In her first episode back after many months away from the Warner Bros lot, Ellen DeGeneres took the stage and greeted a pandemic-safe virtual audience of television screens as well as viewers at home. She quickly shrunk down the universal discontent marked by this year to a personal level, asking viewers, “How was everybody’s summer? Good? Mine was GREAT!”
DeGeneres’ tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment refers, of course, to the past six months, during which there was what felt like an unmitigated stream of bad press for her show and her name. The year of Ellen’s reckoning started with a viral Twitter thread in which a writer/comedian (who I’m obligated to disclose is also the author of this op-ed) asked for mean stories about Ellen in exchange for donations to a local food bank. When the thread gained traction, a persistent whisper-network regarding the cruelty of Ellen and her workplace was finally made loud via social media. This led to further stories corroborating the rumors from multiple sources, which culminated with some credible journalism signaling the presence of workplace abuse, racism, and sexual harassment at The Ellen Show. There was then an investigation of Ellen’s workplace and, ultimately, three executive producers were fired.
Most of this happened while Ellen was on hiatus, which begged the question: how she would address this upon her return? Would she take responsibility for her actions and those in her employ or would she obfuscate the core issues at play here? The answer thus far seems to be: all the above.
In Ellen’s first monologue of Season 18, she recapped the timeline of news surrounding her show, stating: “I learned that things happened here that never should’ve happened. I take that very seriously and I want to say I am so sorry to the people who were affected. I know I am in a position of privilege and power and I know with that comes responsibility and I take responsibility for what happens.”
While her apology seems to have its heart in the right place, there is a distancing effect in this careful, certainly legally-vetted word choice that separates Ellen from much accountability. “I learned” is doing a great amount of work here, casting DeGeneres as an innocent bystander who immediately sprung into action upon learning of the injustices perpetuated by the show she allegedly runs.
She would later say in this same monologue: “I am a boss of 270 people. Two-hundred seventy people who help make this show what it is. Two-hundred seventy people who I am so grateful for.”
That number, 270, is repeated no less than three times in as many sentences. The emphasis here seems to be scale and scope, the sheer amount of employees that she cares for is also why she can’t be blamed for abuses slipping through the cracks. According to her own framing, she is technically responsible for the toxic work environment at The Ellen Show in the same way the CEO of a restaurant chain is technically responsible for bad management at one of their locations. Such framing creates the illusion that in the chain of command it makes sense but on a human level, it’s not really their fault.
A lot of this would be less difficult to process if not for Ellen fighting a war on two fronts. In addition to having to prove her show is not a place of active harm, she also is in the unenviable position of having to defend her own personal unkindnesses.
“Being known as the ‘be kind’ lady is a tricky position to be in. The truth is, I am that person that you see on TV. I’m also a lot of other things. Sometimes I get sad. I get mad. I get anxious. I get frustrated. I get impatient. And I am working on all of that. I am a work in progress,” she said.
If the persistent stories regarding DeGeneres were that she was imperfect, this would be a credible rebuttal. But the stories that have surfaced don’t paint a picture of a person who has some bad days like anybody, but of a person who only has bad days. Allegedly attempting to have a waitress fired for chipped nail polish, for example, extends far beyond run-of-the-mill flawed humanity and into something much darker.
"I'm a pretty good actress,” Ellen continued, “but I don't think that I'm that good that I could come out here every day for 17 years and fool you. This is me.”
I would imagine that for an overwhelming majority of her audience, this veneer of penitence will suffice. The nasty cloud hanging over all things Ellen will quickly evaporate by the power of her direct-to-camera address, and most viewers will continue to watch and enjoy her without any complicated feelings. For the rest of us, we will be left with the nagging feeling that maybe she’s a far better actress than she gives herself credit for.