Ellen DeGeneres seems to have largely bounced back after a turbulent summer in which accusations of a workplace rife with “racism, fear and intimidation” temporarily marred her public persona of kindness embodied. In interviews with BuzzFeed News, former The Ellen DeGeneres Show staff members said they were fired after taking medical leave or missing work to attend family funerals, and one Black staffer said a then–executive producer accused her of walking around “looking resentful and angry” for asking for a raise and suggesting diversity and inclusion training. After addressing the allegations upon returning for her 18th season, DeGeneres has continued apparently untouched by the scandal, still landing major celebrity guests. And, in perhaps the most telling sign that her brand has remained largely intact, the premium membership for her subscription Be Kind box has sold out.
The Be Kind box is a quarterly selection of items that are purportedly hand-picked by DeGeneres. A single box goes for $54.99 while a yearlong subscription costs $197.96 on sale; the premium subscription, which includes “opportunities for Ellen to gift surprise-and-delight items,” is a mere $251.96. The website touts the box as “a physical manifestation of the feeling of joy Ellen brings her fans every day,” and each supposedly “spreads kindness and champions brands that do the same.” Almost as soon as the fall Be Kind box was rolled out, it received its own minor backlash: Users complained of poor customer service, poor product quality, and long shipping delays. (I also experienced the latter—a little over a month passed between when I ordered the box and when it shipped.) The box is a logical extension of DeGeneres’ branding as maven of benevolence—but what exactly do you get when you buy kindness? We reviewed the fall box to find out.
First up are the Be Kind branded wireless headphones, which, according to the website, were created with the “hope that you’ll use them to listen and learn through podcasts, audiobooks, and movies.” That hope was immediately dashed as soon as I tried them out: The audio quality is significantly worse than both Apple AirPods and regular wired headphones. I got through maybe half a Carly Rae Jepsen song before swapping them out, and I can’t imagine a scenario where I would use these when I have other options available. They might work as a backup pair to stick in a purse or leave at the office just in case you forget your preferred pair—but since we’re all at home, they don’t serve much purpose at the moment. The fact that they’re black is a nice touch though; it takes an annoying amount of upkeep to maintain the pristine whiteness of AirPods.
The next item in the box is a handmade “Hope Necklace” created by Bychari, a Los Angeles–based jewelry company. As the name suggests, it’s a simple gold necklace with the word hope spelled out. It’s less hokey in person than it sounds, though I would still probably never wear it in public. Both the chain and the letters are delicate enough that my editor couldn’t even see the necklace on Zoom, and I think it would work best as a part of a set of layered necklaces. Every Be Kind box seems to have at least one item whose proceeds go to charity; proceeds from the Hope Necklace go toward UNICEF. Fair warning though: By the end of the day, the necklace had irritated my skin, though the Bychari website says that it’s gold-plated.
A set of “Baggage Claim” eye masks by Wander Beauty do seem especially formulated for sensitive skin, with no parabens, phthalates, sulfates, mineral oil, or synthetic fragrance. They’re supposed to “help visibly brighten, hydrate and reduce puffiness while minimizing the appearance of fine lines and dark circles.” My under-eye area is perhaps the only part of my face that doesn’t have any issues, so these didn’t really do it for me, but I’m enough of a skincare addict to enjoy the experience. Still, I ended up giving the rest of the pack to my mom.
Next up is a fossil from a time before we knew much about how the coronavirus is transmitted: a metal device called a “hygiene key,” apparently included because “kindness these days means prioritizing the health of yourself and others.” The key is made of “antimicrobial brass” and is supposed to be used to help open doors and press elevator buttons and/or an ATM keypad. Of course, we now know that airborne transmission is the real risk, and anyway, even if you’re not touching a germy door or a grocery store credit card scanner, the hygiene key still is. Without an external pouch, which isn’t provided, you’re just sticking the key in your purse or pocket. Since you’d still need to sanitize your hands after touching it, the key seems like nothing more than a bit of shiny hygiene theater.
Perhaps the most useful item in the bunch is the Stojo collapsible travel cup, which is, very importantly, dishwasher safe. I don’t exactly have much use for a travel cup in the middle of a pandemic, but it’s the only thing in the box that I can actually picture myself using in six months. The cup collapses down to about the width of a paperback book, and since it’s theoretically leak-proof, it’s perfect to stick in a bag once you’re done sipping.
Last and possibly least is the Be Kind exclusive watercolor kit, advertised as coming with “four incredible watercolor projects for you to try. No experience is necessary!” That last sentence is a lie. The projects include a sunflower, a gorilla, a “Be Kind” logo, and an Impressionist set of multicolored dots. Only that last one is actually feasible for someone with no experience. Otherwise, the custom-made projects are far beyond the realm of an amateur painter. The kit comes with four colors: red, blue, black, and yellow. From there, you’re expected to mix together any other color you need with minimal instructions about proportions necessary. My two failed attempts at following the tutorials ended up in the trash. The experience does eventually become enjoyable if you abandon the tutorials entirely. Still, the paint tends to stain; my fingers are blue as I type this. Of all the items in the Be Kind box, I do think the watercolor kit perhaps did the most to relax me and was thus the most likely to make me kinder—but I think that had less to do with the quality of the kit itself and more to do with the fact that I couldn’t look at any screens while I was using it.
The failed promises of the watercolor kit are maybe the best symbol of DeGeneres’ brand of niceness as a whole: a noble idea but disappointing in execution. Kindness in its truest form is not about the giver but the recipient—in this case, DeGeneres’ audience and consumers. But the flow of money involved taints the exchange, turning it purely transactional and largely empty. Subscribers aren’t buying kindness; they’re barely even buying DeGeneres a write-off for donations to charity. Instead, they’re purchasing proximity to DeGeneres through a collection of items that are supposedly hand-picked by her. It’s hard to imagine a millionaire actually using any of this stuff.
None of the tokens in the box fulfill the initial promise of helping subscribers “spread kindness,” but the marketing of these largely useless tokens reminds me of the commercialization of the once-radical concept of self-care. The initial iteration of self-care, as coined by Audre Lorde, wasn’t about an individual necessity for “me time” or to “treat yourself.” When writing about self-care, Lorde positioned her battle with cancer within the larger struggle Black women faced and how they cared for one another through it, writing that while her “struggle with cancer now informs all my days […] it is only another face of that continuing battle for self-determination and survival that Black women fight daily, often in triumph.” Yet, both self-care and kindness have been bastardized, transformed into ways to sell things that don’t materially help anyone except the seller’s bank account and the buyer’s own ego. Boxes like Be Kind are the inevitable endpoint of branding-as-praxis—but does it have to be so tacky?