Ellen DeGeneres' show wrapping up coincides with toxic workplace claims, but her legacy sustains far-reaching impact
The last one year might have taken the shine off Ellen DeGeneres’ legacy but there is no denying her status as an American entertainer and LGBTQ+ icon.
"Be kind," Ellen DeGeneres said to her audience at the end of every episode of her eponymous day-time chat show. It was such an integral part of her brand as the ‘Queen of Nice’ that her merchandise has a ‘Be Kind’ collection that includes hoodies, polka-dotted underwear, and even a subscription box. When DeGeneres announced her decision to sign off from her show at the end of Season 19 in 2022, it came at the back of a turbulent year of toxic workplace allegations, plummeting ratings, and that awkward Dakota Johnson interview.
The downward spiral of DeGeneres’ public persona almost coincided with the world locking down under the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. It started with a viral Twitter thread that called the 62-year-old "one of the meanest people alive." A few weeks after that, the anti-Ellen sentiment reached new heights when she compared self-quarantining in her multi-million-dollar mansion to "being in jail." Then came the damning Buzzfeed article where one current and 10 former staffers of her show spoke anonymously about their on-set experiences. These included claims of being penalised for taking medical leave, instances of racial micro-aggression, and fear of retribution for raising complaints.
While there were no specific allegations against DeGeneres, the damage was done. Season 18 of The Ellen DeGeneres Show began last September with a seven-minute apology where she said that she was "so sorry to the people who were affected. I know that I’m in a position of privilege and power. And I realise that with that, comes responsibility, and I take responsibility for what happens at my show." Viewers tuned in for the apology (it had the highest rating for an Ellen premiere in four years) but according to the research firm Nielson, the show eventually lost more than a million viewers over the rest of the season. While Hollywood stars like Ashton Kutcher, Jay Leno, and Katy Perry were quick to forgive and defend the talk-show host, her core audience did not buy the apology.
The last one year might have taken the shine off DeGeneres’ legacy but there is no denying her status as an American entertainer and LGBTQ+ icon.
After tasting success at stand-up comedy, her big television break was as the star of the sitcom Ellen in the mid-'90s. During the fourth season of the show, she came out of the closet. Off screen, Ellen announced ‘Yep, I’m Gay’ on the cover of Time Magazine while her reel character Ellen Morgan came out in a star-studded episode that featured Oprah Winfrey, Billy Bob Thornton, and Demi Moore, titled The Puppy Episode.
There had been gay characters on American television but none of them were leads, and very few celebrities at the time were openly gay. The backlash against DeGeneres was immediate. ABC first put a parental advisory on her show, and then cancelled the next season. Despite the axing of her sitcom, and the next one (The Ellen Show) being dead-on-arrival, DeGeneres’ coming out had a huge impact on not just the kind of stories that were being told on American television but also gave courage to people from all walks to live their truth. “It made it so much easier for me, what you did,” actress Jane Lynch once told DeGeneres.
By the time she returned to television in 2003, this time as a chat show host, America was ready to welcome a gay woman into their homes every day. She was a natural heir apparent to Oprah when the queen of daytime talk shows signed out. Like her predecessor and now neighbour, DeGeneres created a show that not just entertained but also inspired viewers to do better. The show was the perfect mix of lighthearted chats with the biggest stars in the world, goofy dancing and games, and extravagant cash and kind giveaways to surprised audience members.
In the last 18 years, she has won 32 Day Time Emmys, one Prime Time Emmy, 20 People’s Choice Awards, the prestigious and inaugural Carol Bennett Award at the Golden Globes, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She has also written multiple bestselling books, hosted the Oscars, and been nominated for three Grammy Awards. Not bad for a girl from Louisiana who turned to comedy as a way to escape her complicated teen years.
DeGeneres was inspired to adopt ‘Be Kind’ as her and the show’s motto by the death of Tyler Clementi, a gay college student. Outed online in 2010, Clementi was bullied and died by suicide. At the time she had said that she wanted the show to be a place of ‘happiness and joy’ for the audience. According to a 2015 Variety Magazine poll, Ellen did more to influence Americans’ attitudes about gay rights than any other celebrity or public figure.
It is not a hyperbole to say that DeGeneres has made the world a better place but the persona she adopted or one that was thrust upon her as a day-time host was too saccharine and unattainable for any human to live up to.
In The Hollywood Reporter interview announcing the end of her chat show, DeGeneres describes herself as a ‘Ferrari in neutral’ while talking about her plans for the future. She is open to sitcom and film roles, and then there is her work in conservation that is close to her heart. It is a new chapter, one where she would not feel the pressure to be the ‘Be Kind’ person. In 2018, during her Netflix special Relatable, DeGeneres talked about the downside to being the ‘Be Kind’ person. “I can never do anything unkind ever. I’m the ‘Be Kind’ girl. And I’m kind. I’m a good person. I know I am but I’m a human being, and I have bad days.” This level of honesty would probably have never made it to The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
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