Without Our Stage Makeup
The Queen of Not-As-Nice-As-We-Thought
I have been quite taken with the evolving Ellen DeGeneres story. There’s something that keeps bringing me back, searching for clues, that reminds me of the days I spent compulsively checking for updates about Amy Cooper, of Central Park infamy. Her on-camera racism exposed so much of what is rarely so baldly and blatantly visible to the public, much less to ourselves. That video showed me, and many white people like me, what weaponizing race looks like in real time.
Watching that disturbing video and reading about Cooper’s background, I discovered that my initial assumptions about Amy — that she must surely be a Trump supporter — were quickly contradicted by an early report of her donations to Barack Obama, Pete Buttigieg, and John Kerry. This news shocked me, and as the days progressed, I hoped to find more stories that dug into this seeming incongruity. None, to my knowledge, emerged.
Much has been written and revealed about Ellen DeGeneres lately, though. Long known as the “Queen of Nice,” a warm-blooded icon with a warm-hearted vision for humanity, she is now being depicted as a distant, dismissive, brand-preserving overlord of an often inhumane cultural machine. Like so many other public figures that have recently come under public scrutiny, there are calls for her immediate removal.
My curiosity about this story centers less on the details of life at the Ellen DeGeneres Show — the increasingly familiar portrait of a toxic workplace culture, the claims of executive abuse, and troubling stories about Ellen’s off-air behavior — than on the messy truth that even the Queen of Nice isn’t, in fact, all that nice.
How does that happen, I wonder? Was it always this way, all a front? Was the dancing just a gimmick? Were we duped? Or did she change over time, hardened by the pressures and peculiarities of fame? Was her friendly, twinkly-eyed persona just worn down, like a favorite crayon, from overuse?
I can speculate all I want, but I’ll never really know. No matter how Ellen frames her apology, what the network says, or what picture we can piece together from Twitter, individual testimonies, and our own perceptions, that picture will be incomplete. We simply cannot know, because we are not Ellen.
Of course, Ellen herself is not “Ellen.” “Ellen” is simply one well-cultivated aspect of Ellen’s kaleidoscopic personhood that, like everyone’s, is formed by some mysterious combination of history, upbringing, DNA, psychological profile, choices, chemistry, generation, temperament, and social influence.
Who I Want to be Versus Who I Sometimes Am
Back in 2010, I passionately supported the passage of Obamacare, making countless phone calls and even a cell-phone video in support of the landmark bill.
But soon after that legislation went into effect, we sold a rental property, garnering a pretty significant profit, and confronted the not-insignificant sum to be deducted, because of Obamacare, alongside our capital gains tax. Gulp. If I said that I was thrilled to give up that money, I’d be lying; I had to consciously override the knee-jerk desire to keep that extra 3% or so rather than give it up for Obamacare, despite my sincere and publicly-professed philosophical alignment with its principles.
Talk about putting your money where your mouth is. I ultimately arrived at a place in my heart in which that money was given freely and as a representation of our values, but that took work and I’d certainly have been happy not to have to. Watching myself grapple in that clear and concrete situation truly opened up a whole new room in my mind for inhabiting contradictions: I might wholeheartedly believe in “social responsibility” and still have selfish instincts.
Does this make me bad? Of course not. I can certainly be hard on myself, but even I know that this is all rather normal. In our public discourse, though, no such grace is given. I’d like to think that such stories — about how hard it was to run for office, and about how I, too, have struggled with ordinary moral dilemmas — would have bolstered my campaign for state representative, but I doubt it.
To Dare or Not To Dare
As a society, we seem to be losing the capacity for curiosity; even as we want desperately to be seen and understood as individuals, we seem increasingly hell-bent on quickly sorting others like items in a discount bin.
For public figures, the internet is quickly replacing thoughtful investigation and due process, instead serving as judge, jury and executioner to reputations built over lifetimes. Some of this is a healthy democratization of information that once seemed to protect an elitist ruling class; much of it, though, implicitly demands that people become inhuman avatars of one-dimensional perfection or risk cancellation.
This is not only a problem for those, as Teddy Roosevelt put it, already “in the arena”; it is also a problem for the rest of us who internalize a growing fear of exposure and develop an aversion to vulnerable admissions of fallibility and ignorance, instead sticking only with the safe, tried-and-true, sanctioned parts of ourselves and our ideas. Society itself thus contracts.
On an exponentially smaller scale, I also know the risks associated with daring, and have sensed the weird and unnerving trap of projecting a public image vulnerable to critics outside the arena. I’ve tasted what it’s like to have a forward-facing “brand,” to walk into a cafe in which people you’ve never met have opinions about you; it’s a fascinating and stressful experience.
“Allison Gustavson the candidate for state representative” was certainly very much me, of course, and stood for everything I still truly believe in. But as much as I tried to bring my whole self to bear on the project, it was simply impossible.
“Allison Gustavson the candidate” earnestly said things like, “It is an honor, a thrill, and a privilege to run for office and to dig so deeply into the issues that matter to our beloved community.” This was absolutely true. Running for office was — aside from parenting — the most gratifying, forging experience I have ever had in my life.
But it was also true that “Allison Gustavson the human being” would often go home at the end of the day and cry from stress and exhaustion, feel torn apart by petty antipathies among her closest advisors, and experience raging jealousy when, knocking on hundreds of doors alone in the blazing heat while her husband and mother took care of her children, she saw countless families spending time together like it was the most normal thing in the world, which it was.
Ellen is world famous; I was somewhat known to some people in a corner of Massachusetts. There is obviously no comparison. But now, with social media, more than ever — we all have a “public image,” and for most of us, there’s at least a partial disconnect between the image we project to an increasingly unlimited global media space and the truth of our unvarnished selves, at home, in our own minds and hearts.
In Conclusion, But Not Really
I am not apologizing for Ellen. There is obviously an enormous difference between admitting to complexities that contradict one’s public image and allowing or engendering a toxic workplace culture. This situation should be properly and thoroughly investigated, and it is.
So-called “cancel culture” also certainly has a role to play as we ask more from our public figures and hold them appropriately to account when they cause harm. I’m simply wondering if we are creating an impossible and destructive feedback loop, and if there is a way — in the distractible, scrolling world of Twitter — to move towards a more measured approach to examining these stories.
I’m actually a bit nervous to post this, because I’m still working this out in my own mind and there are no easy answers. Do I sound like an Ellen apologist? Does opening with the Amy Cooper story seem to suggest that I am equating the two? Is it better to wait until this is all clear-cut and obvious, or is there value to grappling with these questions out loud?
I want to continue to write and think about the world I want to inhabit and leave for my children. I don’t want that world to require that, like Ellen, I use the same “periwinkle blue” crayon day in and day out. I also don’t want my children to feel that they are risking social and professional banishment as they engage with the messy, emotional, complicated questions facing our communities and our country.
The world is watching, and nobody knows what to make of what has happened to us, to America. We, too, are shocked, traumatized, grieving, and confused; our imperfections, we thought, were part of the journey of bending toward justice. Like Ellen, we tried to show the world only the best parts of ourselves: freedom, creativity, innovation, and dancing. And like Ellen’s countenance, that smiling Hollywood facade has been irreparably cracked.
I’m not sure that’s only a bad thing. As we feel towards a new way of being, we are seeing, at every turn, how truly confining, inhumane, unjust, and costly the old way really was. As much as millions have relied on Ellen’s daily injection of straight-up joy, there was also something impossibly one-dimensional about the world she presented and something suffocating about the message young people are receiving about what it takes to be successful and famous.
By what standard will we, as a nation, be measured in the coming years and decades? We’ve seen America without that stage makeup, and our scars cannot be unseen. I obviously have no idea how things will turn out and have a million questions about how we got here and where we are going. But when I think about Chris Cooper’s response to the public takedown and likely prosecution of Amy Cooper — refocusing our attention on the systems of white supremacy and away from “this one individual” — I hear the rustlings of a road map.