November 22, 2016, was one of those rare days on the internet when so many people I knew — queer friends, relatively square relatives, a bunch of random straight people who went to my high school — were all sharing the same video: Ellen DeGeneres, in tears, accepting a Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-president Barack Obama.
“It’s easy to forget now just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages 20 years ago,” Obama said before bestowing Ellen with her medal. “What an incredible burden that was to bear — to risk your career like that — people don’t do that very often. And then, to have the hopes of millions on your shoulders.” Obama, visibly emotional, was referring to the era of Ellen’s iconic “Yep, I’m Gay” Time cover in 1997, published the same year her character on her eponymous sitcom came out of the closet. Though “The Puppy Episode” was one of the show’s highest rated, Ellen was given a parental advisory warning and, soon after, canceled; Ellen herself received intense homophobic backlash, putting her mostly out of work for years, before she bounced back as the voice of Dory in Finding Nemo. Obama lauded her for taking such a risk, which would eventually pay off; she became the most visible, and beloved, lesbian celebrity of her generation — perhaps of all time — and by doing so, “pushed our country in the direction of justice.”
In Ellen’s 20-year career since coming out, she has inspired countless others to open up about their sexuality in her wake, including fellow celebrities; she’s spoken up against anti-LGBT laws; she’s supported LGBT people and teens who’ve been faced with bigotry in the US and around the world. Ellen has also built a media empire on the power of her near-universal likeability — no small feat for a gay woman who grew up as a Christian Scientist in Louisiana and Texas. On the day she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I marveled at the diversity of her admirers — from a woman I used to date who, facing pressure from her conservative Southern family, went back into the closet and married a man to my partner’s mom, a retired Wyomingite who credits Ellen for making her own child’s coming-out easier for her to understand and accept.
We’re now living in a world where there are fewer and fewer major Gay Firsts; Ellen’s partly responsible for that. For 20 years, she’s been a goofy, gentle, funny reminder to the mainstream that gay people aren’t so radically different from everybody else; plus, they’re responsible for so much of the best of pop culture. She has become a personal First to a mind-boggling number of everyday Americans — the first lesbian they knew by name, the first lesbian they learned to love.
Ever since, her work has relied on her ability to connect across the widest possible audiences. In both her stand-up — she just released her first comedy special in 15 years, Relatable for Netflix — and in her interviews with regular people and mega-famous celebrities alike, she focuses on our human commonalities. By presenting a palatable vision of lesbianism for the widest possible audience, she’s become one of the most important modern figures in the fight for mainstream gay acceptance.
But that message — one of wholesome respectability, of universality, of “gay people are just like you” — has fallen out of favor these days with certain more radical groups within the LGBT community. For some, it was never in favor to begin with.
Acceptance narratives led to marriage equality and gay people in the military, put more queer characters on television, and launched a few out public figures — like Ellen herself — into positions of remarkable power. But acceptance of LGBT people has also rarely extended beyond the bounds of the sort of gay person Ellen represents: white, wealthy, desexualized, monogamous; neutered and relatively nonthreatening. And acceptance — like relatability, which supposedly leads to tolerance — is, for some, losing its luster at a time when assimilating queer people into an anti-queer mainstream seems increasingly like settling for the straight world’s scraps. Acceptance has been all about getting (some of) us in the door of the world as it is, rather than daring to tear down existing institutions and consider something new. Something better.
All of that is to say: Some queer people have grown wary of the lure of relatability (myself included). But Ellen hasn’t.
Her Netflix special — and her recent championing of Kevin Hart, who she thinks should host the Oscars despite his bungled apologies for his history of anti-gay jokes — indicates that Ellen still seems to believe in the power of relating to one another almost by default. There is much to be admired about this philosophy, one that helped Ellen regain her career and, in the process, destigmatize and demystify gay people during a crucial period in the LGBT rights movement. But both Ellen’s Netflix special and the Kevin Hart incident also reveal the limits of that philosophy today. (Through her representatives, Ellen hasn’t responded to requests for comment on this story.)
Yes, we all have a shared humanity. But there is so much more that we don’t share — race, education level, class, marital status, ability, gender identity, the list goes on — and those are the things that directly contribute to our ability to succeed and survive in this world. Attempting to erase or downplay those differences can make room for individual successes but won’t actually do much to chip away at inequality at large; rather, those attempts tend only to obscure inequality’s real roots.
But for 20 years, the quest for relatability has been Ellen’s bread and butter. She’s no longer someone for whom relying on relatability is a means of personal and professional survival — she’s an incredibly wealthy and incredibly powerful cultural figure, someone who seemingly has nothing left to prove. And yet she’s still insisting, despite her accrual of power and all evidence to the contrary, that she (along with her celebrity friends like Kevin Hart) is really just like you.
Ellen got her first big break after a personal tragedy. She explains in her Netflix special that after her girlfriend died in a car accident when she was in her early twenties, she was forced to move out of their shared apartment into a crappy basement apartment filled with fleas, and she wondered why such a beautiful person had died, but fleas got to keep on living. Her loss inspired her first appearance on network television, when she landed on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in 1986. She performed a bit about calling God up and asking him why we even need fleas anyway.
Her success as a stand-up comic led to her own sitcom, the Seinfeld-esque Ellen (originally called These Friends of Mine, which was changed after the first season to avoid confusion with Friends). Ellen played the title role, Ellen Morgan, a worrywart Los Angeles bookshop owner. Her character was goofy and charming but also plagued by a need to be liked. In a third-season episode, she goes to desperate lengths to throw a well-received dinner party for Martha Stewart. (It doesn’t go well.)
In 1996, she made her big-screen debut in the disastrous Mr. Wrong, an “uncharming and unfunny black comedy.” With that flop behind her, she began petitioning ABC to let her character on Ellen come out.
Throughout the fourth season, the show began to drop hints that Ellen was gay. Eventually, the real Ellen and her character would come out together — Ellen DeGeneres on the cover of Time and, a couple weeks later, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, hours after which Ellen Morgan would come out to Laura Dern’s character on Ellen. “The Puppy Episode,” in which Ellen accidentally leans into a microphone and tells an entire airport terminal that she’s gay, was watched by more than 36 million people, three times the show’s regular ratings.
Mark Driscoll, an executive producer for the show’s fourth season, told Hilary Weaver at Vanity Fair, in a story marking the 20-year anniversary of Ellen’s coming out, that “Ellen was so loved by audiences; she was so much the girl next door and so sweet. She was the perfect person to dispel people’s fears about what a gay woman might be like.”
“The Puppy Episode” title was a red herring — Disney–ABC didn’t want the episode to get leaked after a year of speculation about Ellen’s character. The title was also a reference to executives who were antsy for Ellen to come out since she’d spent four years on the sitcom without being in a relationship. As she told viewers on her talk show in 2017, someone at the studio originally responded: “Well, get her a puppy, she’s not coming out.” Plus, she joked, calling the episode “Ellen Throws Her Career Away” seemed too on the nose.
Watching Ellen in her 1997 Oprah interview now is sobering. Audience members expressed concern that coming out meant that Ellen was “flaunting” sex, and that God says homosexuality is wrong. One woman, raising her voice, claimed she and other straight people were being “stuffed with this down our throats,” to which Ellen replied: “You don’t have to fight for anyone to embrace you.” The woman kept on going: “You want to know I’m straight? I’m not out on the cover saying, ‘Yep, I’m straight.’ Who cares?” Ellen, during a moment in which basically anybody else would have buckled under the pressure with despair, whipped out a joke: “Time’s been asking how to get in touch with you, actually.”
A year later, after its fifth season, the first television show with an out gay character as its lead was canceled by ABC. Entertainment Weekly ran a cover story with the tagline: “Yep, She’s Too Gay.”
On Primetime Live in 1998, Diane Sawyer said that the “great experiment” was now over: “Did she torpedo her own show by pushing a gay agenda, or did this network pretty much abandon her?” Primetime investigated all the episodes from the fifth season and determined that 13 out of the 21 episodes were primarily about gay themes, which led Sawyer to her first, bonkers question for Ellen: “How gay was the show?”
“The subjects that we dealt with were the subjects any other show on television deals with,” Ellen said, smiling a little, looking uncomfortable. “All the things you go through when you feel something for another person.”
“Thirteen out of twenty-one,” Sawyer said, pushing Ellen about risking the “comfort levels” of a mass audience. “Too many?”
“No,” Ellen said, arguing that “you can’t just come out and then go back in the closet and not show anybody anything.”
Sawyer — who, to her credit, did ask tough questions of ABC President Robert Iger about the decision to cancel the show in the same episode — also asked Ellen whether she’d rather be a pioneer than have her show renewed.
“Yes,” Ellen said. “If I just had this one year of doing what I did on TV, I’ll take that over 10 more years being on a sitcom and just being funny.”
She wasn’t just being criticized by the press, or by straight audiences who felt that the reality of Ellen’s life was being “shoved down their throats” — other prominent LGBT celebrities told Ellen that her show was getting “too gay” at the expense of entertainment, including Chaz Bono, who was the media director of GLAAD at the time. He told Variety in March 1998 that Ellen “has gone in a totally different direction than she said she would. Originally, she said this wasn’t going to be the ‘Gay Ellen Show,’ that every episode wasn’t going to deal with gay issues.” But since the new season dealt with gay themes, ABC felt betrayed. “We have to be realistic,” he added.
Accused of being “too gay” by ABC, by the mainstream, and even by LGBT advocates and organizations, Ellen attempted to convince naysayers, as she did on Primetime, that she was simply reflecting the realities of her own life. But when she tried to convince others that she was, in fact, relatable, no one believed her.
More than 20 years later, Ellen would face the completely opposite problem. In a New York Times profile published last month, Ellen said that she spent a year struggling to come up with material for her new special. Her breakthrough: when a friend questioned her ability to even write new material at all — can she really be relatable anymore?
Ellen starts off her special riffing on that premise, joking about a mansion large enough to get lost in, her lavish lifestyle, and a butler named Batu who feeds her cubed pineapple. She’s poking fun at herself — there’s no real hiding the fact that she’s obscenely wealthy (according to Forbes, Ellen is the 15th-highest-paid celebrity in the world). But these jokes also function as a sleight of hand; she hyperbolizes her own celebrity to such a degree that her audience is actually encouraged to downplay it. Yes, Ellen is rich, but she isn’t tacky enough to live in a Trump-style golden tower, and she wouldn’t really boss her staff around like a completely out of touch, privileged asshole. Would she?
Ellen has long since been plagued by tabloid rumors that her smiley, dancing talk-show persona is just a persona — that when the cameras are off, she becomes someone who’s not so nice after all, who mistreats her employees and others around her. When asked about anonymous workplace reports of mistreatment, she told the Times “that bugs me if someone is saying that because it’s an outright lie.”
Those who follow tabloids, blind items, and other Hollywood gossip more closely than the average pop culture consumer tend to be aware of those rumors. But the overwhelming majority of Ellen’s audience sees her as a charming, funny lady who loves to dance. And that broader reputation — as someone who’s exceedingly nice, who frequently encourages her audience to “be kind to one another” — is what Ellen set out to complicate with her special. And after decades spent trying to convince an unwilling mainstream that she is, in fact, a kind, normal, relatable person, she ended up in a sort of prison of her own making.
That pressure she says she faces to be nice all the time is perhaps the most revealing part of Relatable, and it isn’t actually relatable at all. “I cannot do anything unkind now, ever,” she says. “I’m a human being, I have bad days, but I can’t do the things you do because I’m the Be Kind girl.” We plebeians can honk if we get pissed off in traffic, but Ellen? “I can’t honk ever.” Plus, people keep asking her to dance — something she stopped doing on her show a couple of years ago, agonized over what that might mean for her audience — even though the whole dancing thing was never really part of the plan.
When we non-celebs do something stupid, who cares? But “when I do something stupid,” Ellen says, “it’s a story.”
Ellen revealed a similar wariness of the press in the Times profile, when she relayed some advice about interviews she said that her wife, Portia de Rossi, gave her: “Just remember, the nicer they are, the more they are going to screw you.”
Ellen rarely sits for interviews. She’s seemingly suspicious of celebrity reporting, something she, like other celebrities, doesn’t have to rely on much at all anymore. John Herrman documented the decline of access journalism in a 2015 story for the Awl, describing a social media–influenced “media death spiral”: “loss of power resulting in a loss of access resulting in further loss of power.” Celebrities don’t need to grant publications access to their thoughts or their content when they can speak directly to audiences through their own curated accounts; Ellen not only has humongous social media followings, but she even has her own publishing platforms. Gone are the days when she’d have to rely on Diane Sawyer asking her absurd questions to get her message out in the world.
It makes total sense that Ellen would be suspicious of celebrity journalism. Before and after she came out, intense media speculation about her sexuality, as well as criticism that she was “too gay,” sent her into a deep depression and nearly destroyed her career. But there could be more to it than that.
After the Kevin Hart controversy, Who? Weekly’s Bobby Finger wrote on Twitter: “One reason celebs like Ellen have become as insufferable as they are is because the rise of no-hate cultural/entertainment journalism has made famous people less capable of handling criticism. When all the most viral pubs do is call you a kween and make you hold puppies, you probably lose the ability to recognize the fact that you... make mistakes?”
It’s hard to ignore Ellen’s mistake this time. She invited Kevin Hart onto her show so that he could address why he stepped down from hosting the 2019 Oscars. In December, Hart began deleting old anti-gay tweets that had resurfaced following the news that he had been selected as the next Oscars host. One tweet from 2011: “Yo if my son comes home & try’s 2 play with my daughters doll house I’m going 2 break it over his head & say n my voice ‘stop that’s gay.’”
After being given an ultimatum from the Academy — apologize or we’ll rescind the offer to host — he chose to step down, originally writing a post on Instagram saying that he loves everybody, and “If you choose not to believe me then that’s on you.” Hart did not offer an apology in that post. (This week, after his criticized appearance on Ellen, he formally apologized for the tweets.)
On her show, Ellen allowed Hart to monologue at length about how he doesn’t have a homophobic bone in his body. Here’s her mistrust of the press again: She called the critics who’ve written arguments about why Hart should not host — including black queer people and critics — “haters,” relegating them to “a small group of people being very loud.” She insists that she, meanwhile, is part of “a huge group of people who love you and want to see you host the Oscars.”
Ellen choosing to die on this particular hill has garnered plenty of pushback. Many journalists, including BuzzFeed News’ David Mack and Megh Wright at Vulture, have documented the ways in which Ellen failed to “challenge [Hart] on the facts one bit.” Alison Herman, writing for the Ringer, argued that the interview isn’t a conversation “between a gay comedian and a straight one working out their differences. It’s between one insulated celebrity and another, bonding over what they have in common.”
This isn’t a first for Ellen. She’s provided many celebrities with the opportunity to do some damage control in an environment that isn’t mediated by the press, but rather offers the safety of a warm celeb-to-celeb conversation. Ellen’s reputation for affability only sweetens the deal.
In 2015, Ellen had Justin Bieber on the show to discuss the video he’d recently posted to Facebook apologizing for his years of reported bad behavior. Ellen often offers her interviewees a chance to dispel “stereotypes” about celebrities; in this case, she said, “People think that all celebrities are never nervous, that we’re always comfortable, and it’s not true.” Bieber admitted that he does get nervous — “I am a human, people often forget that.”
Back in 2012, Ellen interviewed actor Matthew Fox, who had been accused of assaulting a woman (prosecutors declined to press charges, and a following civil suit was eventually dropped). During the interview, Ellen claimed she wasn’t aware of, as Fox put it, the “negative things written about [him]” over the past year, but said her producers briefed her on the allegations before their interview. Fox denied having hit the woman, or any woman, and Ellen didn’t challenge him on it. He also had a chance to address a recent DUI — “that I actually did do” — and the lessons he learned, to applause from the audience.
Much to her credit, Ellen doesn’t always completely cede the floor to other public figures. In 2008, she famously pushed Sen. John McCain about his stance against same-sex marriage. And in 2015, she called Caitlyn Jenner out for her evolving views on the same subject (in Jenner’s 2017 biography, she accused Ellen of deliberately misleading her and taking her comments out of context).
And before the Kevin Hart debacle, Ellen canceled at least one guest appearance for reported anti-gay comments: Kim Burrell, a singer and pastor who worked with Pharrell Williams on the soundtrack for Hidden Figures and who had recently given an anti-gay sermon. But Hart also wasn’t the first time that Ellen allowed a celebrity to speak, unchallenged, about their reportedly anti-gay comments. In 2015, Matt Damon had just done an interview with the Guardian in which he had said, “Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play.” On The Ellen DeGeneres Show, he explained that “I was just trying to say actors are more effective when they’re a mystery,” and that someone picked it up and implied “I said gay actors should get back in the closet.” Ellen told him someone had mentioned the interview to her that morning, but “I know you, and I know you’re not that guy.”
Damon, to a sympathetic Ellen, condemned “the blogosphere” in which “there’s no real penalty for just taking the ball and running with it. You’re just trying to get people to click.” There’s certainly truth to that — since long before the internet, tabloids and the more mainstream press alike have relied on salacious cover lines about celebrities to entice readers. Ellen is all too familiar with that approach. But what’s disappointing about watching two ultra-famous people commiserating with each other about bad press is that both Ellen and Damon seem to be lumping both good- and bad-faith criticism under the gigantic umbrella of the “blogosphere.” And however he intended them to sound, Damon’s comments do reflect the opinions of many powerful people in the entertainment industry who can keep lesbians, like Ellen 20 years ago, from pursuing their dreams. It would have been nice if Ellen explored that systemic topic a little more, rather than just assuring her individual friend he’s a good guy. But ironically, daytime talk shows like Ellen’s are, in fact, the ultimate vehicles for contextless quotes by powerful people.
One of the other snags in Ellen’s relatability shtick: She has been criticized for occasionally getting a little too aggressive in some of her celebrity interviews, particularly with women. There’s Taylor Swift, who’s been on the show many times; Ellen has grilled an increasingly uncomfortable-looking Swift about the men she’s dated. She also had a strangely antagonistic interview with Corinne Olympios from The Bachelor in 2017, when Ellen asked her if what we saw on The Bachelor was the real her, and if there were any sides of her we didn’t see — though “we did see the front side,” Ellen said, gesturing at her own chest. (That same year, Ellen would be criticized for misogyny after making a joke about Katy Perry’s breasts.) When Olympios said that she thought audiences would see “a lot more of Corrine” going forward, Ellen asked her, “In what way do you mean that?” to audience laughter. “Clothed,” Olympios clarified. Ellen asked her about watching the episodes now: “Don’t you think you were crazy?” She also asked her if she was drunk during filming.
Later, in a podcast interview, Olympios was asked to respond to rumors that Ellen is “not so nice” and doesn’t like to be looked in the eye. “I love Ellen so much — I thought it would be like talking to Dory, and I was really excited,” she said. “And she made me so uncomfortable, unfortunately. I kept this in for so long, but to be honest she just made me a little uncomfortable.” When asked to clarify, Olympios said, “She’s very aggressive — she was very cold when I saw her before the show, which I don’t think I was supposed to, because everybody got very nervous when we bumped into each other and you could tell they were like, ‘Oh, shit.’”
Ellen also has a legendary feud with fellow comic Kathy Griffin, who, in her 2016 book, wrote about a “beloved daytime talk show host” with short blonde hair and a “mean streak that all of Hollywood knows about” — she said in promotions for the memoir that she was indeed referring to Ellen. After the book came out, Griffin says, she got an angry call from Ellen, after which she “sobbed like a baby.”
(And then there are the times Ellen has been accused of racist gaffes — like a 2016 tweet of her riding on Usain Bolt’s back. In response to critics that time around, she tweeted, “I am highly aware of the racism that exists in our country. It is the furthest thing from who I am.” Then, in 2017, a sketch on her show about Nicki Minaj poking fun at her body shape was deemed both “lazy” and “casually racist.”)
But despite the missteps, rumors, and occasional head-turning interviews — inevitabilities, perhaps, in a decades-long career — Ellen’s star hasn’t dimmed. Now 60, she remains as beloved as ever. As Jason Zinoman put it in last month’s Times profile, “No other current daily host has been as successful or celebrated.”
With Relatable, Ellen wanted to show her long-held audience a different side of herself; as her brother Vance DeGeneres put it, “She wanted to break out of, not a rut, but a mold.”
The result is a special that sees Ellen acknowledge the reputation she’s built as the “Be Kind girl” and her attempts to subvert it — but, at the same time, she recognizes that she can’t truly escape its hold on her. She’s grown tired of being expected to dance, and yet, in her special, dance she does (though just a touch more salaciously than she’d be able to get away with on daytime TV). She’s tired of being expected to be nice, but the special ends on a purely earnest, sincere note about how much her coming out 20 years ago still affects her, and why it’s important that we see beyond each other’s differences.
In the end, we’re left with a comic who’s seemed to have grown tired of the expectations placed upon her — so many of which resulted from casual homophobia along with full-blown bigotry — and yet she’s still unable to entirely shake free of those expectations. Yes, she says “fuck” once in this special, and she has some winky bits about her wealth and her marriage, but she seems trapped between trying to do something edgier, something new, and not losing the mainstream she’s worked so hard to gain. In the end, it’s an approach to comedy, and to queer storytelling, that feels out of step with the current cultural moment.
Another masculine-of-center lesbian comic, Hannah Gadsby, has been making waves with her 2018 Netflix special, Nanette. In it, she takes the opposite approach to Ellen’s sweeping, universal, “relatable” observational comedy — instead, she gets extremely specific. Gadsby, in addressing anti-gay bias, doesn’t attempt to convince her audience that she is just like everybody else; rather, she calls attention to everything about her own experiences growing up as a butch lesbian in Tasmania that made her different and therefore marked her as a subject for assault and abuse. She calls out “gender-normals” who assume she’s a “fat dyke who’s dead inside.” Gadsby goes as far as to question stand-up comedy itself, a form that she worries might only lead her to further subjugation. Nanette explicitly rejects the politics of acceptance, of tolerance, of relatability, of “love is love” messaging as a cure for anti-gay bigotry.
Ellen takes a different approach. Though, she told the Times, she loved Nanette, she considers it more of a solo show than a stand-up set, and she disagrees with Gadsby’s critique of the form: “I think comedy is the best medicine.”
At the end of Relatable, Ellen talks about her struggles with being closeted and her decision to come out, which she described as one of the hardest parts of her life. She draws a direct connection between being misunderstood as a gay person and as a celebrity, referencing an earlier bit in the special in which she jokes about how far she has to do the “bath mat scoot” to get to her towel in her gigantic rich-person’s bathroom. “We wanna grow, we wanna feel good about ourselves, we wanna feel proud of who we are. We’re all the same. So, whether your bath mat scoot is 50 scoots to get to the towel or three scoots to get to the towel, whether you’re gay or have dry eyes” — another reference to an earlier bit — “we are all the same, and we are all relatable.”
Ellen, for her part, never asked to be a gay icon. As she told Dax Shepard on his podcast last year — another comfortable celeb-on-celeb environment — after she came out, she faced a lot of criticism, even from other gay celebrities. “Elton John said, ‘Shut up already. We know you’re gay. Be funny.’ I had never met him and I thought, ‘What kind of support is that from a gay person?’ But everybody assumed I was just nonstop talking about it. It hurt my feelings.”
“I didn’t want to be a leader,” she said. “I didn’t want to be political, and I didn’t want to be an activist; I just wanted to be free from a secret. That’s all I wanted.” Though she is of course “going to speak up” for LGBT causes, and thinks her own visibility provides important representation, she’s always struggled with criticism from gay people: that she is either too gay or not gay enough. “I was like, ‘I didn’t say I was your leader, and I didn’t say I have done more. I just want to be a comedian, and I just happen to be gay.’”
Now, she just so happens to be a gay mega-celebrity. When I look at Ellen, I do see someone to whom I relate: a fellow white gay woman who’s dealt with anti-gay bigotry in the past but now lives a life of relative privilege; someone who makes mistakes; someone who doesn’t always know how — or even want — to speak to, or for, the entire LGBT community. And I relate to that endless struggle between wanting to be authentic and wanting to be loved. But you would hope that a 60-year-old celebrity with nothing much left to prove might have an easier time of bucking expectations — of making more room for messiness, for the sorts of rabble-rousing at which she once excelled. It’s when I look at someone who’s now using her enormous cultural reach to smooth over the messes of other mega-celebrities like her that I see someone to whom I can’t relate at all. ●