This week, Ellen DeGeneres’s PR campaign went into full swing in a suitably dramatic and wilfully blind fashion. Following years of industry gossip regarding her nasty behavior and more recent reports on the toxicity of her workplace environment, WarnerMedia announced that The Ellen Show was officially undergoing an internal investigation. One of the true titans of television, one widely considered to be untouchable for years, is now finally being exposed to the mainstream as an allegedly poisonous space where racism, bullying, and intimidation ran rampant. While the lion’s share of the focus fell upon the workplace itself and the executives directly managing it, DeGeneres herself as also faced major scrutiny. It is, of course, her name above the door and as the anonymous former and present staff members who talked candidly to Buzzfeed said, the buck stops with her.
For people in the business (and hot-take merchants such as myself), the implosion of DeGeneres’s previously bulletproof Be Nice image has been a long time coming. News of her horrible treatment of staff, fans, and even random people in restaurants has been one of Hollywood’s most well-discussed open secrets. As Dan Sheehan famously tweeted in 2019, ‘When you move to LA the first two things that happen are you get a parking ticket and someone who once worked for Ellen will tell you a story about how she’s a monster.’ DeGeneres living a different reality from the persona she projects on-screen would be one thing. I’ve been criticized a few times lately with accusations that we’ve applied unfairly high standards to Ellen that we wouldn’t for a man in her position (a lie, of course.) A lot of that pushback ignores two key facts: One, DeGeneres has so successfully commodified the vague platitude of niceness that it’s made her near-untouchable in Hollywood despite years of conversations about her cruelty, and two, there’s a vast world of difference between having a persona and being the head of a workplace so notoriously difficult to be a part of that people in the business actively discourage one another for applying to work there. Even if the current circumstances didn’t concern her own personal behavior in the slightest — and that’s difficult given that Ellen the person and Ellen the brand are so tightly bound together — the issue of terrorized staff members, racism, and emotional abuse still stand.
Camp Ellen’s response to the investigation and continuing gossip has been predictable to the point of tediousness. Her initial statement on the matter was an emotionally manipulative screed that repeatedly went out of its way to ensure that DeGeneres herself rejected any tangible form of responsibility for her own workplace’s noxiousness. Now, we’re in the social media part of the equation, where Team Ellen try to wield control of the narrative through hashtags and big celebrity endorsements. DeGeneres’s wife Portia De Rossi got the ball rolling with #IStandWithEllen and others followed suit.
1/2 I know I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience besides my own but I want to acknowledge that I have only ever had positive takeaways from my time with Ellen & on the @theellenshow. I think we all have witnessed the light & continual fight for equality that she has brought— KATY PERRY (@katyperry) August 4, 2020
2/2 to the world through her platform for decades. Sending you love & a hug, friend @TheEllenShow ♥️— KATY PERRY (@katyperry) August 4, 2020
It’s crazy to see my friend go thru what she’s going thru publicly. I have known Ellen for years and I can honestly say that she’s one of the dopest people on the fucking planet. She has treated my family and my team… https://t.co/oCTOc4vJXn— Kevin Hart (@KevinHart4real) August 4, 2020
Because if there’s one thing I know about Diane Keaton it’s that she’s definitely able to separate her friends from their alleged actions pic.twitter.com/LchiX9Mr2R— Jarett Wieselman (@JarettSays) August 4, 2020
I haven’t spoken with @TheEllenShow and can only speak from my own experience. She & her team have only treated me & my team w/ respect & kindness. She never pandered to celebrity which I always saw as a refreshing honesty. When things aren’t right she handles it and fixes.— ashton kutcher (@aplusk) August 5, 2020
Needed to say this as I know first hand how she helps so many when we are watching and when we are not. She isn’t about what is popular she is about what is right. Sending love to Ellen today.— Scooter Braun (@scooterbraun) July 31, 2020
Watching the #CancelCulture mob turn on @TheEllenShow and work hard to undo everything Ellen DeGeneres has accomplished in her groundbreaking career should be instructive to all.— Geraldo Rivera (@GeraldoRivera) August 3, 2020
She made history bringing acceptance to a marginalized segment of society. Where are her defenders?
I don’t know Ellen, but this WaPo chronology makes the whole “scandal” look like an exercise in Cancel Culture trying to destroy her bc she wasn’t woke enough to throw Kevin Hart overboard or be hateful to George W Bush.— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) August 3, 2020
Today’s Left is deeply intolerant. https://t.co/Df1Wbu91wV
It’s always a good sign when the Zodiac Killer is on your side.
Kevin Hart and Katy Perry are obviously big stars but in the grand scheme of things, #IStandWithEllen isn’t exactly attracting the major celebrities to its cause. One of the major hooks for Ellen’s shtick was that she was the queen of nice, the talk-show host all the celebrities wanted to dance with. She’s in the world’s most notable selfie surrounded by the cream of the crop at the Oscars. That she couldn’t even drum up some support from the Kardashians (who, admittedly, are going through some tough times right now and are pretty busy with that) feels notable. Hell, WarnerMedia couldn’t even twist a few arms from under their immense corporate slate?
It’s not as though all of these endorsements are rapturous support for DeGeneres either. Perry cloaks her own quaint platitudes in a reminder that she’s only talking about her personal experience, as did Ashton Kutcher, who is responding to critical tweets in ways that suggest he was never cognizant of the full picture. Hart is whining about cancel culture, and Cruz and Rivera are using her as a battering ram against the left, which they do with practically every dead horse they can get their hands on. This isn’t a particularly enthusiastic campaign of positivity and kindness.
Of course, it doesn’t help that everyone involved is missing the point: This isn’t so much about Ellen DeGeneres herself (although that is a part of it) as it is about an official investigation into the reportedly racist, abusive, and intimidating workplace that bears her name and follows her ethos. It doesn’t matter how much Ellen was to Katy Perry, a wildly famous and wealthy musician who only appears on her show as a guest. In what way is it a surprise that a rich lady is nice to other rich people? These vague mealy-mouthed tweets do little to combat the celebrities who have spoken out against Ellen, including Brad Garrett, Lea Thompson, and Nikkie de Jager, who had previously talked about her negative experience on the show. Others like Rachel Bloom put this ‘they were nice to me’ stance on blast.
nikkietutorials not giving a single fuck and calling out ellen degeneres’ rude behavior when she visited her show while remaining classy is the energy i like to see pic.twitter.com/oHoBTjHvrA— gabe. (@gabeawaycar) March 29, 2020
I'm not saying this to put anyone on blast, I just wanted to offer my POV as someone who's had the amazing fortune to experience both worlds.— Rachel Bloom (@Racheldoesstuff) August 4, 2020
Overlooked in all of this is the very real issue of workplace bullying. Ellen’s nice to celebs on her level of fame and power? Sure, that’s to be expected but that’s not real kindness. That’s more akin to cronyism. These are voices with much larger platforms than those staff members who reportedly bore the brunt of Ellen Inc.’s wrath. They will inevitably be amplified more too, and by engaging in this #istandwithellen nonsense, they are actively undermining those employees past and present who had the guts to stand up to one of the most powerful names in Hollywood. It’s this sort of intimidation that left dozens, potentially hundreds of people fearful for their careers and welfare in a notoriously cloistered business that treats blacklisting as its primary form of entertainment.
The most well-known of The Ellen Show’s employees to speak out is Tony Okungbowa, the series’ resident DJ for close to a decade. He took to Instagram to discuss that he, an on-air talent with his own fanbase, ‘did experience and feel the toxicity of the environment’ while working there.
The Ellen Show’s former resident DJ Tony Okungbowa adds to the chorus of former employees speaking out about the show’s toxic workplace environment. pic.twitter.com/fATzQBx5El— Ξvan Ross Katz (@evanrosskatz) August 4, 2020
Will Okungbowa’s claims be taken seriously by the celebrities crying out ‘be kind to Ellen’ right now? Is he ‘on their level’ enough to warrant the same respect as an obscenely wealthy talk-show host? Or will his testimony be discredited further by their Twitter campaign?
I’ve seen some people claim that it’s sexist and/or homophobic to criticize DeGeneres on this front, and that if she were a straight man, she wouldn’t be facing a sliver of the pushback she is now because we expect them to act like douchebags. Putting aside how obviously ridiculous this is, I don’t think any of us consider it a victory for feminism or LGBTQ+ rights when a gay woman in an unprecedented position of power uses that to undermine, attack, and leave countless other individuals, many of whom themselves are from marginalized communities, in a state of emotional and mental terror. This isn’t about her being a meanie and there’s no equality to be found in assuming that a more diverse array of bullies are a sign of progress.
It remains to be seen if we’ll see any substantial action from this internal workplace investigation or if DeGeneres will try to further position herself as the true beleaguered underdog of this tale. For now, what we are experiencing is something that, frankly, a hell of a lot of people have waited years to see unfold: A forceful and wholly undeniable stripping of DeGeneres’s shields and, by extension, the supposed security of celebrity. Of course, it remains genuinely difficult to ‘cancel’ someone on DeGeneres’s level, but there’s a reason the responses to her own non-apology and the weak defenses of her famous BFFs are falling so flat. Who gets to be kind, and more importantly, who does Ellen deem worthy of such treatment? The answers have surprised nobody.