This morning, The Hollywood Reporter published an exclusive interview with Ellen DeGeneres in which the the embattled former queen of Daytime TV announced that she would end her ubiquitous talk show after 19 seasons and 64 Daytime Emmy Awards. Though she insists this has been the plan for a long time, and she’s just looking for a new challenge, it’s hard not to think the past year of revelations about the toxic culture of her workplace — and the accusations that her “be kind” persona is just an act — contributed to the decision in a major way. Ellen informed her staff about the decision yesterday, will sit down to talk with Oprah about it on tomorrow’s episode, and will end her run in 2022.
There’s no question that the daytime talk show scene is grueling. Ellen did 180 episodes a year for almost two decades. And she’s been saying for sometime that wife Portia de Rossi, especially, wanted her to enliven herself in more rewarding ways. She rightly notes that “19 years is a long time to do anything” and that with her money and influence, there are infinite ways she can contribute to making the world a better place. The environment, animals (and, somewhat incongruously, “design and furniture”) are the things she lists that she cares about and will focus on next, including her Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund which will open in Rwanda next year.
However, it’s impossible to read the announcement without contextualizing it with the backlash the world’s most famous lesbian has been facing, starting with the disastrous, viral interview in which Dakota Johnson accused her of lying about not being invited to her birthday party; and her dismissive defense of her friendship with former president George W. Bush after the two were shown on national TV pal-ing around at a Dallas Cowboys game in 2019. It only took Twitter a few hours after that game to resurface photos of the golden baby carriage Ellen gifted Donald and Melania Trump when their son, Barron, was born, and from there it was a landslide of Twitter threads from people who had worked for Ellen — or who knew people who had worked for Ellen, or who had heard from others in the industry — that she wasn’t nearly as nice as her public persona led people to believe. In fact, there were many allegations that she was downright cruel.
Things went from bad to worse when Variety reported on the terrible way Ellen’s producers handled moving her show to her home for Covid lockdown, including a refusal to communicate about hours or pay upfront and ultimately slashing their salaries by 60%, and hiring a non-union, outside tech company to set up filming at Ellen’s house. Then came a bombshell report from BuzzFeed that alleged a pervasive culture of “racism, fear, and intimidation” behind the scenes of her show. BuzzFeed followed with a second reported piece alleging “rampant sexual misconduct and harassment” from producers. Ellen ultimately issued an apology and said she wanted everyone on the show to be treated with respect.
Ellen addressed the backlash in this morning’s THR interview:
It was very hurtful to me. I mean, very. But if I was quitting the show because of that, I wouldn’t have come back this season. So, it’s not why I’m stopping but it was hard because… I wasn’t working, so I had no platform, and I didn’t want to address it on [Twitter] and I thought if I just don’t address it, it’s going to go away because it was all so stupid… So, there was an internal investigation, obviously, and we learned some things but this culture we’re living is [is one where] no one can make mistakes. And I don’t want to generalize because there are some bad people out there and those people shouldn’t work again but, in general, the culture today is one where you can’t learn and grow, which is, as human beings, what we’re here to do. And I can see people looking at that going, “You don’t care about what people [went through.]” I care tremendously. It broke my heart when I learned that people here had anything other than a fantastic experience — that people were hurt in any way.
There is, of course, no way to overstate what Ellen DeGeneres has meant for (white) lesbian visibility since she came out in 1997. She became the scapegoat of the Republican Party’s culture wars against gay and lesbian people in the late ’90s, and it nearly cost her everything. Her sitcom changed the landscape of LGBTQ+ TV, and over the course of 18 seasons, her talk show humanized lesbians to people across the world who didn’t know a single gay person. Her wedding to Portia de Rossi, which appeared in People magazine during the infamous Proposition 8 debate in California, was a watershed moment for marriage equality. She helped countless gay people accept themselves, and countless straight people accept that being gay is just part of life. That will never change.
Time and time again, when Ellen has been confronted with her own bad behavior, or the bad behavior of senior staffers on her show, she has leaned into the refrain that she got into comedy in the first place to spread joy, that she just wants everyone to be as happy as they can be, that the reason she started a talk show was to share kindness and compassion with the entire world, that she knows what it’s like to be judged for just being who you are and she never wants anyone else to feel that way. It’s something Kate McKinnon recognized her for when presenting her with the Carol Burnett Award at the Golden Globes in 2020. What Ellen has continued to refuse to understand, however, is that in this post-Trump world, in this post-#MeToo culture, in this time of uprising for Black lives, it is not enough to simply publicly wish we could all get along. We can’t. Not because we’re mean, but because we’re arguing about the literal humanity of oppressed people who have suffered — and continue to suffer — endless, compounded violence rooted in white supremacy.
I’m grateful for Ellen. And I hope she does continue to try to do as much good as she can in the world. I also hope, along the way, she learns that calls for civility have most often been used to silence the oppressed, that kindness is not justice, and that being nice isn’t enough.