An awkward interview and an unusual friendship: The Ellen DeGeneres witchhunt.

For the first time in over two decades, Ellen DeGeneres is experiencing the fragility of a good reputation.

Last week, the popular talk show host was heavily criticised for making a joke in which she compared isolating at home during the COVID-19 pandemic to being in “prison”.

The quip was delivered during her opening monologue for The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which she is currently filming at her multi-million dollar Californian mansion: “This is like being in jail is what it is,” the 62-year-old said. “Mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days and everyone in here is gay!”

Poor taste, some said. Privileged.

It seems the joke has since been cut from the online version of the episode.

It’s the latest in a cluster of negative headlines featuring DeGeneres’ name over the past few months.

From criticism of her friendship with former US President George W. Bush to accusations of hypocrisy via social media, the television star’s popularity is undoubtedly less stable.

Just last month, writer and comedian Kevin T. Porter declared her to be “the meanest person alive” and invited people who’d encountered her to back up his claim. Hundreds of people responded with anecdotes — that she once yelled at a staffer for looking her in the eye; that she policed employees’ lunches; formally complained about a waiter’s chipped nail polish. None has been verified. But that rarely matters in the realm of social media.

DeGeneres hasn’t been ‘cancelled’, but the ‘one wrong move’ ethos that underpins that culture seems ready and waiting for her slip.

Of course, the comedian has fallen out of favour before.

After famously coming out via a TIME magazine cover story in 1997, the comedian was cast out by Hollywood — audiences and advertisers pulled out of her self-titled sitcom, the show ended, and the calls stopped coming. DeGeneres was largely out of work for years, the victim of mass media culture well and truly behind the times.

In 2020, it seems she’s now the target of a culture that considers itself well and truly out in front.

It began with an interview.

The Dakota Johnson interview.

Through her talk show, DeGeneres has built her phenomenal brand on kindness, inclusivity and the kind of gentle activism that wouldn’t unsettle her broad audience or advertisers.

Thanks to her disarming charm and broad appeal, she has a queue of A-list stars eager to appear on her program to promote themselves and their work. Those interviews have spawned dozens and dozens of viral clips, as the famous and influential are somehow coaxed into revealing gossip on their relationships, or to participate in some ridiculous game or practical joke.


But in late November last year, one interview went viral for a different reason. Actor Dakota Johnson, famous for her leading role in the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, bristled as Ellen jokingly questioned why she hadn’t been invited to the star’s recent birthday party.

Watch: Dakota Johnson and Ellen’s uncomfortable encounter.

Video by ellentube

“Actually, no, that’s not the truth, Ellen, you were invited,” she said. “No, last time I was on the show, last year, you gave me a bunch of s*** about not inviting you, but I didn’t even know you wanted to be invited.

“But [this year] I did invite you, and you didn’t come.”

A back and forth followed in which Johnson’s producers confirmed the invite, prompting DeGeneres to say that she was “out of town” on the day.

What should have been little more than an uncomfortable TV moment, snowballed when it was revealed where the host was that weekend. In Texas, at a football game, sitting and laughing alongside George W. Bush.

“I’m friends with George W. Bush.”

As an LGBTQI trailblazer and champion, DeGeneres’ association with the former conservative president came as a surprise to many of her fans.

Bush had a questionable record on gay rights during his term in the early 2000s. As well as supporting a bill to block same-sex marriage, his administration refused to sign a 2008 United Nations’ declaration condemning acts of homophobia.

Listen: The Mamamia OutLoud team discuss Ellen DeGeneres’ stance on George W. Bush. Post continues after podcast.

But for other critics, the questioning of the unlikely friendship was more about Bush’s decision to send troops into Iraq in 2003 over claims it was creating and stockpiling ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (no evidence to support the claim was found).


Such was the backlash to her football outing, that DeGeneres was compelled to mount a defence on her show in December.

“I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different, and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s OK that we’re all different,” she said.

“Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them. When I say ‘be kind to one another’ [at the end of each show], I don’t only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”

Not everyone was buying her tolerance. Including actor Mark Ruffalo, who tweeted, “Until George W. Bush is brought to justice for the crimes of the Iraq War, (including American-lead [sic] torture, Iraqi deaths & displacement, and the deep scars — emotional & otherwise — inflicted on our military that served his folly), we can’t even begin to talk about kindness.”

To millions, though, these revelations or incidents will mean little. They have, and will, keep laughing and dancing along with DeGeneres. But to those whom they mean everything, they’re proving hard to ignore.

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