Unravelling the complex and nuanced legacy of Ellen DeGeneres

·6 min read

Evan Ross Katz is In The Know’s pop culture contributor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more.

Ellen DeGeneres first came out on a landmark Time Magazine cover, wearing all black with white Gucci loafers. “Yep, I’m Gay,” read the cover story.

“I never wanted to be ‘the lesbian actress,’” she explained in the accompanying interview. “I never wanted to be the spokesperson for the gay community. Ever. I did it for my own truth.”

Then came a media blitz. She sat down with Diane Sawyer on 20/20, saying, “I decided this was not going to be something that I was going to live the rest of my life being ashamed of.” Then came an Oprah one-on-one. “I mean, I knew that it would be big, but I had no idea that it would be this big,” she told her.

Hours after the latter interview aired, Ellen telegraphed the experience in the now-famous “Puppy Episode” of her sitcom Ellen — which aired two weeks after the Time cover was unveiled — where her character, Ellen Morgan, inadvertently broadcast her coming out over the airport’s public address system after four seasons in the closet.

It was a watershed moment: The first time a lead character in a primetime show had come out. It also made Ellen — the real-life Ellen, not the fictional one — one of the most high-profile lesbians in the world. She’d experience ups and downs in the ensuing years (the cancellation of the sitcom and another sitcom after that, as well as roles in EDtv and Finding Nemo) before her career broke new ground with The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2013. Eighteen seasons and 61 Daytime Emmys later, Ellen announced that the upcoming 19th season would be the show’s last. Some met the news with glee, delighting in seeing a comeuppance for a woman accused of fostering a toxic work environment. Others were sad to learn of the cancellation of one of their favorite daytime talk shows.

Ellen changed the landscape of representation nearly 25 years ago, breaking barriers in a culture that largely portrayed queer people through stereotypes. And she did it with risk. There was no gay guide or direct avenues with which she could profit. There was no social media ready to double-tap and heart emoji her coming out. There was not a sea of other LGBTQIA+ celebs from whom to seek out support.

The Ellen Degeneres Show, too, broke ground. It was one of then-Senator Barack Obama’s first television appearances (and he danced!). There was also Ellen’s 2012 wedding monologue, her various tear-jerking moments of giving back — and who could forget her introducing the world to Sophia Grace?

I remember most vividly an October 2010 episode of the Ellen show, days after Tyler Clementi had died of suicide after being outed on the Internet. “I want anyone out there who feels different and alone to know that I know how you feel, and there is help out there,” the host said, choking back tears. “Things will get easier, people’s minds do change, and you should be alive to see it.”

Ever since then, she has signed off each telecast with a simple plea to her audience: “Be kind to one another.”

It’s moments like these that helped brand Ellen as “The Queen of Nice.” But that’s a title that’s long been up for debate by some. In 2007, a person claiming to be a former writer for her show alleged that Ellen “treated her writers like [s***].” That story came and went. But over a decade later, more stories began to chip away at the veneer of Ellen’s reputation.

First came a 2018 New York Times headline: “Ellen DeGeneres Is Not as Nice as You Think.” Then, in January 2019, Ellen caught flack for defending Kevin Hart after he was fired from his gig as host of the Academy Awards, following the resurfacing of his old homophobic tweets. Then came the photo of Ellen and former president George Bush sitting together at a Cowboys vs. Packers game. (Bush infamously did not support same-sex marriage during his presidency.)

“Here’s the thing: I’m friends with George Bush,” she said on her show, addressing the swirling controversy. “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 okay that we’re all different.”

Weeks later came the Dakota Johnson interview, which “set the Internet on fire,” in which Johnson playfully fired back at Ellen after she claimed to have not been invited to Johnson’s birthday. This rather innocuous moment is perceived by some, including the Los Angeles Times, to be the breaking point. “Ellen DeGeneres’ show is done. And fans think Dakota Johnson ‘threw the first brick,’” read one headline from earlier this month.

It didn’t stop there. In March 2020, comedian Kevin T. Porter called Ellen “notoriously one of the meanest people alive” in a viral thread. Then came the July 2020 BuzzFeed story in which former employees came forward alleging, among other things, a toxic environment of “racism, fear, and intimidation.” At the 2021 MTV Movie & TV Awards, host Nikki Glaser began the In Memoriam with a black and white photo of Ellen with the words “Ellen’s Reign of Terror, 2003-2021.”

The pile-on seemed ceaseless. But not everybody is wanting to cancel Ellen. “Should she have been more authentic and picked a schtick that was more like the way she actually is?” legendary drag performer Lady Bunny told In The Know. “It might have saved her this drama, but that’s not what people do — look at RuPaul’s schtick. You have to compartmentalize it. If someone has an enjoyable schtick, enjoy the schtick. They don’t need to be saints.”

So how then do we categorize Ellen? Can we reconcile the trailblazer with… all of that past? It’s tricky.

Ellen did herself few favors in a recent interview with Today’s Savannah Guthrie, in which she called the attacks on her “too orchestrated.” In other words, she deflected any culpability. But with her show coming to an end next year, time and space away from the ongoing media coverage surrounding her might give Ellen’s career a third act, especially if she invests her time and resources into her production company, A Very Good Production, which could help amplify other voices other than her own.

Is this the end of the line for Ellen? Hardly. “I would imagine that Ellen’s many fans would follow her into whatever she wants to do next,” Lady Bunny told In The Know.

If Hollywood is good for anything, it’s a second act. Just ask Robert Downey Jr. or Mickey Rourke or Winona Ryder or Martha Stewart or Alec Baldwin or Ellen’s friend Kevin Hart. The real question, the one that can’t be answered any time soon, is where Ellen’s legacy will net out. That’s the story that will have to wait to be written.

If you liked this story, read about Jonah Hill’s powerful response to body shaming.

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