The Rise and Fall of Ellen DeGeneres

by Hannah Harrison

“Have you seen that Ellen DeGeneres interview with Dakota Johnson?” My roommate hurries out of her room to show me. I shake my head and she turns on the TV and plays one of the most uncomfortable interviews I have ever sat through.

Ellen begins the interview by calling out Johnson for not inviting her to her birthday party. However, she is quick to shut that down: “Actually, no, that’s not the truth, Ellen”. Johnson explains that she did invite Ellen to the party, but she did not show up. The interview quickly tumbles downhill from there. The video currently has 5.8 million views.

This was not the first interview on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” that caught people’s attention, and it certainly would not be the last. When her show began to film from the comfort of her home due to COVID-19, one by one, allegations of Ellen’s infamous rudeness began to pop up on the internet from former fans, employees, and celebrity guests. These anecdotes staggered many people who knew the comedian for her dancing on her daytime show and her sign off line, “be kind to each other.” How could a woman who preaches kindness be so rude?

Let’s take a look at her career to see what brought us to this moment.

How Ellen’s Career Got Its’ Start

While some comedians feel motivated to movie into comedy to utilize their talent and quick wit, Ellen’s comedy career began on another foot. In 1980, Ellen’s girlfriend, Kat Perkoff, died in a car accident. While on her way home from a concert, Ellen saw the accident as it was crowded but emergency vehicles. The following morning, she learned that it was her girlfriend who had been in the car she passed.

In 1994, she gave an interview to The New York Times about this time in her life. However, because she was not out yet, she referred to her girlfriend as her roommate. She said she returned to their flea-ridden apartment and “started writing what it would be like to call God and ask why fleas are here and this person is not.” This then developed into seriously questioning what it would like to have a conversation on the phone with God. When she finished, she said to herself: “‘I’m going to do that on Johnny Carson one day. And he’s going to love it. And he’s going to invite me to sit on the couch.'” In 1982, she was awarded Showtime’s title of ” Funniest Person in America”. In 1986, she performed ‘Phone Call to God’ on “Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show” and was the first female comic to sit down on his couch after a routine. It was her big break.

In 1992, Ellen was cast as Nurse Nancy MacIntyre in the television sitcom “Laurie Hill.” The series was short-lived, but she gave an impressive performance and was cast in the lead of the ABC comedy “These Friends of Mine” a title that was soon changed “Ellen”.

Breaking Down a Wall

“Ellen” was a success. She was able to showcase her observational humor for five seasons. That was until she made a decision that changed the trajectory of her career. In 1997, Ellen smiled on the cover of Time magazine with the headline reading “Yep, I’m gay.” On April 30th, 1997 her sitcom character follows suit in “The Puppy Episode” and came out after her character develops feelings for a woman, played by Laura Dern. This episode was watched by nearly 44 million people. In 2017, Ellen mentioned in an interview that Dern did not receive work for a year after this episode aired. Ellen was quickly shushed after her coming out, ABC began placing parental advisories, which caused upset. A year later, the show was canceled for low ratings.

Although Ellen became television first primetime gay character, she was far from celebrated. Advertisers began pulling ads and people condemned ABC for “promoting homosexuality.” When Ellen appeared in public with her girlfriend, the New York Times slammed her for her “ostentatious display of affection.”

She was blacklisted after coming out. Four years later, she starred in “The Ellen Show” which only lasted thirteen episodes. In 2016, she told Out “I wasn’t sure if I was going to work again.” However, slowly things began looking up. In 2003, she lent her voice to play the character of Dory in “Finding Nemo“. In the same year, she began to air her daytime talk show “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” which has been on the air for seventeen seasons.

“The Ellen DeGeneres Show”

“The Ellen DeGeneres Show” is where the brand and image of how many people view Ellen begins. Viewers watched her dance through the audience after each monologue. She invited an abundance of children onto her show to showcase their talents including Sophia Grace and Rosie, the ‘Apparently’ Kid, and presidential expert, Macey Hensley. She quickly learned how to jump on the current hypes by inviting viral internet stars, like the ones listed, to be on her show. There have been many times after watching a funny video on YouTube or social media sites that I’ve seen people in the comments saying “Get this person on ‘Ellen!'”

She also steers clear of divisive content, catering to those who want something family-friendly or heartwarming. She seems to aim to exude positivity, which makes her seem down to Earth and like an everyday person. She speaks openly about being a member of the LGBTQ+ community and frequently helps those in the community who are in need of assistance. She is often looked at as a beacon for those who are struggling.

Simply put: she built her career on being nice.

Current Allegations

So how did we get here? How is it possible that a woman who endured so much, opened so many doors, is now under fire? It does not seem possible.

Yet, in recent months, guests and employees have gotten vocal about the mistreatment they have encountered on the show.

In March, comedian Kevin T. Porter got the ball rolling with this tweet:

People were quick to reply. Here are just some of the tweets Porter got in response.

In April, Variety reported crew members expressed anger over producers not contacting them regarding their work hours for several weeks. They also received a reduced pay.

A recent Buzzfeed article examines the sexual harassment that employees have incurred at the hands of people in charge of the show. With one employee claiming she knows about the inappropriate behavior that happens on her set but does care to hear about it.

In a separate Buzzfeed article, a black woman details microaggressions she experiences working on the show. When she would call people out for the behavior she was named the “PC Police.” Another employee, who had to take time off work for a mental-health crisis, was fired after returning.

While it may be easy to believe that the actions and harmful words are solely coming from producers and head writers, I do not believe that is true. In a Huffington Post article, a former employee discusses how Ellen allowed a “culture of fear” from the show’s conception. The employee details that there was once an incident in which producer Ed Galvin (who was accused of sexual assault) screamed at a staffer. The staff expected Ellen to do something but instead, she replied “Well, I guess every production needs their dog”.

A Look at Celebrity Encounters

After many of her workplace allegations came out, celebrities began announcing their thoughts on the matter. While she has gained the support of Ashton Kutcher, Katy Perry, and Diane Keaton, many have disregarded their messages. They are rich and famous, therefore sitting in the same comfortable boat as Ellen. Why then, would she belittle them? She is harming real people. While I will respect and honor her celebrity endorsements, it must be noted that being a guest on a show and being an employee that is required to work more than ten hours a day, are wildly different experiences.

In actuality, Ellen does a habit of mistreating her guests. When actress, Sofia Vergara makes an appearance on the show, Ellen makes a point of making fun of her accent and her English. Considering that Ellen only speaks one language, and Vergara has learned two, it seems insensitive to those who struggle to learn English.

Ellen’s insensitivity can be seen in a separate interview with Mariah Carey when she pressures her into announcing her pregnancy by offering her champagne.

Other celebrities have not been defenders of the comedian. When singer Calum Scott went on the show, he was told by the stage manager to not “look her in the eye.” Popular YouTube guru Nikki de Jager, who goes by NikkiTutorials was a guest on the show in January and reported that amidst other questionable treatment, Ellen did not bother to say ‘hello’ to her pre-taping. This tweet from Brad Garrett, of “Everyone Loves Raymond” was supported by “Back to the Future” actor, Lea Thompson.

While most mistreatment are directed at those who are not celebrities, there are some exceptions.

The Kevin Hart Scandal

Queer supporters have begun to question her as well. In 2019, she supported fellow comedian Kevin Hart, who was set to host the Academy Awards, after homophobic tweets of his had been surfaced. The Academy gave him a choice: apologize or step down. He then tweeted this response.

He tweeted this a day after posting an Instagram video addressing his tweets:

This is not an apology. In the video, he seems annoyed that people would be upset about his past actions that occurred ten years ago. As if he is not responsible for his younger self. However, although Hart’s response makes me roll my eyes, many queer people have vocalized their disappointment that Ellen would celebrate and support him returning to host when his first reaction to these tweets being unearthed was basically a “who cares?”.

The tweets originally surfaced in 2015 and his response was “I wouldn’t tell that joke today, because when I said it, the times weren’t as sensitive as they are now. I think we love to make big deals out of things that aren’t necessarily big deals.” Demonstrating that he viewed himself as the victim. It seemed to rub salt in the wound considering that LGBTQ+ representation has been historically poor. The queer community expected to see Ellen to support those who were harmed by his comments, because he seemed to chalk up his past actions to ‘just words’. Rather than words that reinforce the idea that harm to queer people is acceptable. The people who needed and need support are not comedians like Hart who are still rich, but people and kids who are queer who look up to her.

The Takeaway

With a net worth of 330 million dollars, it is highly possible that she has lost touch with what it means to be an “everyday” person that she presents herself to be. She is incredibly privileged. An example being that in the past twenty years she has purchased twelve homes. In 2019, she sold her beach house for $24 million. A staff member told The New York Post that she “lives in an incredibly privileged bubble and is out of touch with the real world.” However, this is not an excuse.

As a queer woman, I grew up seeing Ellen as a role model. Last year, I watched a live taping of her on “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman” and I sat crying in the audience listening to her talk about her struggle being a lesbian.

When reports about her being rude began to surface, it took me a minute to process what this meant to me. I am not a part of “cancel culture.” I honestly do believe that people can evolve over time. However, years and years of mistreatment of staff and others exemplify that sometimes time does not mean a positive evolution of one’s character. She has recently apologized to her staff and promised to do better, and I truly hope she does. Despite her apology, an internal investigation will still be occurring to determine the validity of employee allegations.

I applaud Ellen for perservering. I applaud her for taking a risk that harmed her career for years. I truly believe that without her, we would not have the progress we have now of the LGBTQ+ community in the media. She showed the world that lesbians can be the funny woman on your screen; they aren’t all the same stereotype that people have manufactured in her head. She was and continues to be one of the few female talk show hosts on television. Ellen teaches people that women can be funny. She teaches people that queer people can be funny. And for that, I thank her.

I can thank Ellen for all she has done in the past to improve the lives of many. I hope one day I can help half as many as she. However, that does not mean I can excuse the behavior she has exhibited. No one is perfect, and I do not expect them to be – even my idols. When I discussed this topic with my sister, she asked me if I felt guilty about my dislike for her behavior because she is gay. I believe very strongly that being a part of a marginalized group does not make one exempt from criticism.

All that being said, please do not mistake this statement as an allowance for hate or prejudice. I will never tolerate that. I will also never tolerate demeaning behavior to staff members when there is a clear power differential. That rule applies to everyone, including Ellen DeGeneres.

What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below!

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