In times of duress, the celebrity establishment will circle the wagons to protect their own. Once again, these wagons have circled around Ellen DeGeneres, who on Wednesday announced that she would be leaving her talk show after its upcoming season. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, she claimed that doing the show was no longer “challenging,” and said that allegations of a toxic workplace were “painful” enough to make her reconsider going back on the air.
Almost immediately, though, the tenor of her exit speech has changed significantly. In a new interview Thursday with the Today Show, Ellen claimed that the allegations against her workplace were “orchestrated” and “coordinated.” As she told host Savannah Guthrie: “All I’ve ever heard from every guest that comes on the show is what a happy atmosphere this is and what a happy place it is.” Sure, Ellen. Like the surface level observations of longtime celebrity friends and guests weigh more than the experiences of employees making accusations of a toxic workplace.
It appears that Ellen hasn’t yet recognized that the national conversation on employee rights has changed significantly. Workers are unionizing, participating in strikes, organizing boycotts of their workplaces online and in their communities when their employers treat them poorly. What she apparently sees as another act of cancellation is actually a growing climate in which workers are demanding rights and respect from those in power.
On Twitter, the Today Show posted the full interview, in which Ellen repeats to herself: “I really didn’t understand it, I still don’t understand it.”
As Ellen also reiterates from her interview with the Hollywood Reporter: “I am a kind person, I am a person who likes to make people happy.”
Most curiously, producers at Today frame the allegations against Ellen’s workplace as another cycle in the public backlash against her coming out in 1997. At the time, ABC cited poor ratings and declining advertiser interests as the reason her sitcom Ellen was canceled after its fifth season. But it’s insidious for Guthrie and Ellen to confidently ascribe the homophobia of the ’90s to dozens of accusations against the set environment she created, which saw three top producers fired after an internal investigation.
Worse, Ellen frames what transpired on The Ellen Show last year as an act of sainthood for her own personal betterment, rather than a chance to right the alleged wrongs that occurred on the show that bears her name. “I am supposed to experience this for a bigger reason. How can I be an example of strength and perseverance and power if I give up and run away? It really is one of the reasons I came back.” She also tells Guthrie that the backlash felt inherently “misogynistic.”
It feels noteworthy that she would land on this conclusion, when the undoing of The Ellen Show also included a small worker’s revolt after she and producers hired non-union contractors to film the show in quarantine. As Variety reported on April 16: “More than 30 employees received no written communication about the status of their working hours, pay, or inquiries about their mental and physical health from producers for over a month.”
I feel like I’m repeating myself now, but I am stuck on how utterly inconsequential Ellen’s “feelings” about her own perceived niceness really are. Especially when employees told Buzzfeed News in its initial reporting that they experienced intense racism and microaggressions, like producers openly mixing up Black employees, and being told that producers only knew “the names of the white people who work here.” One employee told Buzzfeed News that when she voiced her concerns, she was referred to as “the PC police” and was “distanced” from her coworkers.
As Buzzfeed News wrote at the time: “The former employee said she was also called into a meeting with executive producer Ed Glavin, where she was reprimanded for her objections to the term ‘spirit animal,’ asking for a raise, and suggesting employees on the show receive diversity and inclusion training.”
Another employee told the outlet that they were fired after returning from a mental health facility following a suicide attempt. Others said they were reprimanded for creating GoFundMes to meet the basic costs of medical needs that weren’t covered by the show’s insurance plan. “They discovered my fundraiser, then got mad at me. […] They were more concerned about Ellen’s brand instead of helping me out.”
It feels significant that Ellen is being held to account. Sure, there will be suggestions that the “cancel culture” has taken down another beloved icon. But I would rather live in a world where the voices of workers matter more than their rich and extremely famous boss—one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, at that.