As we’ve discussed before, it’s been a very bad year for Ellen DeGeneres. Previously one of the true untouchable forces of American television, the talk-show host has seen her star greatly diminished after years of allegations of nastiness, bullying, and workplace toxicity caught up with her. Anyone who’s followed Ellen for any length of time has been aware of the claims of her meanness, which reportedly took various forms from punishing staff members for looking her in the eye to terrorizing hair and make-up people.
What felt like an age of open secret conversations in the industry finally made their way to the mainstream when various publications began reporting on these problems, Buzzfeed launched an investigation that revealed a toxic work culture where staff allegedly faced racist microaggressions, were punished for taking time off for health reasons, and were pitted against one another by executives. It was also alleged by dozens of former employees on DeGeneres’s show that sexual harassment and misconduct was rampant among top executive producers.
Ellen herself issued a slapdash non-apology in response, but not before Warner Bros. launched an internal investigation into these allegations. Earlier this month, three of those top producers were fired, which was what we predicted would happen to ensure Ellen did not fall on her own sword. As many individuals noted in these articles, the buck stops with the person whose name is above the banner.
Now, Buzzfeed is reporting that executives at The Ellen Show knew of allegations of sexism and a toxic work environment as early as 2018, after a complaint was filed with an industry union that alleged gender discrimination, including sexist remarks made by top producers. A Warner Bros. spokesperson confirmed the complaint in a statement but said that it was ‘resolved with no merit to claims of gender discrimination.’
The piece also reported that DeGeneres herself seemed to be making an effort to be more hands-on with her show as she appeared in the videoconference call made by executive producers to discuss changes going forward with the show for staff. Staffers will now also receive ‘five paid days off as well as a paid day off for birthdays and for doctor’s appointments.’ Many employees told Buzzfeed that they remain skeptical, given that, as one of them explained, ‘Four out of the five people who make up your [DeGeneres] upper management, 80% of your upper management, are still there.’
The existence of this prior complaint, made officially and investigated, will undoubtedly leave a lot of current Ellen staffers skeptical about the ongoing investigation into very similar allegations of sexism, toxicity, and producer abuse of power. Staff changes may be a step in the right direction but there’s a reason so few people in the lower rungs of the entertainment industry take such things seriously. The powerful and abusive have a funny way of clawing back to the top with little to no retribution for their crimes.
The big difference now, of course, is that all of this is happening very publicly. More people are scrutinizing this case than ever, and it’s coincided with the potentially irrevocable tarnishing of DeGeneres’s own public image. As we talked about before, nobody has weaponized and commodified the vague concept of niceness as effectively as DeGeneres, and it helped to make her bulletproof for a long time. She commands immense loyalty from her audiences, most of whom probably see all these allegations as silly or the sort of inside baseball Hollywood nonsense they don’t concern themselves with. Frankly, most people don’t, which is a harsh truth to accept.
Still, this has been a long time coming, and Team Ellen’s attempts to throw water on the flames have only exacerbated the situation. #IStandWithEllen, a social media campaign seemingly started by DeGeneres’s wife Portia De Rossi, spluttered out quickly. The few big names to defend her publicly were either shot down quickly or simply using this case as a predictable battering ram against the so-called Hollywood left (hi, Zodiac Killer.) Reports of DeGeneres’s own teary-eyed defenses to her staff left most people hollow, as did her insistence that she did not know about what was happening on her own show. Rather than making her seem like the beleaguered victim in this, she came across, at best, as a sloppy boss and, at worst, a complicit force in the terrorizing of her own staff.
Is this something that DeGeneres can come back from? As I’ve said before, it’s highly unlikely that Ellen herself will face punishment for what’s happening. Her producers took the bullet and she is free to launch her own mini-comeback once her series is back on the air. Her contract ends in 2022. It seemed unlikely that she would renew it before all of this happened, and now, it seems like an impossibility. How many more years can we all deal with watching her obviously hate her job while she tortures her guests and audience members? All of those ‘pranks’ suddenly seem a whole lot more insidious when you remember that they’re being perpetrated by an alleged bully and her toxic producers.
Here’s what I think will happen. The Ellen Show will come back on the air and DeGeneres will announce that she’s packing it all in once her contract ends. The audience will be sad but Ellen will reveal that she plans to make this her best season ever, and they’ll scream with joy once they get whatever free prizes she’s offering at the time. Then, that final season will be a no-holds-barred extravaganza. Think of Oprah’s final season, where she had all the big guests, the most dramatic true-life stories, and got John Travolta to fly her audience out to Australia for special episodes. Ellen will go bigger than that. The freebies will be more lavish. The true-life tales more emotional and heart-warming than ever. Major celebrities will roll out the red carpet for her. Portia will turn up a lot. Then, the final week of episodes will pull out all the stops to become near-legendary episodes of TV. Ellen will give a big tear-jerking speech about how she’s not perfect but has always strived for kindness in the world, her audience will cheer, and a bunch of famous people will talk lavishly about her influence on the world. Ellen will bow out and return to stand-up and charity work. It’ll be TV gold.
Of course, putting on an operation like that requires a hard-working staff, and it may be tough to get people on board if they know how terribly they’ll be treated behind the scenes while the on-air side of the equation sells peace, love, and free sh*t to the world.
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