For nearly two decades, Ellen DeGeneres has been television’s Queen of Nice. Now her reign might be coming to an end, and the kindness she wore as a medallion might become the millstone around her neck.
After years of not-so-muffled rumblings in the television industry that DeGeneres’s characteristic kindness existed only on camera, BuzzFeed reporting last month put onto the record allegations of a toxic culture marked by racism at “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” DeGeneres responded to the reports in a blame-shifting letter to her staff, saying: “As we’ve grown exponentially, I’ve not been able to stay on top of everything and relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I’d want them done. Clearly some didn’t. That will now change and I’m committed to ensuring this does not happen again.”
Hours after DeGeneres’s statement, further reporting from BuzzFeed added accusations of sexual harassment at the show. Former celebrity guests Brad Garrett and Lea Thompson noted the hollowness of her response and that, of course, the culture was created from the top down. Garrett even said he knew multiple people “treated horribly by her. Common knowledge.” Now DeGeneres reportedly wants out of her namesake show.
But the ethos can be redeemed, and DeGeneres with it. Even amid today’s high-stakes “cancellations,” true reform is not impossible – though it requires not branded kindness, but the real deal. We saw it with Jimmy Fallon: When confronted with a past “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which he wore blackface, the late-night host devoted an entire episode to conversations with the head of the NAACP and Don Lemon in an effort to own his past. It was awkward, a little stagy and not that funny, but it was something resembling accountability. In its own imperfect way, it was kind.
So what would authentic kindness look like in DeGeneres’s situation? Well, nothing like what she has done so far. Her lone statement was too gymnastic to count toward any atonement. In her framing, her show’s issues owe to her lack of involvement, not because she shaped the culture and passed it down. Her wife passed the buck even more brazenly on Instagram, attributing the negative press to “bot attacks.”
But assuming some real kindness lives under all that marketing, imagine what the next steps for DeGeneres and her show could be. She could choose not to cut and run, but instead to have vulnerable conversations with ex-staffers who felt wounded by their time on the show. She could talk to experts about what it takes to practice actual kindness. She could even lighten it up and have a reunion with Johnson to show some measure of self-awareness. This controversy has created an opportunity for DeGeneres to clarify, to understand, to listen and to learn. The undertaking would no doubt be difficult, but that’s the thing: It’s hard to be truly kind.
That a TV show’s work culture is rotten or that a powerful celebrity is difficult or demeaning shouldn’t come as a shock in 2020. So why does the fallout here feel far more dramatic than in comparable cases? The depth of the offense lies in the gap between the marketing of “Ellen” and the accounts now coming to light about DeGeneres.
It's hard to be truly kind
DeGeneres’s persona is linked inextricably to kindness. She ends every episode of her show with the sign-off “Be kind to one another,” so when reports allege that her reaction to witnessing on-set abuse is to giggle and joke, they have an extra sting. A head writer allegedly propositioning employees for sex doesn’t comport with the uplifting stories of normal folks’ viral niceness that DeGeneres features. And racism and sexism would certainly be out of place in her Be Kind subscription box, which at $54.99 features DeGeneres-curated products she loves that also “do something kind for the world.”
Even viewers who didn’t subscribe to the Be Kind box thought they were getting an equally curated product anyway: a show that offered them a place of safety, pleasantness and unflagging congeniality. For 17 seasons, they did. Now audiences are realizing that product is defective.
Cracks in the kindness had opened up before. Her chumminess with former president George W. Bush struck some as amoral, but she nipped any criticism by repackaging the friendship as an example of being kind to people who think differently than you do. The explanation fit within her brand, and viewers were willing to look past some tricky morality to keep their uncomplicated happy place. Less brand-able was November’s on-air dust-up with Dakota Johnson, in which DeGeneres playfully accused the actor of not inviting her to her birthday party. But Johnson countered, “That’s not the truth, Ellen, you were invited. Ask everybody. Ask . . . your producer.” DeGeneres, suddenly insincere, squirmed, and the rest of their cringey exchange became an infinitely meme-able rebuke of the whole Ellen ethos.