Are you an everyday Ellen?

What Ellen’s power flex means for the rest of us regular folk

Welcome to the first Substack edition of my newsletter Trigger Warning! sign up below to get future updates with my thoughts on sexual abuse, domestic violence, the cultures that enable them, and whatever else strikes my fancy.

It’s been a week since the video of Ellen hanging out with former President Bush at an NFL game went viral and it was fascinating to watch unfold. I honestly didn’t really care about the first video; her friendship with Bush is well-established and I know rich people are about class solidarity. It sucked to see a reminder that the former president got away with all his bullshit, but I didn’t feel personal betrayed or anything.

It was her response video that piqued my attention.

Ellen’s response was such a display of her power—the same power that placed her in those luxury seats next to a former President in the first place.

She unapologetically extended the media cycle about the video to insert her narrative. “Sometimes I like to ruminate on things all Monday, so that Tuesday you hear about it,” she said. (It also gives writers time to prepare remarks and time to rehearse.)

She recorded her prepared statement in before a studio audience (a group full of fans that’s required to clap) and used The Ellen Show’s large corporate media backing to wield DMCA takedown notices to suppress the Bush-is-a-war-criminal remix by Rafael Shimunov.

Ellen’s video wasn’t really about encouraging niceness. It was about having the last word and to gaslight her opponents. Instead of addressing the actual concerns people raised, Ellen pretended Twitter was just upset about “differing views” because that’s how whitewashing history works. Ellen twisted the conversation to shut things down. Misrepresenting a dissenter’s view is the oldest trick in the book; how can you argue with someone who completely distorts what you’re mad about?

I’m glad that many people didn’t call for the misrepresentation. And seeing the widespread righteous anger made something quite clear:

Most of us will never be in Ellen’s position. Debating whether to be friends with a wealthy war criminal just isn’t a common ethical dilemma. There’s still a lesson in this for the rest of us regular folk, though.

When we talk about politics and power, it’s easy to think BIG. Whether it’s American politics or #metoo, discussions about power focus on the elite few: the Bushes, Ellens, and Weinsteins. The obvious folks.

But regular folks like you and me have power, too. It doesn’t only belong to the rich and famous. All of us have power in some way whether it’s through strong social standing, job, physical strength, gender, age, race, relationship status, etc. And there are people who abuse their power every day with devastating consequences.

Everyone has or will know an unaccountable abuser. The rates of domestic violence, sexual violence, and child abuse are too high—and accountability is far too rare—to avoid them.

Everyone, at some point, will have to decide about whose side they’re on: the side of the abuser and the bastardized version of “civility” or the side of truth, safety, healing, and accountability. People mocked Ellen defending her right to be friends with a man who’s caused so much harm (that continues to this day). But consider this: How times have you personally seen someone make excuses for befriending an abuser—at the victim’s expense?

Abusers don’t act alone. They depend on people to defend them and rehabilitate their image. Entitlement is at the core of abuse; they need allies to protect that entitlement by evading accountability. Abusers can change—but we have to stop enabling them first.

As Dr. Judith Herman says in Trauma and Recovery:

It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.

Doing the right thing is hard, but if people had the same energy for abusers in their lives as they did for Ellen normalizing Bush the world would be a lot safer. The awkward conversations and missed parties are worth standing up for a human’s dignity.

So I leave you with these questions. And a friendly reminder that especially in this social media age, survivors are watching.


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