What’s not to like about Ellen DeGeneres? She’s made millions laugh for over a decade, she hands out free gifts to audience members, and she’s an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights. Ellen encourages her fans to “be kind to one another” while demonstrating her kindness with Target gift cards and Sodastreams for everyone in her audience.
While it’s no secret that celebrities put on false personalities as a way to gain publicity, the recent controversy surrounding Ellen DeGeneres is different. Known for her family-friendly daytime show and her 12 Days of Giveaways during the holiday season, the allegations concerning The Ellen Show’s toxic work environment took many by surprise. How could Ellen DeGeneres, someone who for years promoted kindness, not only be responsible for letting sexual harassment and racism thrive at her show but also turn out to be a not-so-kind person herself? While these questions are legitimate, they also reveal the lower expectations that society gives celebrities in terms of what counts as “being kind.”
…every time Ellen would crack a joke, take a selfie, or write a check, she was immediately labelled as a role model.
What does it mean to be a genuinely kind, decent human being? Most people can agree that this definition consists of several aspects: displaying behaviors of generosity, consideration, sympathy, empathy, and most importantly, doing so without expecting anything in return.
What about in the context of celebrities? What behaviors can define the rich and famous as altruistic people? This is where the definition of kindness gets blurry. DeGeneres was seen as a considerate person mostly because of her comedic abilities and gift-giving. While making others laugh and giving away free JetBlue tickets is a nice gesture, it is not exactly kind. Despite this, every time Ellen would crack a joke, take a selfie, or write a check, she was immediately labelled as a role model.
…the interpretation of kindness as how good one’s ability is to give away gifts reveals how materialism has redefined what counts as selflessness.
For years, Ellen was hailed as the pinnacle of kindness. Every other article about celebrity news was about how she did one “kind” gesture after another. While it’s possible she did make many fans happy, the interpretation of kindness as how good one’s ability is to give away gifts reveals how materialism has redefined what counts as selflessness. This redefinition has put any celebrity who has done something “nice” on a pedestal.
I will admit that it is easy to set low standards in terms of celebrity behavior. We expect famous people to be so far removed from everyday life, and understandably so. After all, ‘normal’ people rarely have access to the luxuries and constant attention celebrities do. So when a celebrity does show a kind gesture to us mortals, we are awe-stricken. The world cannot seem to get enough of articles listing just how genuine Jennifer Lawrence is or how Matthew McConaughey is such a great person for taking a photo for a tourist; the expectations to be a nice or kind celebrity are exceptionally low. This is perhaps one reason why talk show hosts such as Oprah and Ellen have been framed as generous people. Whenever they give away gifts to audience members, they create a connection between the illusive world of Hollywood and normal people.
There’s no doubt that giving away cars and toaster ovens is a nice thing to do, and compared with the clearly disrespectful behavior of other celebrities, there’s a legitimate reason why personalities such as Ellen are defined as always-benevolent. However, we need to take a step back and realize that just giving away material items does not necessarily make someone a good person. Allegations against Ellen DeGeneres and her top producers have unveiled Ellen’s true personality. Her monologue for the start of the eighteenth season of her show featured an apology that was, at best, weak. To make matters worse, Ellen—in a very self-congratulatory way—announced the promotion of her African-American DJ tWitch to co-producer of the show. Her attempt at an apology followed by announcing tWitch’s promotion was widely seen as a flimsy band-aid for the abusive workplace culture that she allowed for years.
To gain a deeper understanding of empathy and generosity, we should derive happiness and compassion from altruistic motives, and not through material goods.
When we strip away the veil of materialism that makes us label Ellen’s actions as “kind,” we find that much of Ellen’s success is predicated on her not-so-kind behavior on her show. In fact, most of her humor comes from gaslighting, making fun, and even sometimes being rude to guests and fans. Yet, to many, it seems as though her gift-giving skills make up for her jokes.
Whether or not Ellen DeGeneres will be able to save her image is unclear. What is clear, though, is that for the public to finally realize that Ellen is not the genuinely kind person she claims to be, it took the bravery of several employees to gather the courage to call her out on their painful work experiences.
We need to stop placing celebrities on a pedestal and start thinking of them as humans who have flawed personalities, just like you and me. But most importantly, we need to separate superficial nice gestures from genuine acts of kindness. To gain a deeper understanding of empathy and generosity, we should derive happiness and compassion from altruistic motives, and not through material goods. Especially in this pandemic craze, we have seen selfish and materialistic behavior cause us to hoard material goods as a means of finding comfort. It seems as though we have become insensitive to others if they have nothing tangible to give to us. We all — even celebrities — should emphasize being decent people without expecting anything in return.