This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter, The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
It’s almost trite to say that, as an out gay person, it’s impossible to quantify the impact that Ellen DeGeneres and her public-facing bravery had in building the world that I'm able to live in today, or to explain what it means that, despite what she went through after coming out, she still had the courage and tenacity to carve space in people’s hearts for acceptance.
The very fact that I’m not special in feeling this may be the most extreme praise that can be heaped on her.
It’s also what makes the cowardice behind what is happening now so disappointing.
Despite the fact that, for as long as I’ve been a part of the entertainment industry, it’s been a widely talked about open secret that DeGeneres’s talk show is a hellscape workplace environment, the dominoes have finally started to fall in recent weeks.
Was the catalyst the Twitter thread that offered a $2 donation to a food bank for every story about DeGeneres being “one of the meanest people alive”? Was it the iconic way that Dakota Johnson shut down the host’s favorite parlor game of passive aggressively embarrassing her famous guests?
Whatever it is that loosened the tap made way for a deluge of recent reports and investigations into toxicity on the set, including sexual misconduct, racial discrimination, and cruelty from the host. WarnerMedia recently launched an investigation into the dumpster fire masquerading as a place of work.
In response to all of this, DeGeneres made an egregious non-apology that essentially placed the blame on her producers and has relied on the messages of support from a handful of A-listers pledging that she’s always been nice to them, rather than own up to her well-known bad behavior.
Each time a Katy Perry or Kevin Hart tweets about how Ellen is “one of the dopest people on the fucking planet,” it only underlines the fact that DeGeneres is, at best, ignorant of or, at worst, actively dismissing the experiences of people working under her. Would it shock you to learn that horrible rich and famous people are nice to other horrible rich and famous people, yet not to the un-rich and non-famous that work for them?
And each time more staffers come forward with nightmare accounts of working on the show without DeGeneres discussing her active role in creating that toxic space, she’s digging a deeper hole, one so deep at this point it’s getting hard to imagine her climbing her way out of it—no matter what Diane Keaton says.
It’s a confusing byproduct of the celebrity PR and crisis-managing machine that has erected around A-listers these last few years, in which a refusal to take responsibility has become a default strategy. It’s disappointing because it excuses unjust behavior, but it also fails these clients. I can’t understand how celebrities in situations like these don’t understand that the best thing they can do is actually admit fault.
They are going to be pilloried by critics and “canceled” if they don’t admit they did something wrong. And, frankly, they are going to be pilloried and “canceled” if they do. The saving grace of the latter option is at least being on the right side of history.
I truly believe that a large swath of her audience doesn’t give a steaming shit about all of these allegations, and maybe aren’t even aware of them. Those people will still be there whether or not she owns up to her behavior. But the celebrities who no longer want to be associated with her or her show won’t be, and certainly neither will the press, critics, and online trolls who will haunt her every move for the rest of her career and, if and when she does retire, will piss over her legacy because of how ugly this chapter has been.
It’s sad because that legacy is truly important.
I sometimes find myself randomly watching Ellen receive her Medal of Freedom honor from Barack Obama. It’s an incredibly emotional reminder of what she endured and what it means that she overcame it, something that can be forgotten given how golden her perch seems to be now.
She deserves every one of those accolades. But she also deserves to be called out on what she’s done with her success.
She built a fortress on the artifice of inclusivity and kindness. What she didn’t realize is, for the rest of us whose emotional labor is baked into each brick, how painful it is to watch it fall.
We’re not in the business of complicated legacies anymore. Of saints who are divas. Of the brave who then cravenly reap the spoils. Of heroes who apparently have a strong sense of smell and send staff home if they haven’t showered and also don’t look her in the eye.
No one should be a monster. But it is worth questioning who gets to be one: Who is ruled a prickly genius, who is a diva, and who is canceled.
People don’t have to be held to a higher standard because of how they identify or because they were pioneers. But it is worth noting that, for all the ground Ellen broke, I can’t think of another queer celebrity who occupies the same space and blanket acceptance in the mainstream culture that she attained. Of all the responsibilities she’s shouldered and burdens she’s carried because of the boundaries she broke, she’s shirked what may be one of the most important: What happens if she’s gone?
It’s an interesting and rare, maybe even revolutionary thing. For once for an LGBT trailblazer in entertainment, there is discussion of their career and their responsibility independent of their sexuality.
It’s always “as a gay actor...” “as a gay director...” “as a gay person in the public eye...” There is no “as a gay monster...” here. She’s just being held to a standard that, it should be said, she set for herself with all her preaching about niceness—and in the miscalculation of the decade, failed to listen to or meet.
“Yep, I’m Gay” was one of the most monumental things to happen to Hollywood. Now I wonder if “Yep, I’m Sorry” could be just as powerful.