on her sitcom in 2003, DeGeneres has been arguably the most prominent lesbian figure in the public eye. In the 17 seasons of her extremely popular talk show, the comedic icon has not been shy about her liberal beliefs, whether on LGBT issues or Trump’s Muslim ban. Two years ago, she garnered attention for stating that she would refuse to have Donald Trump on her show, asserting that he is “not only dangerous for the country and for me personally as a gay woman, but to the world. He’s dividing all of us…I don’t want him on the show.” (YouTube, TheEllenShow, “Megyn Kelly and Ellen Discuss Political Talk Show Guests,” 09.20.2017) Because of this strong stance in opposition to a right-wing political figure, the footage of Ellen and 43 buddy-buddy at a football game feels viscerally hypocritical.
DeGeneres directly responded to the controversy in the monologue segment of her show, preaching that we must “be kind to everybody, and I mean everybody” and that different viewpoints—from political to trivial—should not preclude friendship (Twitter, @[TheEllenShow], 10.07.2019). After the segment, dozens of celebrities have leaped to her defense on Twitter, sharing annoyance at the extremism of “cancel culture” and disappointment at America’s political divide. Reese Witherspoon, Piers Morgan, Blake Shelton and Tony Robbins are among the many celebrities praising Ellen’s message (Splinter News, “Celebs Rush to Defend Ellen’s Friendship With George W. Bush, Awwww,” 10.09.2019).
Many, myself included, find DeGeneres’ statement preachy at best, and condescending, inadequate and trivializing at worst. Bush is responsible for millions of deaths during the Iraq War, and still has never been tried for them. The implications of Bush’s policies still haunt the Middle East, as do the policies of the Obama administration.The liberal revision of Bush’s legacy is dangerous; for many young people who were in elementary school or even younger when the war in Iraq began, it’s easy to downplay the horrifying reality of what American soldiers did as part of the coalition forces. The casualties included over half a million Iraqi civilians, most killed by airstrike and chemical warfare (Brown University, “Human Cost of the Post-9/11 Wars: Lethality and the Need for Transparency,” 11.2018). Additionally, graphic photos from Abu Ghraib show Americans torturing prisoners with unspeakable cruelty (Antonio Taguba, “US Army 15-6 Report of Abuse of Prisoners in Iraq,” 04.01.2004). In a particularly jarring addition to the online discourse, Twitter user @rafaelshimunov edited Ellen’s explanation video to include a slideshow of the Abu Ghraib photos and other images from the Iraq War on the screen behind the talk show host (Twitter, @[shujaxhaider], 10.09.2019).
DeGeneres’ statement completely misses the mark. Perhaps Bush’s beliefs shouldn’t preclude friendship, although they do include extreme support of Brett Kavanaugh and opposition of same-sex marriage, but the war crimes committed under his leadership and the many injustices he catalyzed should. It is possible to sit next to someone you disagree with at a football game and be civil, but for DeGeneres to then double-down on the interaction, call Bush a friend and equate intense moral and political differences to sports team preferences is pretty troubling.
However, I believe that the underlying element of this scandal lies in the public’s perception of Ellen. For years she has been a friendly face, a lighthearted jokester and an early example of an openly gay celebrity. She’s the voice of Dory! She loves to dance! She loves kids! The cognitive dissonance that we feel when we see her palling around with Bush is truly unsettling, and the fact that she hasn’t acknowledged the dissonance between her political views and her act of camaraderie is even more disturbing, almost nauseating. Though not worse than the horrifying acts committed by Bill Cosby, Ellen’s insincerity similarly feels as though a piece of our childhood is crumbling, or, at the very least, that our projected identity of Ellen DeGeneres has been shaken. Perhaps the blow would have been less devastating if Bush’s celebrity bestie had been Iggy Azalea, or Adam Sandler or maybe even Johnny Depp. But who would have ever fathomed that our wholesome morning talk show host known for civil yet savage takedowns of problematic people would do this to us?
Though it’s disappointing to watch our heroes fall, and even more disappointing to watch Ellen lean into it, I think it was a much-needed reminder: Wealth gives people the privilege to outstrip their marginalized identities. Although Ellen established herself as a lesbian icon 16 years ago, she is now most definitely a part of the 1 percent. There’s nothing wrong with demanding more of our celebrities and cultural figures, but it’s important to remember that wealth changes your priorities and blinds you to the struggles you don’t personally face. Preaching kindness to those who don’t share your beliefs is a privilege in itself, a cop-out for celebrities who can live comfortably and don’t want to make enemies in the business. Witherspoon, Morgan, Shelton and Robbins have a net worth of $1.5 million, $16 million, $60 million and $500 million, respectively. Ellen’s is $450 million. The more celebrities jump in to defend Ellen, the more they pull back the curtain to reveal that class solidarity exists strongly among the wealthy. Unfortunately, it may even be a force stronger than kindness.