With a pandemic still raging, you would think nobody in the summer of 2020 would be interested enough in yet another story about a Hollywood scandal to even notice it at all.
You’d be thinking wrong.
The firestorm that has erupted around talk show host Ellen DeGeneres has pushed itself squarely into the public conversation, taking up as much space on social media over the past few days as a presidential interview or congressional debates over a stimulus package – and while some of this interest might be the result of an overwhelmed public seeking distraction from the doom and gloom of every other news story they see, there’s an element to this particular fall-from-grace that feels far too important for it to be explained away with simplistic excuses.
To begin with, it’s really a continuation of a story that has been going on for decades. This is an LGBTQ icon who boldly used her 90s ABC sitcom to come out as gay, only to face backlash and cancellation from an entertainment industry uncomfortable with the idea of an out lesbian TV star.
Now, after more than two decades of rebuilding a her career through her hit talk show, she is facing cancellation again – at least figuratively – in the wake of revelations from staffers that she has presided over a “toxic” workplace environment for years, and the accompanying allegations that a woman who built an empire on the “niceness” of her persona is in reality one of the meanest people in the business.
Ellen presented herself on her show as a safe and nurturing figure who gave away money to charity and ended every episode by importuning her audience to “be kind to each other.” In light of the behind-the-scenes incidents that allegedly took place under her watch – unfair treatment, racism, even sexual misconduct and harassment – those qualities have been recast in the eyes of many, and she now faces the condemnation of our modern “cancel culture,” with fans and fellow celebrities alike entering the online fray to call her out for every perceived hypocrisy.
Of course, the rumors of Ellen’s thornier off-camera personality are nothing new; her reputation for alleged meanness was so widespread in the industry that it seeped out into the awareness of mainstream Los Angeles life and became something between an urban legend and an inside joke.
Just because it’s been an open secret for years, of course, that doesn’t mean someone is excused for problematic behavior; but there’s a sizeable faction in the court of public opinion that bristles at a rush to judgment over something that we already knew anyway, and Ellen has her defenders, too.
In a commentary piece published Tuesday in The Advocate, Amanda Kerri makes a convincing case for leniency, pointing out Ellen’s role as a game-changing hero in LGBTQ history and arguing that, in effect, she is being punished for merely being “mean” – something which, if we are being honest, we are all sometimes guilty ourselves.
“Don’t lie and say you wouldn’t become a grouchy entitled celebrity either, when everywhere you go people expect you to have a Stepford smile and ambushes you for a selfie as you dash to the bathroom because the Lactaid isn’t working anymore,” Kerri admonishes.
The piece also points out that we regularly forgive bad behavior from celebrities – something which perhaps invites comparison between DeGeneres and another comedy legend, whose name hers is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as her own.
Like Ellen, Lucille Ball was a pioneer, stalking her place as a woman in what was then very much the man’s world of television, just as Ellen would make the same strides for LGBTQ people over forty years later. “I Love Lucy” is still a classic, and its star still held in high regard. Yet Old Hollywood lore is rich with unflattering anecdotes about Lucy, stories that have been widely known for decades, and she gets a pass, nonetheless.
Perhaps a key reason is context. In the Hollywood of the 1950s, a woman who wanted to be more than a just pretty face had to be as tough, as shrewd, and as ruthless as the men who signed their paychecks, and Lucy succeeded. If we can look past her character flaws, why can’t we do the same for Ellen?
The answer, for many, is that we live in a different world now. In order to make a place for herself, Lucy had to work within a system we now recognize as unacceptable. There simply was no other way. Can Ellen say the same thing?
While it’s true that the most heinous allegations emerging from the current scandal are not leveled directly at Ellen, but at other executive staff on her show, many find it hard to believe that she could not have been peripherally aware of the toxic culture thriving under her nose. And while heightened awareness of such workplace issues may not have existed in a pre-#TimesUp world, there can no longer be any excuse for turning a blind eye if we truly want to dismantle these outdated systems, at long last, as so many of us say we do.
That’s why this is about more than another celebrity scandal. It’s a turning point in the culture war. Everything depends on the choices made from here on in.
If Ellen is going to repair her tarnished image, she’s going to have to do more than offer a carefully-worded apology written in reassuring legalese. She’s going to have to change; otherwise, no “cancel culture” will be necessary for history to pass her by.
She will simply become irrelevant.