All eyes were on Ellen DeGeneres this week as she returned to the studio for her talk-show following months of at-home recordings and the industry-wide standstill caused by COVID-19. 2020 saw many unexpected developments in the entertainment world but the one that proved to be the most surprising in the realms of celebrity was the ‘downfall’ of Ellen. Widely considered to be one of the most beloved and powerful women in television, DeGeneres’s Queen of Kind persona, a previously bulletproof brand that she spun off into a wide array of merchandise, took a beating. Much-discussed rumors about her nasty attitude and cruelty towards others reached the mainstream after many years of being familiar chatter to those in the know. Then it was revealed through an investigation by Buzzfeed that, behind-the-scenes of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, employees suffered under toxic management. Accusations of bullying and sexual harassment made headlines. Warner Bros. was forced to launch an investigation into the allegations, which eventually led to the firing of several top executives.
DeGeneres insisted that she had not known about any of these cases, but audiences remained deeply cynical. How could the woman whose name is on the side of the building not be aware of the environment fostered under her own brand, especially when it seemed that everyone in Hollywood had a story about how awful it was to work with her? DeGeneres has been through a lot in her career, mounting the ultimate comeback following years in the wilderness after her coming out as gay led to endless homophobic attacks and an industry-wide dismissal of her talents. She’s no stranger to controversy, but this time, things felt different. She wasn’t the scrappy underdog taking on society. Now, she’s the multi-millionaire whose name inspires eye rolls and cries of hypocrisy, the woman who preaches the healing power of kindness while hanging out with warmongering former Presidents and allegedly leaving her own staff terrified of her. How do you come back from that? Well, this week, we saw the first glimmers of that PR pushback.
She’s back in the studio but the audience is not there in-person for obvious reasons. In her first monologue, she enters to a fluttering of enthusiastic cheers and applause, which is quickly revealed to be a virtual audience. Tall vertical screens fill the seats providing larger-than-life grinning faces, the ideal audience for what’s about to happen. This moment probably wouldn’t be so effective in an empty studio with Ellen’s own beleaguered staff providing the reactions. Wearing a dashing white turtleneck and blazer with jeans, Ellen looks softer, kinder, more approachable. Smart move. She’s also smiling, which may seem like the bare minimum, but if you’ve watched her show over the past couple of years, you’ll notice the contrast. This is a woman who, for a seriously long time, seemed unable to hide her derision at her own show and the audiences to hold onto her every word. Now, she at least looks like she wants to be there. Once again, it’s a smart move. This feels like a call-back to the Ellen of old.
Her first words are, ‘Oh, boy,’ which feels both aw-shucks cheeky and mildly self-aware. It certainly sets the tone for what’s to follow. She offers a jokey ‘welcome’ to those tuning in because they ‘hate’ her, then she asks if everyone had a great Summer because hers was ‘terrific.’ DeGeneres is a comedian first and foremost, and this is all still happening during a talk-show monologue, which is designed to be a mixture of jokes and commentary. That can be extremely effective when done right, although it’s never necessarily been Ellen’s strongest suit. Her own brand of humor is very gentle with the occasional bite, so you know this isn’t going to be Colbert or Noah levels of fire. How can it be? The jokes are meant to lighten the mood, but the combination of the difficult topic being discussed and the slight delay from the online audience with their responses only adds to the awkwardness of it all.
The strategy unfolding is one of a precarious balance: Reassert the status quo of the show, one that audiences love, while enforcing a new tone and awareness of the need for change. Of course, the thing about the latter half of this is that it’s still extremely inside baseball for most of Ellen’s viewers. They weren’t following the drama on Twitter or keeping up with the trade reports. So, Ellen needs to remind people why they love her without dismissing the extremely painful allegations and struggles that many employees faced under her rule.
She launches into the allegations and investigation, and she retains a level of distance from what happened, even as she apologizes for it. She ‘takes responsibility for what happens at my show’ because it’s her name on the top. She also promises that changes have been made and that ‘we are starting a new chapter’, to which she claps and her virtual audience cheers in response. Then, she addresses the more personal side of the discourse, the claims that ‘I am not who I appear to be on TV,’ which is certainly a choice euphemism. She explains that she became ‘the Be Kind lady’ following the death of Tyler Clementi, a student who died by suicide in 2010 after his roommate outed him as gay. At the time, DeGeneres was strident in her support for LGBTQ+ teens and called for an end to teenage bullying.
DeGeneres then goes on to talk about the ‘tricky position’ that being ‘the Be Kind lady’ puts one in. She insists that, while she is the woman you see on TV, she is also lots of other things. This isn’t a new line from her. We heard this in her last stand-up special as well as a revealing profile in The New York Times. It’s a common part of Ellen discourse, and really, it’s not what people were discussing. There’s a huge difference between ‘my on- and off-screen personas are different’ and ‘I’ve been accused of bullying my staff and random strangers into tears on multiple occasions.’ Nobody expects you to be ‘on’ all the time, but this particular act of euphemizing on Ellen’s part feels much more calculated than a mere discussion of personas. She calls herself a ‘work-in-progress.’ It’s the ‘I’m always learning’ defense with a twist, a way to eschew accountability while retaining a degree of humility.
Ellen DeGeneres is held to a different standard than, say, Letterman or Conan because that ‘Be Kind lady’ persona is more than just an image: It’s a brand. You can buy it on merchandise, sign up for subscription boxes, and find that slogan slapped across all manner of products under the Ellen banner. It’s more than just a phrase or a philosophy now. The moment you decide to commodify something like that, you should expect to be scrutinized far more, and rightly so, especially if you’re going to evoke the memory of a dead man to do so.
We knew that DeGeneres and her team were always going to be, to put it mildly, selective about what they addressed and how they did so with this season premiere. She may be taking a public beating right now but she’s hardly the underdog. She’s still mega-rich, has a massive platform, and millions of people who love her without hesitation. Like all figures of her economic and professional standing, she is all but cancel-proof, regardless of what the usual talking-heads say. Still, if this apology was an attempt to re-establish her agenda and tone for the coming months, it still fell short for me. Hearing her crack jokes about how impatient she is and her acting skills while she’s addressing something as serious as a workplace investigation couldn’t help but make me squirm. There’s no specificity to her speech. It’s all deliberately so vague that all her fans who had no idea what was happening can remain blissfully ignorant. Moreover, it was focused more on her than the allegations. The pain of her staff seemed secondary to her own worries over her public image. It was a monologue as hazy in its intent as ‘be kind.’
Ellen promised that this season would be her best ever, and I maintain that she’s going to bring out all the big guns to ensure glowing reviews and rapturous audience responses. Think of that final season of Oprah’s show, only with social distancing. But will she go the distance? Will Ellen sign on for more seasons once her contract ends in 2022? Or will she bow out on a high note? The truth is that the odds are ever in DeGeneres’s favor. She’s playing this game with a full deck, something her staff never had the luxury of. Whatever route she chooses, the chances are that Ellen herself will be a-okay. That weaponized niceness still has an edge to it.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Warner Bros.