Ellen DeGeneres pictured at the GLAAD Media Awards in Beverly Hills, California, on Feb 23, 2017. Credit: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File
Analysis
28 min

Ellen DeGeneres and the niceness trap

The queer comedian charmed straight America — but admits in her new comedy special that fame and acceptance came at a cost

“Be kind to one another.” — Ellen DeGeneres, at the end of every show

Ellen DeGeneres has never hidden her desire to make people happy. Her career — from the early stand-up performances, to the long-running talk show, to voicing Dory, Pixar’s cheerful amnesiac blue tang in Finding Nemo — is a masterclass in performing joy. The joy found in everyday observations, in silly animals, in child virtuosos and big-hearted charitable giveaways.

And then there’s the dancing.

Since The Ellen Show launched in 2003, DeGeneres has shimmied with the best of them (Michelle Obama, Jennifer Lopez, Channing Tatum) and strutted her way through ecstatic audiences. But what began as a fun way to kick off each episode became, over time, an albatross set to top 40 tunes.

The comedian finally stopped dancing on-air in 2016, 13 years into the show’s run, but not without qualms. As she revealed in a recent New York Times profile titled “Ellen DeGeneres Is Not as Nice as You Think,” she was worried about pushback from her boogie-loving fans.

The trouble with daily dancing and performing joy — the trouble with “nice,” really — is that it’s a 24/7 commitment. A curmudgeon can pleasantly surprise you with a thoughtful gesture, but a famously kind person having a bad day is headed for a fall. The shackles of this persona are clearly chafing DeGeneres, a 60-year-old woman whose life, albeit filled with tremendous privilege, has not always been easy.

Her charmed existence — the vast wealth (estimated by Forbes at $275 million), celebrity friendships and gigs hosting the Oscars — seemed wildly unlikely two decades ago when she became one of the first high-profile actors to come out, a decision that, for a period of time, killed her career.

The Times piece, which touched on the will-she-or-won’t-she question of retirement (DeGeneres waffled, but ultimately renewed her contract until 2020), was pegged to Relatable, the comedian’s first stand-up special in a decade and a half.

Released on Netflix earlier this week, Relatable takes a direct approach to DeGeneres’ staggering fortune: it opens with a very effective Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous-type gag. But, more significantly, it addresses challenges that are hers alone, such as being crowned a queer icon while simultaneously being hung out to dry.

“I thought everyone in Hollywood that’s closeted was going to come out after me,” she says at the beginning of the show, recalling her decision in 1997 to “live her truth” alongside her sitcom alter ego, Ellen Morgan. “I pictured a stampede of wild elephants, like, every closeted actor and actress in Hollywood. But instead, they were like little meerkats coming out of their little meerkat closets.”

Put another way, her fellow gay celebrities disappeared underground once there was hell to pay.

The pain at being abandoned hasn’t disappeared. DeGeneres knew the post–coming out period was likely to be tough, she just hadn’t thought it would be that tough. Considering how beloved she is today, it’s easy to forget how different the cultural and political landscape was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and how many concessions DeGeneres had to make, including sublimating her frustrations and more complicated aspects of her personality, in order to regain favour in the public eye.

Her expressions of hurt and irritation in Relatable may surprise some people, but they serve a purpose. By allowing herself to dwell on the less savoury parts of her famous life, DeGeneres is signalling that she’s just like us, and nothing at all like us. And in walking that fine line, she turns out to be relatable after all.

The past few years have been unprecedented in terms of visibility for queer women in film, TV and comedy: Lea DeLaria and Samira Wiley on Orange Is the New Black, Stephanie Beatriz on Brooklyn 99 and Sarah Paulson in everything, writer/producer/actor Lena Waithe’s triple threat, and Janelle Monáe and Tessa Thompson’s internet-breaking connection.

Netflix has produced DeGeneres’ latest, as well as stand-up specials by Tig Notaro and Hannah Gadsby; Wanda Sykes has a special airing in 2019. These other comedians’ brands are more biting than DeGeneres’, frequently anchored by pain, anger, sex and social issues. Gadsby, in particular, is an interesting counterpoint: her funny, furious 2018 special Nanette tackled homophobia, toxic masculinity, assault and trauma using a gut-punch narrative that left viewers breathless.

In the pantheon of contemporary queer female comedians, Kate McKinnon might be most like DeGeneres, though the Saturday Night Live star’s try-anything energy is more madcap than it is time-released sunshine. Which isn’t to say DeGeneres doesn’t grasp the appeal in difference; all but Gadsby have been guests on her talk show, with Sykes stopping by a record 30-plus times. In an ultimate act of reciprocal flattery, McKinnon was asked to appear both as herself and later as her SNL version of DeGeneres, geeky-smooth dance moves and all.

Today’s lesbian comedy has roots in the 1990s, though its current trajectory would have been near-impossible to predict. If you were watching TV back then, you could be forgiven for believing that queer women were put on this earth to appeal to Midwestern soccer moms and open-minded senior citizens.

The two most high-profile specimens were squeaky-clean and closeted: Rosie O’Donnell, the host of her own immensely popular talk show, and DeGeneres, the star of an eponymous sitcom about a charmingly neurotic bookstore owner. They were funny but polite, attractive but not beautiful. O’Donnell in particular appealed, with her love of Broadway showtunes, Tom Cruise (then the ne plus ultra symbol of heterosexual masculinity) and punny kids’ jokes.

Going off O’Donnell’s “Queen of Nice” schtick, a reputation she would later take a sledgehammer to, and DeGeneres’ gal-next-door routine, being a lesbian meant being palatable and, above all, discreet. Take the latter’s big break in 1986: for her first appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, DeGeneres did a clever bit about placing a phone call to God and being put on hold. When Carson complimented DeGeneres on her “fresh” take, he had no way of knowing that her routine was the result of working through her grief over the sudden death of her girlfriend.

Compare those approaches to that of Lea DeLaria, the first openly gay comic to perform on late-night television. Her 1993 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, rife with words like “dyke,” “queer” and “fag,” illustrated the chasm between daytime and nighttime TV — and between DeLaria, the self-proclaimed bulldyke, and DeGeneres and O’Donnell, the cautious soft butches.

There is no better demonstration of this than the pair’s coy exchange in the fall of 1996 on The Rosie O’Donnell Show. Filmed just months before DeGeneres’ “Yep, I’m Gay” Time magazine cover and her character’s coming-out episode, the segment focused on the rumours swirling in the media about her sexuality. Playing up her exasperation with the scuttlebutt, DeGeneres finally admits that her character will indeed be coming out — as Lebanese. (O’Donnell’s response, after some back and forth about what Lebanese tend to like: “Maybe I’m Lebanese!”)

Even if you were in on the joke, the “Lebanese” euphemism was grating: get on with it, already. But looking back at the segment now, something else becomes clear: DeGeneres and O’Donnell were most certainly afraid of losing what they had (fame, money, acceptance) in a bid to gain breathing room. So rather than climb onto that limb alone, they inched out together.

They were right to be fearful. If you were mainstream and you were too out — as DeGeneres was deemed to be after her character finally succeeded in getting a girlfriend and getting some — you would be reminded of your place. In DeGeneres’ case, that meant cancellation followed by three years of unemployment.

Even the collateral damage was remarkable: the coming-out episode had huge ratings but it spelled professional trouble for the allies who’d guested in it. Oprah Winfrey, after her appearance as Ellen Morgan’s therapist, received an unprecedented amount of hate mail; Laura Dern, the love interest, lost a year of work for playing gay.

With the public backlash came anger. And anger begot The Beginning, a stand-up special remarkable for its sting — by DeGeneres standards, at least. (The people exclaiming over Relatable’s edginess and lone f-bomb should take a peek at the 2000 special, which included a handful of curses, plus references to hitting people, hating vegans, smoking and buying sex toys.)

It was also the era of the comedian’s relationship with Anne Heche, a pairing whose closest equivalent — if graded on sudden visibility, couple interviews on Oprah’s couch and ultimate messiness — was Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. But even at her most unhinged, which is to say barely, DeGeneres radiated a desire to be liked. For every “I no longer crave approval, I’m on the patch for that” there was a “the key to standing out is fitting in.”

By the launch of her next special, 2003’s Here and Now, DeGeneres was on the road to recovery. The launch of her talk show, the linchpin of her second act, was imminent. Her new image hewed closely to early Ellen Morgan, ie, super likeable and non-threatening.

The difference was that everyone now knew DeGeneres was a lesbian, but the show headed off potential controversy by focusing on fun segments and softball interviews and by eschewing politics (case in point: the remarkably gentle challenge of guest John McCain on his opposition to same-sex marriage). In the early seasons, even her sartorial choices were designed to placate: her hair was longer and her clothing less streamlined. As she deadpans in Relatable, “I had to wear necklaces.”

The final step in DeGeneres’ rehabilitation: a glamorous yet down-to-earth love story. In 2005, she got together with actor Portia de Rossi, tying the knot once same-sex marriage was legalized in California. De Rossi is the fairytale: a beautiful, successful partner to build a happy life with, a life that audiences would be able to understand.

Culture writer Anne Helen Petersen explores this relatability factor in her 2017 book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, name-checking the celebrity images of DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris as bolsterers of the type of straight assimilation that leads to acceptance.

“Heteronormativity has become an ideal, especially in terms of representation: ‘successful’ queer characters are always upper-middle-class achievers,” she writes, “engaged in committed relationships in which each partner takes a legible gender position (one more masculine, the other more feminine), sex is omitted entirely, and marriage and/or children have either been achieved or are the goal.”

DeGeneres is proof that you can spread happiness and get a new job and marry your soulmate and make a fortune, all while being gay. Through decades of hard work, she has been accepted. In 2016, then-president Barack Obama awarded her with the presidential medal of freedom, lauding how she made people laugh “about something rather than at someone,” how she encouraged “all of us to challenge our own assumptions” and how she pushed the United States “in the direction of justice.”

But at what cost?

As she makes clear in Relatable, she’s had to keep a lid on a lot of her dissatisfaction. If a woman’s anger has historically made people uncomfortable, that goes double for a lesbian’s. The stereotype that queer women are humourless, hostile man haters is one that DeGeneres, more than anyone, has worked tirelessly to dismantle.

Former US president Barack Obama presents Ellen DeGeneres with the presidential medal of freedom during a ceremony in Washington, DC, on Nov 22, 2016. Credit: Olivier Douliery/ABACA

By the time her talk show launched, DeGeneres had radically ramped up her niceness quotient. She’d learned her lesson: a successful queer woman was an affable one. That’s who mainstream culture would tolerate. And an empire was built on that realization.

Still, while DeGeneres might be the architect of the cushy trap she’s found herself in, we’ve all benefited from it. She came out in the era of HIV/AIDS hysteria and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” in the decade when Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena were murdered.

Living openly was fraught for DeGeneres because it was fraught for all of us. But it can be argued that her relentless visibility as a kind of friendly lesbian Trojan horse made life easier for many queer women. We don’t have to agree with the path or the method, but having a joyful, G-rated, “acceptable” lesbian splashed across millions of TV screens has greased the wheels of acceptance.

DeGeneres’ movements may be limited by her gilded cage, but through it she’s helped create space for other comedians, for Gadsby, Notaro, Sykes, McKinnon and company, to be more overtly queer, more outrageous, more provocative. DeGeneres addresses this tension — this difference between her and them — in Relatable, decrying how she can “never do anything unkind now, ever. I’m the ‘be kind’ girl.”

But considering the state of the world these days, one wishes she’d allow herself to give civility a rest. The mainstream can now tolerate an angry lesbian. In fact, looking at the almost overnight rise of Gadsby, it even occasionally rewards them. Rage, or at the very least deep dissatisfaction, is suddenly appealing.

Of course, DeGeneres will never be Gadsby or Notaro or Sykes — and nor should she be. But, like most comedians, she shines when she’s taking a position. One of her career-best lines came during her opening monologue at the 2001 Emmys, the first Hollywood awards show to be held after 9/11. On doing her job at a time of national mourning and heightened security, she said: “Think about it. What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?”

Jokes like that serve to remind us that we don’t always need to be “nice.” Nice is often toothless. In the era of extremism, in a country where state laws continue to threaten LGBTQ2 equality, palatable isn’t what’s required. The world needs smart and bold and angry and compassionate. And, yes, those qualities are relatable, too.