What can explain Ellen DeGeneres' commitment to prosthetic butts? Just two weeks after the talk-show host aired a tasteless sketch that used a young black girl in padding to ridicule Nicki Minaj’s much-discussed backside, DeGeneres flaunted a new Halloween costume that gives the same treatment to the Kardashian clan.
Dressed in running shoes, a long black wig, and a zebra-print top cut down to her waist, DeGeneres posed as the unfortunate Kardashian sister who got cut out of the family’s reality show. “My name is Karla Kardashian—with a K, ‘cause we’re known for our double Ks,” DeGeneres said. She pointed to her gigantic fake breasts. “These are double Ks too, by the way.” She went on to wiggle a heavily augmented butt and joke that she’d signed an endorsement deal with Funyuns.
The Nicki Minaj skit drew comparisons to minstrel shows and the kind of exoticized fascination with black women’s bodies embodied by the sexual freak-show slavery of Saartjie Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus,” in the early 1800s. You’d have thought that DeGeneres and her writing team would have learned their lesson. Public opinion was clear: That video was emphatically tone-deaf and smacked of racism. Generous viewers or hardcore fans might have given the show a one-time pass for stupidity. But there’s no way the show’s producers could have been naïve to the resounding public criticism.
DeGeneres’s humor has long relied on prosthetic body parts to mock voluptuous women who wear revealing clothing. Minaj was also the target of DeGeneres’s 2013 Halloween costume, which centered on a cardigan with just the top button secured and nothing underneath. It was a direct hit on the outfit Minaj had worn as a guest on the show. “Nicki was on the show a few weeks ago,” DeGeneres quipped in that Halloween episode, “and her shirt was not.”
Whether it’s in Halloween costumes or everyday humor, when criticizing someone’s appearance, the line of decency lies between performative characteristics (long fingernails, gaudy jewelry) and innate ones (weight, chest size). As J. Bryan Lowder astutely pointed out in his guide to dressing as topical figures for Halloween, it’s best to “avoid cheap shots at looks, weight, disability, or anything else that a person cannot help; these traits aren’t really funny, and focusing on them suggests you aren’t the most inventive costume creator.” There’s enough substantive ways and reasons to make fun of the Kardashians—like, oh, I don’t know, Kim’s pregnancy-themed birthday party where all the guests wore fake baby bumps?—without needing to stoop to stuffing a pair of stirrup pants.