Dakota Johnson Didn’t Kill Ellen DeGeneres’ Brand. Ellen Did That Herself.
The daytime host has decided to end her show almost a year after toxic workplace allegations first surfaced—but she sowed these seeds years ago.
The news snowballed quickly on Wednesday morning: First came the Daily Mail report that Ellen DeGeneres has decided to end her talk show after 19 seasons, thanks at least in part to her ratings downfall (DeGeneres’ rep vehemently denied the report). Less than an hour later, The Hollywood Reporter published an interview with the comedian, who claimed she was leaving the show because it isn’t “a challenge anymore.” In the hours that followed, the interview shot across Twitter, often accompanied by stills of Dakota Johnson moments before she famously gutted the comedian on air with five little words: That’s not the truth, Ellen...
According to THR, the decision to end Ellen ultimately came from DeGeneres herself, after years of planning. (DeGeneres told The New York Times in 2018 that she’d been toying with the idea.) Still, it’s difficult to ignore the timing of this release—less than a year after toxic workplace allegations embroiled Ellen in controversy, and months after it was revealed that the show had lost more than one million viewers.
DeGeneres addressed her impending exit in a monologue during Wednesday’s taping, which she posted on Twitter in the evening. During her address, as in the THR interview, the comedian emphasized that the decision was a long time coming.
“This show has been the greatest experience of my life, and I owe it all to you,” Degeneres said. “The truth is I always trust my instincts; my instinct told me it’s time.” She recalled her fateful decision to come out in 1997, and a dream that she’d had before making the decision of a bird setting itself free from a cage before adding, “Recently I had a dream that a bird, a beautiful bird with bright red feathers, came to my window and whispered, ‘You can still do stuff on Netflix.’ And that was the sign I was looking for.”
Regardless of whose decision it was to turn out the lights on Ellen, its shuttering in the wake of toxic workplace allegations feels emblematic of a shift in the entertainment industry, as Hollywood continues its work to dismantle the domineering and ultimately demeaning power structures that have defined it for so long.
Beyond weeding out sexual predators, the #MeToo movement and organizations like Time’s Up have brought Hollywood’s toxic, hierarchical culture to the forefront of public conversation—highlighting abuses of power that have run rampant for too long. It’s not just sexual abusers like Harvey Weinstein who are toppling; in a sign of the times, Scott Rudin, whose allegedly abusive behavior toward colleagues has basically been an open secret for years, is finally being held to account after his former employees spoke out in a recent Hollywood Reporter exposé, followed by a another in New York magazine. (Rudin has since issued a vague apology, and has produced plays with Barry Diller, chairman of IAC, The Daily Beast’s parent company.)
Ellen employees did not accuse DeGeneres of abuse when they came forward in a damning report from BuzzFeed last summer; it was producers who they alleged perpetuated the toxic environment. But as one source put it, “If [DeGeneres] wants to have her own show and have her name on the show title, she needs to be more involved to see what’s going on.”
The rumblings from The Ellen DeGeneres Show first began back in 2014 when, as The Daily Beast reported, former Ellen head writer Karen Kilgariff shared with Marc Maron “that she was fired from the show after refusing to cross the picket line during the 2008 writers’ strike. DeGeneres has allegedly not spoken to Kilgariff since.” But the dam truly started to break last April, when a viral thread garnered an alarming number of unconfirmed anecdotes about DeGeneres’ allegedly mean behavior—including, perhaps most perniciously, the suggestion that DeGeneres refused to make eye contact with interns. That month, Variety reported that the show’s top-level producers had failed to properly communicate with employees about how the pandemic would affect their working hours and pay, and had hired a non-union company to film the show from DeGeneres’ home. (A representative for Warner Bros. Television told Variety at the time that crew members’ hours had been reduced, but that they had been paid consistently. As for the communication issues, the rep “cited complications due to the chaos caused by COVID-19.”)
In July, the situation intensified when former employees told BuzzFeed that the show’s behind-the-scenes environment was rife with racism and intimidation. A follow-up story that month highlighted allegations of sexual misconduct among top-level producers. After an investigation, Warner Bros. dismissed producers Ed Glavin, Kevin Leman, and Jonathan Norman. A representative said in a statement that in addition to the staffing changes, the studio had also identified “appropriate measures to address the issues that have been raised, and are taking the first steps to implement them.”
DeGeneres apologized to her staff in a memo when the allegations first emerged, and addressed the controversy in an apology monologue when her show returned to air in September. “I know that I’m in a position of privilege and power, and I realized that with that comes responsibility,” she said at the time, “and I take responsibility for what happens at my show.” (She broadly denied the Twitter allegations in her THR interview Wednesday.)
But DeGeneres’ brand already had a few blemishes by the time her staffers began speaking out—and even before that Johnson bit went awry in late 2019. In January of that year, DeGeneres had tried to help Kevin Hart rehabilitate his reputation after his past homophobic tweets had resurfaced online. Hart initially doubled down rather than apologize, although he would later issue a mea culpa when he announced that he was stepping down from the gig.)
Throughout their interview, DeGeneres defended Hart and even allowed him to argue that he’d repeatedly apologized for the tweets, a claim that did not stand up to scrutiny. She further revealed that she had personally called the Academy to lobby for his reinstatement. “There are so many haters out there,” DeGeneres added. “Whatever’s going on on the internet, don’t pay attention to them. That’s a small group of people being very, very loud.”
“They can’t destroy you because you have too much talent,” DeGeneres told her guest before lamenting that those speaking out against his homophobic remarks were attempting “to stop you from your dream—from what you wanted to do and what you have a right to do, what you should be doing.”
It was both jarring and disheartening to see DeGeneres—a trailblazer for queer people on screen who once lost her job after coming out—working so hard to help Hart evade accountability for his homophobic remarks. But it wouldn’t be the last vexing choice she’d make that year. Months later, in October, she waved away criticism for palling around with George W. Bush at a football game.
DeGeneres addressed the photograph of her and Bush on air, telling her audience, “Here’s the thing: I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different, and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s OK.”
“Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not gonna be friends with them,” DeGeneres added. “When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone. It doesn’t matter.”
That statement perfectly distilled the confused ethos underpinning DeGeneres’ brand as it exists today. (Video of her Bush monologue was later posted to YouTube with the title, “This Photo of Ellen & George W. Bush Will Give You Faith in America Again.”)
Those who grew up watching DeGeneres’ rise know that her success is hard-won; she came out on television and real life in 1997, only to watch her show get canceled and become the target of fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell, who smeared her as “Ellen DeGenerate.” It took her three years just to make it back on air. It’s easy to imagine that for some, DeGeneres’ legacy will always begin and end with that fight.
But the brand DeGeneres has built now feels almost disconnected from that past. When given the opportunity to hold Hart accountable for tweeting things like, “Yo if my son comes home & try’s 2 play with my daughters doll house I’m going 2 break it over his head & say n my voice ‘stop that’s gay,’” DeGeneres chose instead to classify his critics as “haters,” and to allow him to characterize their concerns as “malicious attacks.” When asked to reflect on why it might be bad that she was making nice with the guy who ran on a platform of “compassionate conservatism” before backing a constitutional amendment to restrict gay marriage to help secure his re-election—to say nothing of, say, Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War—DeGeneres chose instead to defend her right to hang out with whoever she wants. In other words: When given the opportunity to choose between power and accountability, she once more sided with power. That approach to celebrity feels increasingly out of step.
It was easy to imagine when Ellen’s toxic workplace allegations first emerged that DeGeneres might be able to move on from the controversy after a quick apology tour. Now that the comedian has ended her daytime vehicle—her fans’ primary contact point for decades—her path forward is a little less clear. But that’s not to say that DeGeneres will disappear from our screens any time soon; she still has multiple series on the way with Warner Bros., and a rich development deal with Discovery+. The question now is simply whether she’ll embrace these vehicles as a venue to cultivate a new brand.
One could argue, and many likely will, that DeGeneres doesn’t need to rebrand. After all, ending her show was a totally voluntary decision. But if she’s looking for a “challenge,” it might be a good place to start.