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When Activists Betray Us

A celebrity we've never met still causes us pain.

We love our heroes.

Fictional characters, our favorite teacher, celebrity activists ... we worship the people who inspire us to be better. We rely on them to give us faith that the world isn’t as cruel as it seems. When we feel that progress is being trampled, we look to them for reassurance.

And that’s why it’s so devastating when they don’t meet that expectation, or worse, when we feel like they’ve betrayed who they are (as we know them).

It’s been a rough two years for our heroes. Multiple careers have ended due to accusations of behavior we didn’t believe was possible from them. The careers of those who once worked with them are tainted by default. A few of them committed suicide after years of struggling with addiction and mental illness.

But perhaps our greatest grief emerges when the celebrity is not only beloved, but an activist. Bourdain opened our minds to other cultures, Williams brought attention to animal rights, and DeGeneres played a significant role in the United States implementing LGBT+ rights.

Ellen is still with us, but we’re grieving the loss of what we wanted her to be.

Earning Our Love

Ellen was one of the funniest television series of the 1990s and DeGeneres quickly made a name for herself. The show’s abrupt cancellation devastated her and her loyal fans. However, members of the LGBT+ community and their allies united, and the rights that we eventually gained were largely credited to Ellen having the courage to publicly come out.

Her career rebounded with stand-up specials and interviews with the most prominent reporters and talk show hosts. She was honest and open about her sexual abuse, her sexuality, and her dreams for the future. Overall, she handled herself with poise and we admired her courage, strength, and determination.

The Rise and Plateau

Ellen began hosting a talk show in 2003 and it won more awards than The Oprah Winfrey Show. The show was often tagged as fun, upbeat, and inspiring. She talked to celebrities about their upcoming projects, but also to struggling families about poverty and hardship. It felt very real and giving money and products to her audience members made us love her even more.

The shine has been off the apple for me for a few years. Headlines gave her credit for awarding scholarships that were provided by for-profit companies and giving away products that were actually donated by their manufacturers. With time, I began to feel that the show was exploiting hardship, rather than furthering social change.

But the final straw for me was the fearful screams of the guests when they were unexpectedly confronted with a person sneaking up on them or hiding in the bathroom. Her frightening people, especially those who had publicly said they did not like being scared, made me cringe. If a person wants to experience fear or anxiety by going to a horror film or theme park, that’s their choice, but to force it on them is simply wrong. The human body undergoes specific processes when it senses fear and it is unhealthy.

Nevertheless, I understand that she is loved by many, has a conscience, and remains a role model in the LGBT+ community. Being awarded the Medal of Freedom was appropriate, given her activism two decades earlier.

The fall?

When her Netflix special was released in December 2018, I couldn’t watch it. I knew that I would not enjoy it the way I had enjoyed her previous specials (which I still quote). That’s been hard for me to accept, and Netflix’s constant recommendation certainly doesn’t help. I’m mourning the loss of an idol.

Suddenly, it appears that I’m not mourning alone. Her interview with Kevin Hart has (rightfully) led to intense backlash from even her most loyal supporters. LGBT+ organizations didn’t approve of her absolution of a man who made multiple homophobic remarks. Activists aren’t granted the right to be the voice of an entire demographic, especially if they’re betraying that group.

However, does one interview really deserve this level of backlash?

The Betrayal and Grief

Yes.

Remember when Matt Damon defended Harvey Weinstein? Damon earned our love early with Good Will Hunting and kept it with his activism to call attention to the crisis in Darfur. To hear a man we admired—and more importantly the father of four daughters—defend a sexual predator felt like a betrayal of who we knew him to be.

Usually, I encourage people to think of others as human and not to place unrealistic expectations upon them. However, from a woman whose motto is, “Be kind to one another,” we expect her to reciprocate. For her to use her powerful platform to forgive a bigot and wield her influence to persuade the Academy to allow him to host the Oscars, is almost too much to bare.

This is primarily being exhibited as outrage. Angry tweets and seething articles make our disapproval known. But the truth is, it’s probably not anger that we’re feeling; it’s loss.

It’s the loss of a powerful ally. When you expect someone to fight against tyranny, and then they abruptly join the tyrants, you’re likely to feel abandoned, helpless, and vulnerable.

It’s the loss of a friend. Whether we’ve met them or not, we’ve invested time watching these celebrities become who we think they are. Through the television, we welcome them into our homes and our lives. Suddenly, we have to decide whether we will ever invite them again.

And it’s the loss of a hero. The sadness of loss becomes the panic of uncertainty as we look for someone else to inspire us and soothe our fears.

The Aftermath

Is this the end of Ellen? It’s too early to know, but it seems unlikely. She’s faced critics plenty of times and it’s made her fans love her even more.

Still, whether her career survives or reputation rebounds isn’t the point. This is bigger than her. This is a disappointment and grief felt throughout the LGBT+ community. When activists betray us, we have the right to lament.

But keep the faith, mortals. A new hero will always emerge.

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