People aren’t always how they seem, and that’s just one of several reasons why idolizing cultural figures isn’t a good idea. We’re impressionable when we’re young, so placing trust in notable figures we admire is hard to avoid. But when we grow older, we often find ourselves disappointed by these people—either due to their recent words and actions or our own ignorance of their views. As someone who grew up watching a lot of The Ellen Degeneres Show and Real Time With Bill Maher as a kid, before I had formed any kind of political worldview, I’m now consistently enraged by these people. In fact, it’s a similar trajectory of my experience with The Smiths—their music is an essential coming-of-age tradition, opening minds to unconventional forms of masculinity and sexuality, not to mention vegetarianism. But sooner or later, you’ll find out about Morrissey’s racism and jump ship.
These two comedic American talk show hosts, Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Maher, have been in the news a lot lately. Both have been the subjects of countless controversies, and over the years, they’ve rendered themselves both culturally and politically irrelevant. But they’ve also helped foster liberal beliefs in people. In particular, they were influential figures to a generation of millennials who, in DeGeneres’ case, may not have had many examples of gay people in the media or their everyday lives, or, in Maher’s case, outspoken liberal adults. While their contributions were significant, we must also recognize that society and the American political landscape have long outgrown them. As viewers, we deserve hosts who aren’t out of touch with the current generation and who can be transformative for the next—not to mention TV personalities who are capable of maintaining a basic standard of moral decency.
When Ellen DeGeneres came out on her ABC sitcom in 1997, she became a trailblazer for gay people in mass media. And when her famous NBC talk show aired in the early 2000s, her appeal reached far beyond the LGBTQ community—suburban moms couldn’t get enough of DeGeneres, even if they held conservative or moderate views. Having an example of not just a successful gay person, but one who you could easily connect with on a personal level, was crucial to older generations who may not have come around to gay marriage or acceptance otherwise. The Ellen DeGeneres Show was entirely characterized by her warm-hearted persona—she donated to countless charities, danced with her audience, frequently gave back to her viewers (even though these spectacles were often demeaning and portrayed the worst parts of materialism, but that’s an article for another day) and ended each episode with the phrase, “Be kind to one another.”
But peel back the show’s rosy veneer, and you’ll find a drastically different story. For years, it was an open secret in the industry that DeGeneres wasn’t the type of person that she purported to be. Extensive articles were published about the show’s toxic work culture and sexual misconduct allegations against executive producers, and reportedly, DeGeneres was not just an innocent bystander. Everyone from former employees to celebrities and comedians like Brad Garrett, Lea Thompson and Dan Sheehan spoke of DeGeneres’ unacceptable behavior. Garrett, best known for his portrayal of Robert Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond, recently tweeted, “Know more than one who were treated horribly by her. tCommon knowledge.” And per an interview with The Wrap, a former Ellen producer Hedda Muskat went on the record and called DeGeneres “a toxic host,” and detailed an incident where producer Ed Glavin intensely berated a staff member while DeGeneres giggled.
Between questions of behavior and work culture, DeGeneres was also criticized for her public friendliness to former president George W. Bush, and later made things worse by analogizing his vastly harmful worldview (which included malicious war crimes) to people who wear animal fur. Then came her strange interaction with actress Dakota Johnson, a rare Ellen guest to not wholeheartedly play nice with DeGeneres, as well as the host’s comparison between social distancing and jail—which would be a problematic comment for anyone to make, but is especially egregious coming from a multi-millionaire in a huge civil rights moment. It’s one thing to hold more progressive views than DeGeneres, but the young people and LGBTQ community especially, who invested time and emotion into DeGeneres’ show, deserve a host who is actually as kind as they say they are, especially when gay representation in media is still lacking.
Those who grew up watching Bill Maher are also forced to reckon with his comments from the past and present. Despite his crucial impact on developing the political curiosity of younger generations, his Real Time series on HBO has been a consistent letdown. Back in the early 2000s, Maher was largely on an island due to his advocacy of marjuana legalisation and his belief in New Atheism ideals. But the more you dig into Maher’s beliefs and statements on his programs over the years, we’re left with the same conclusion as DeGeneres’ situation: we deserve better.
In the past, Maher has identified as a libertarian, “9/11 liberal” and a progressive, so it’s easy to get it twisted, but he’s rather reactionary. He simultaneously made fun of President Bush and spouted about the existential threat of Islam. Just as he shares his approval of gay marriage and reguarly roasts President Trump, he described the war in Vietnam as “necessary,” playfully used the N-word and trots out the endlessly tiring and oversimplified view of millennials as entitled cell phone addicts who can’t take a joke. He wields his refusal to take sides and his continued use of politically incorrect language as if it’s an orb of truth and subversiveness, when it’s actually just an intellectually lazy escape from building a coherent worldview as well as a distraction from complex questions.
The same person who revels in his image as an inquisitive, politically-untethered host rarely brings on guests who hold more progressive views than he does, instead bringing on those who agree with him or are more conservative. For example, can a person really be open-minded if they’ve shared their disgust at the idea of having children, and likely has infrequent interactions with teens and twentysomethings, yet still continues to lambast younger generations for “cancel culture,” their progressive idealism and the supposed intolerance on college campuses? It’s cowardly and embarrassing. Plus, his support for Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaign and repeated hopes for moderate Republicans to come out of the woodwork, prove his irrelevance in both major political parties.
In the age of Trump, comedic talk shows have become a farcical exercise in reaching for low-hanging fruit. Multi-millionaire hosts get their hair and makeup done only to make fun of Trump’s appearance, his children and well-known stupidity when the majority of Americans drown in debt and live paycheck to paycheck. When will average citizens actually see their lives reflected in television conversations that people are paid millions of dollars to have?
That’s probably a naive hope in the current system of corporate media conglomerates, but we shouldn’t shy away from expressing genuine critiques of people who hold positions of power and whose words have influence. Though liberals and conservatives mourn the state of “cancel culture” (even if its definition is incredibly imprecise and its consequences are grossly overstated, nonexistent or historically directed at the left), it is neither fascist, nor an encroachment on free speech when people simply expect others to be better and speak out when they aren’t (regardless of whether that person suffers consequences). DeGeneres and Maher represent the out-of-touch old guard of the entertainment industry and the political landscape. Though these networks’ viewers may skew older, it’s time for new voices who actually have their finger on the pulse to share their perspectives. If DeGeneres and Maher truly care about progress, they should put their bitterness aside and pass the torch. And if we as people care about progress, we should continue to demand more of our role models, public figures and leaders.
Lizzie Manno is an associate music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno
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