Kevin Hart’s Friday appearance on Ellen had a lot in common with stops on other celebrity apology tours. Ellen DeGeneres billed it as a very special episode, an honest sit-down with a guy who had done wrong (made homophobic jokes on Twitter and in his stand-up) and had suffered public consequences (resigning his post as Oscars host amid public outcry). Hart spent his time in the chair with a somber look on his face, hand resting thoughtfully on his chin. The show’s Twitter account promoted the episode with references to “forgiveness” and “second chances.”
But the interview, which lasted the entire hour of Friday’s episode, was missing one essential ingredient of a successful apology tour: a believable apology. The person who talked most about Hart apologizing was DeGeneres, who made several comments about regret he’d “already expressed” and said he was “apologizing again right now” when he wasn’t. The text that accompanies the video clip on the show’s website summarizes the conversation like this: “The comedian explained how he has apologized.” It almost reads like a grammatical error, like someone meant to write “The comedian apologized” but got a little too verbose. Nope! It’s an accurate description of the video, with all the sincere apology stuff happening hypothetically and in the past.
That past apology stuff barely bears mentioning. When Hart addressed his homophobic remarks in 2015, he said he would stop telling anti-gay jokes because “the times” had gotten “sensitive” and he would be setting himself up “for failure” if he continued ragging on gay people. The best Hart did on Friday’s show was acknowledge that the stuff he tweeted—calling someone a “fat faced fag”; boasting that “if my son comes home & try’s 2 play with my daughters doll house I’m going 2 break it over his head & say n my voice ‘stop that’s gay’ ”—was indeed wrong. What he didn’t reckon with was far more important: the harm he caused with his tweets, his stand-up riffs on trying to keep his son from being gay, or the culture of homophobia he encouraged by delivering those nonjokes to millions of fans.
As my colleague Sam Adams wrote when Hart stepped down from his Oscars gig, which he held for all of two days, Hart’s inability or unwillingness to deliver an actual apology for his past homophobic remarks—not the homophobic remarks themselves—was what made his resignation inevitable. Before he resigned, he posted several Twitter and Instagram responses to the public criticism that followed his Oscars announcement, all of which maligned his “trolls” as “angry” and “negative,” and none of which contained an apology. (A thin one—“I’m sorry that I hurt people”—came after he quit the show.) It looked like Hart was so convinced he’d done nothing wrong, or so appalled by the idea that he might have to own up to things he had done wrong, that he’d rather give up a gig he’s described as his dream job than admit his homophobia was despicable.
That’s what makes DeGeneres’ decision to offer him absolution on behalf of America’s gays so sickening. DeGeneres, possibly the lesbian whose safety and livelihood is least threatened by homophobia, spent the hour chalking up criticism of Hart’s homophobic tweets to “haters … a small group of people being very very loud.” When Hart calls those critics “trolls,” DeGeneres urges him not to let them “win” by refusing to host the Oscars. She commends him for being “the bigger man” by paying them no mind.
When the most famous and beloved gay person in America congratulates an equally famous and wealthy person on ignoring queer people hurt by his violent and homophobic rhetoric, she is abdicating her responsibility to the people she claims to care so much about—the “kids [who] are killed for being gay or beaten up every day,” as she described them in Friday’s episode. DeGeneres could have used the interview to help Hart engage in a deep, complicated reckoning with his biases and his aversion to taking accountability for them. Instead, she echoed his repeated claims that the criticism of his homophobia was a “malicious attack” on his person and his career, as if there weren’t good reason to be disturbed by the remarks the “haters” brought up. “This was to destroy me in all partnerships, in all brand relationships, all investment opportunities,” Hart said, as DeGeneres nodded sympathetically. (Minutes later, she gave him the opportunity to promote his forthcoming ad campaign with Chase.) The gist of DeGeneres’ comments on the subject—and of Hart’s nonapologetic social media posts—is that Hart is the victim of a vicious online mob that hates to see people happy. She tells him he’s “grown” and gotten “educated” since calling people fags, without asking him to offer any evidence that he’s actually done so.
“As a gay person … I am sensitive to all of that,” DeGeneres said of the criticism of Hart, establishing her credentials for offering her support. But as a gay person, DeGeneres can’t argue in good faith, as she did on Friday’s show, that Hart was “not realizing how many kids are killed for being gay or beaten up every day” when he was literally tweeting about beating up his son for possibly being gay. She can’t say he was “not realizing how dangerous those words are,” when the only reason anyone uses the word fag, as Hart did in a 2009 tweet, is because the word can hurt.
I wasn’t initially convinced that Hart’s tweets should disqualify him from the Oscars spot. Sure, I was disappointed that he was chosen over every famous person who doesn’t have a history of profiting from homophobia (like, I don’t know, any of the gay ones). But hiring sexist and homophobic comics is kind of the Oscars’ thing; I didn’t think Hart’s history was much worse than any of the others’. Now, after watching DeGeneres gleefully encourage her audience to cheer for a proudly unrepentant maybe-ex-homophobe—they clapped and screamed for a full 10 seconds when she introduced him as “this year’s Oscars host”—and treat as a foregone conclusion the idea that the criticism of his remarks was undue, I will be furious if he takes back the role. If DeGeneres was able to convince the so-called haters that Hart is the true victim in this scenario, it will reflect even more poorly on the country’s view of gays than if there’d been no outcry over Hart’s tweets at all.
Gay people know DeGeneres—bland, pandering, barely political—is no spokesperson for the entire LGBTQ community. But her viewers, many of whom probably consider her their closest gay friend, would be forgiven for taking their cues on gay issues from her. On Friday, she told them that gays on Twitter are more powerful and mean-spirited than the second-highest-paid comedian in the world, who for years made gay people the subject of violent rhetoric and the butt of his jokes. If her studio audience’s approving cheers are any indication, they might just believe her.