Every afternoon, Ellen DeGeneres ends her popular talk show with the same edict: “Be kind to one another.” In her opening monologues, she says things like, “Try to do something kind this week. If we all did one kind thing for someone else, it would make such a difference.” On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, DeGeneres — or whoever runs her Twitter account — tweeted, “I have a dream that we all choose to be kind to one another.” Online, she sells sweatshirts, mugs and stainless-steel straws under what she calls the Be Kind Collection. For roughly $200 a year, you can receive quarterly Be Kind By Ellen subscription boxes full of “Ellen’s hand-picked products.”
To say that DeGeneres has made the concept of kindness her brand is an understatement. Her entire public identity is wrapped up in that five-word signoff, or at least it was before her gilded veil started to fray. In 2014, Q Score respondents named her America’s favorite daytime TV host, cementing her reputation for likability. Those persistent pleas for benevolence also helped nudge the country toward broader LGBTQ acceptance, letting DeGeneres’ multimillion-dollar success read as a referendum on the career-threatening homophobia she faced when she came out in 1997.
But now America has learned DeGeneres wasn’t playing by her own rules. Over the past several months, the nature of her character has been called into question, making her entire image and the intent behind it seem suspect. We tend to lionize rich entertainers for the joy their work brings to our lives, and in the past decade, the ones who represent social progressivism have been placed on pedestals and turned into symbols. But symbols are often misleading, and rich entertainers are often too divorced from reality to understand the concerns of everyday people who don’t have paid sycophants shielding them.
In March, comedian Kevin T. Porter asked Twitter users for...