Life

What to Do About Ellen

She had to be tough to make it to the top. But that doesn’t excuse alleged abuses of those on the bottom.

Ellen speaks onstage, holding a mic
Ellen DeGeneres onstage at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Jan. 26. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Christina Cauterucci: June, as two of Slate’s resident lesbians (or lesbians-in-residence?), we are uniquely qualified to unpack what’s going on with Ellen DeGeneres these days—namely, the allegations of racism, sexual harassment, and general poor treatment of employees on her show. Have you been following the story?

June Thomas: I have half-followed it with a sort of resignation and cynicism that I’m not proud of. It’s not just that I don’t watch The Ellen DeGeneres Show; it’s that I’ve never seen an episode in the 17 years it’s been on the air. And I don’t know any other lesbians or politically conscious queers who do. (The daytime-watching homos I know seem to prefer The View.) It’s not By Us, for Us—it’s By Us, for Them. So I have nothing invested in the show. Hearing about shitty practices is depressing but sadly par for the course. (When businesses reward managers for niceness rather than ruthlessness, things might be different.) You and I wouldn’t be doing a dialogue about similar accusations about any other nonprimetime show, but because this one is helmed by an out lesbian, here we are! You?

Cauterucci: You’re right, I would feel tokenized if I weren’t so morbidly fascinated by the construction and maintenance—and now, maybe, dissolution—of the character of Ellen DeGeneres. Like you, I’ve never seen an episode of the show and don’t know any gays who like it. I’ve only watched clips when something particularly newsworthy happens, as when she used her powers to absolve Kevin Hart of his homophobic past on behalf of all the rest of us gays. One of the most interesting things about Ellen’s position in American culture is that she’s arguably the most famous and beloved gay, but not even close to universally idolized by gays. She kind of reverse-jumped the shark. Instead of using her position as one of the few people from this marginalized community to achieve mainstream success to push the boundaries of what’s deemed acceptable for mainstream success—like Beyoncé has done with Black history, art, and culture—she’s gotten progressively more bland, less provocative, and more committed to straight-people apologia.

Thomas: Wow, I never thought I’d find myself sticking up for Ellen, but let me offer a mild defense. I’m a couple of decades older than you, so perhaps her initial coming out means more to me. Back in 1997, a C-level comedian/actor telling Oprah and then the world on the cover of Time that she was a lesbian—and then having her character come out on her self-named network sitcom—was a huge deal. There were very few out mainstream people, and especially few whose vibe was nice, put-upon, trying to do the right thing. (Remember the Ellen of Ellen was a bookstore owner, as gentle a capitalist as could be.)

That coming out had a huge impact, not just in terms of the media coverage, which was plentiful, but in people’s lives. I was working at Microsoft when the Ellen outing happened. The day after that episode aired, it was THE topic of conversation both among the lesbians on my team and with our straight co-workers. I suspect that a lot of people who weren’t alive or politically conscious have a hard time imagining how significant that was. And once she was out, she stayed out—she married actress Portia de Rossi in 2008, and she talked about it. She doesn’t appear to be a political person, but she has had a huge impact just by being openly gay. Do you think I’m being too generous to her?

Cauterucci: Not at all! I hear you. And I don’t want to seem like I’m taking Ellen’s trailblazing for granted. I’m grateful for it. I know she was blacklisted in the industry for years after coming out. I shed literal tears when Barack Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. He reminded those of us who weren’t conscious during her coming out “how important it was, not just to the LGBT community, but for all of us, to see somebody so full of kindness and light—somebody we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbor, or our colleague, or our sister—challenge our own assumptions, remind us that we have more in common than we realize, push our country in the direction of justice.”

The thing that I’m wondering now, and have been for a while, is whether Ellen is still pushing our country in the direction of justice. What is she doing, as the lesbian whose life and livelihood is least threatened by homophobia, to advance and protect LGBTQ people in America when she tells her largely straight viewership that the gay people who were hurt by Kevin Hart are more powerful and mean—”haters,” she called them—than Kevin Hart? I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase “the personal is political.” If she is, as alleged, treating her lower-paid employees like expendable nuisances and fostering a working environment that tolerates racism and sexual harassment, that reflects poorly on her both personally and politically. Also, in that Obama statement, he touches on the persona that’s now being broadly called into question: the veneer of amiability and inoffensive humor (and, implicitly, I believe, forgiveness for people at various and sundry points on their journeys away from homophobia) that was essential to Ellen’s reentry into the public graces after she was shunned for being gay. If that image of a nonthreatening gay was the key to her acceptance by mainstream America, I wonder whether that’ll change in light of the terrible allegations of the working environment on her show.

Thomas: On this topic, I am with you 100 percent. Do I wish she would leverage her position of prominence within mainstream America to make a political statement more complex than “We exist, and we’re not scary”? I do! I wish she behaved more like Beyoncé or director Jordan Peele, who takes pains to find Black crew and other artists to work on his movies. When I say, “Eh, rich people gonna rich,” that doesn’t mean I excuse the behavior and the lack of oversight that Ellen appears to have displayed—but it doesn’t surprise me.

I suspect the fact that her route to fame and riches went through mainstream (largely straight) America means that she’ll survive these revelations. I suspect that her audience will care much less than those of us who don’t watch. Engaged, political, progressive people will, correctly, be appalled. But as we’ve already established, we weren’t watching the show. Will anything change—other, I hope, than the most toxic employees being ousted? Will this lead to any larger reconsiderations?

Cauterucci: “Rich people gonna rich” is the one enduring truth in human history. And it’s why the first very public reckoning with Ellen’s persona happened when she watched a sports game and took a smiley little selfie with George W. Bush. That moment was an important education in intersectionality for some people. Ellen isn’t just a woman, and she’s not just gay. She’s white, she’s rich, she’s famous. She has more in common with the rich community (yes, that’s an identity group!) than with the broader gay community. So, of course, she’s going to have more allegiance to George W. Bush and to Kevin Hart than to any of her lower-paid employees or any of us run-of-the-mill gays.

As to the question of whether anything will change, I do think the disparity in lifestyle that quarantine has made more visible may be planting a few seeds of revolution among unlikely groups. Ellen got dragged when she tweeted in April that being quarantined in her expansive, lavish home was akin to “being in jail.” People are going hungry, losing their jobs, losing loved ones, and Ellen—someone they may have looked to for comfort and a moment of joy—is complaining about having to spend too much time on her lanai?

Then again, I don’t know if the allegations against her are explicitly, directly tied to her enough to warrant any kind of public outcry among her fans. It’ll be easy enough for Ellen lovers to say, “Well, how could she have known what was going on?” The “few bad apples” defense. Unless more information comes out, she might have plausible deniability of her knowledge and involvement in the worst allegations of racism, harassment, and groping. The allegations that directly apply to Ellen are mostly just about her being mean. And I wonder if we’re holding her to a higher standard than her peers because she’s made her riches on this nice-gal image. Would people be surprised and angered if it turned out that Kathie Lee Gifford was a jerk? We forgave her for abusing children via child labor in her company. We seem to have forgiven Martha Stewart for rich-lady crimes. Anna Wintour, a notorious elitist who doesn’t suffer people who tell her no, still holds a place of power and reverence. If people had said Matt Lauer was a dick, but not that he’d sexually assaulted people, would he have been ruined? I want to say no. That’s just what people expect from powerful men, and, to a lesser extent, powerful women, who succeed at the highest levels. You don’t get anywhere without sharp elbows!

Thomas: Exactly. That’s what I meant earlier about capitalism rewarding ruthlessness rather than niceness. In any employment situation, moving up the management ladder means that genuine friendships are almost impossible—how can you be absolutely open with each other when one has even a little power over the other? And as you ascend to the highest steps of a very tall ladder, the harder it is to see those on the bottom rungs as anything other than supporting specks. But lesbians should do better!

Cauterucci: “In any employment situation, moving up the management ladder means that genuine friendships are almost impossible.” Wow, June—so much for the bond I thought we had!

Thomas: I’ll be needing your PTD reports by 5, Christina!

Cauterucci: I noticed that Ellen invoked her gay identity as a defense in her apology to her staff: “As someone who was judged and nearly lost everything for just being who I am, I truly understand and have deep compassion for those being looked at differently, or treated unfairly, not equal, or—worse—disregarded.” Is that fair game?

Thomas: I don’t know if it’s fair, but I’m confident it’s a sincere response on her part. It’s easy for us to look at her now—a gazillionaire who moves in the most elite circles and enjoys trappings of privilege so restricted that I don’t even know what they are—and not recall that she had to overcome multiple prejudices to get there, and I’m sure work hard and make sacrifices along the way. But that statement also rings hollow in the face of so many credible reports of her treating people unfairly, disregarding their humanity even. She doesn’t get a pass because she had to overcome homophobia.

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