What's An Apology Worth to Someone Like Ellen DeGeneres?

What's An Apology Worth to Someone Like Ellen DeGeneres?
Screenshot:The Ellen Show

On Monday’s premiere of the 18th season of The Ellen Show, titular host Ellen DeGeneres apologized like she usually does: by distancing herself from blame. To an audience of entirely virtual faces, projected on television screen where the flesh and blood audience once sat, DeGeneres announced, “If you’re watching because you love me, thank you! If you’re watching because you don’t love me, welcome!”

The host went on to briefly mention how, this summer, there were “allegations of a toxic work environment at our show.” In the ensuing investigation, DeGeneres claimed she “learned there were things that happened that never should have happened, I take that very seriously.” It was another clever distancing of herself from the issue—that is, in July, Buzzfeed News detailed numerous allegations of racist behavior by top producers, as well as a set atmosphere plagued by toxicity and retribution. Alongside these allegations were other complaints from staff that they had been shafted by DeGeneres and producers amid the pandemic, facing extreme reductions in pay or a total lack of communication from the studio or host.

The confluence of chaos and harrowing accusations plaguing The Ellen Show is what made Monday’s monologue a particularly anticipated one. It was the first time since April that Ellen DeGeneres, the show’s creator and host, had publicly addressed any of the numerous allegations about the show’s work environment. (In late July, a letter she sent to her staff was obtained by the Hollywood Reporter, saying that she and the show will “correct the issues.”)

It was also the first time DeGeneres had so directly addressed longstanding public speculation about her behavior off-camera, save for a few disparate comments in interviews over the last few years. In the context of a dozen staff members speaking out over alleged racist and abusive working conditions, it’s hard not to scrutinize the intention behind her apology. DeGeneres told the audience that she is “starting a new chapter” with her employees. But for Hollywood’s most famous person, and one of the more powerful producers working, who can really hold Ellen DeGeneres accountable to the promises she made in her first monologue back on television?

One word has remained a throughline in all of the reports about DeGeneres’s career, the allegations, and their impact on her public persona: “Nice.” It has become nearly synonymous with the name Ellen DeGeneres, growing over the last 20 years to encapsulate her brand and apparent mission. As I previously wrote, DeGeneres was once heralded by Hollywood, her audience, and the world at large, as the “nicest person on daytime television.” It’s no wonder then that she found herself hung up on this word in her first monologue back on-air.

“There were also articles in the press, and on social media, that said I am not who I appear to be on TV, because I became known as the ‘be kind’ lady.” She reminds the audience that “be kind” became her slogan after Tyler Clementi “took his own life after being bullied for being gay.” She says that being known as the “be kind lady” puts her in a “tricky situation,” but that she believes the world needs kindness more than ever right now.

Absent from this speech about kindness, however, was an acknowledgment of the remarkably unkind things that allegedly happened under DeGeneres’s long tenure as the head of The Ellen Show. In Buzzfeed’s report, employees claimed that they were routinely subject to racist mockery from staff and producers. Some claimed they were fired for taking medical leave, or were brought into executive producer Ed Glavin’s office to be reprimanded when they voiced their frustrations with what they described as near-constant microaggressions. There was also comedian Kevin T. Porter’s gossipy March Twitter thread, where Porter asked Hollywood types to chime in with the most “insane” stories about DeGeneres they’d heard or experienced.

DeGeneres, in her monologue, said she will “take responsibility for what happens on my show.” But in that same breath, she also claimed that she had been unaware of the seemingly obvious behavior of producers, staff, and executives that orbited her sound stage. “I learned there were things that happened that never should have happened. I take that very seriously, and I want to say I am so sorry to the people who were affected.”

I don’t particularly think that DeGeneres sought to fool anyone with this monologue or to use tricky language to escape blame. But the gulf in her apology—between acknowledging her responsibility, and distancing herself from any direct blame—is indicative of the false facade of “niceness” The Ellen Show presents. DeGeneres’s apology followed a tried-and-true script for when a famous person is confronted with accusations of misconduct or abuse: Silence, then an apology, then claims that one will take steps to “make things right”—usually without spending a meaningful amount of time actually confronting the “thing” itself. It also reveals, quite plainly, the contours of what a powerful person’s apology is designed to do.

For the people it matters to most, like advertisers and her most avid viewers, DeGeneres taking “responsibility” will probably be enough. That she wasn’t ousted is proof of this comeback strategy’s effectiveness.

The more insidious view of this apology, though, is how it fails to address the promise that fueled the last 20 years of Ellen’s success: the niceness of The Ellen Show, and the promise of goodness and morality baked into that facade. Her first monologue back didn’t just fail to take personal accountability, it also failed to explain the chasm between the brand she enriched herself with and the realities faced by the people toiling away to make that possible. One bright spot was the promotion of Stephen “tWitch” Boss to co-executive producer following the allegations of on-set racism. As DeGeneres’s longtime emcee, Boss claimed the summer was “intense” following the host’s monologue, but that there was “a lot of learning, a lot of discussions, a lot of listening.” His mission as co-executive producer, he said, is to bring “laughter, love, and fun” back to The Ellen Show, as well as to“lead by example.”

Yet it remains to be seen just what that example looks like for DeGeneres.

I’ve struggled all summer with how DeGeneres could have possibly been unaware of any of these allegations. Yet in her comeback monologue, the answer seems quite simple. DeGeneres sees her career arc as being that of a woman doing the absolute best she can. Her brand was forged by the suicide of a young gay man’ she was one of the first people to come out as publicly as she did; and her entire brand mission, apparently, is “being kind,” which is to say propagating more kindness in the world. To any average bystander, the story is obviously sympathetic. But left unsaid is the immense power that DeGeneres has accumulated since assuming her role as a daytime television host. She has won 32 Emmy Awards, as well as been the producer of a dozen television shows. Her net worth to date is supposedly $300 million. The bubble this inconceivable power generates, if DeGeneres really didn’t know what was going on in the workplace she runs, has insulated her from the reality of her effect on the world around her.

It is entirely plausible that Ellen DeGeneres did not recognize the immense harm her show allegedly caused to employees, just as it is believable that she can maintain a friendship with a war criminal, and explain away the questions as to whether any of it was ethical, let alone nice. In this first monologue back, DeGeneres pointed to the name plastered all across the studio, reminding the audience that it is her name, and that she must bear the responsibility that comes with it. But by that same logic, she holds all the power in that space. So who holds Ellen DeGeneres accountable, if not her staff, or her audience, or the studio lot she films the show on? Apparently, no one.

As for what’s next, DeGeneres wraps her monologue up with a declaration: “I still want to be the one hour where people can go to escape and laugh.” Ironic, isn’t it? The Ellen Show is as much an escape for its audience as it is for its host.

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