I don’t watch “Ellen” very often. It’s not that I don’t like Ellen Degeneres. I actually find her quite funny. There’s just usually something on that I want to watch more when her show’s airing in my area and I happen to be watching TV, and I don’t have a…DVR…?
But yesterday I was distracted by cleaning and the show that was on at 3pm switched over to “Ellen” and I didn’t bother to change it, so there you go. But the show, a repeat from April, got my attention very quickly when Ellen started talking about how they were going to play their own version of “Idiotest” (a game show of which I’d never heard, on the Game Show Network) with the audience.
I don’t like the word “idiot”. It’s got an ableist history as sordid as “retard”. I try not to use it since I learned about how ableist it is, but when I do let it slip, you can bet that I’m very angry. Eliminating it from my vocabulary was difficult, because it’s very much a part of society’s vernacular, and I’d grown up using it (unlike “retard”, which was never allowed in my house). And most people don’t know that it’s ableist, so I cut them some slack when I hear it.
However, the fact that there’s a game called “Idiotest” (on prime-time and on “Ellen”) makes me feel a uncomfortable, particularly when Ellen said in her video that she was playing the game with the audience to “assure the world that there are no idiots in my audience”. Obviously the research department hadn’t unearthed that “idiot” was originally a derogatory term for intellectually challenged people. People aren’t using it with that intent now, obviously, but even if it wasn’t her intent to send the message that intellectually challenged people weren’t welcome in her audience (and I don’t think that was the message), there was a subtle, albeit joking, message that people with low intelligence aren’t.
Calling People Idiots Just Isn’t Funny
The problem is that the joke isn’t really funny, and it becomes less funny when you know the history of the word “idiot”. There’s currently enough in the definitions of “idiot” on the first page of Google that any good researcher should have thought, “Uh oh, better look at this before we create a game around it.”
Ellen’s idea of “Idiotest” involved bringing people (presumably pre-selected) up from the audience and asking them a brain-teaser. The people who got them wrong (4 of 5) got called idiots and were made to sit on the stage wearing dunce caps. Here’s the video:
They each got a great trip as a prize, but that’s not really the point. The whole “Idiotest” business hearkens back to a particularly ugly time in the school system that really doesn’t need revisiting. Children were asked questions through which they perhaps legitimately couldn’t think because of undiagnosed cognitive difficulties and learning disorders, and when they couldn’t get the answers they were shamed in front of the whole class and made to sit in the corner wearing dunce caps.
Seeing someone try to make that experience into something fun and funny made me feel profoundly uncomfortable.
I expected a bit more sensitivity from Ellen Degeneres.