“If you’re watching because you love me, thank you. And if you’re watching because you don’t love me, welcome.” With a self-deprecating joke, Ellen DeGeneres kicked off the 18th season of her eponymous daytime talk show. The monologue that followed was the comedian’s first public statement since reports of a “toxic work culture” at Ellen, as defined by the BuzzFeed News exposés published in July. Per reporter Krystie Lee Yandoli, “Most of the former employees blamed executive producers and other senior managers for the day-to-day toxicity, but one former employee said that, ultimately, it’s Ellen’s name on the show and ‘she really needs to take more responsibility’ for the workplace environment.” The apology was delivered to a virtual audience from the show’s empty soundstage. She looked a little frazzled, and just a bit more unkempt than the DeGeneres we’re typically used to seeing. But her stance is confident, and she moves around the stage comfortably as if explaining a mistake to an old friend.
So what of her apology itself? Overall, DeGeneres comes across as focused on maintaining her brand as America’s beloved, funny, and relatable white lesbian. “There are a lot of things I want to talk about. I’ve been looking forward to addressing it all directly, and unfortunately talking directly to people has been illegal for six months,” DeGeneres said. Here we find the general build of the monologue: DeGeneres almost owns up to the workplace issues and apologizes, but then pivots to an awkward joke instead. She turns to her virtual audience, which looks eerily like a Black Mirror episode given their digitized faces, which appear on vertical monitors that are spread amongst the seating area, and grins. “Here you all are. You look beautiful, and I’m sure you all smell great. That’s what I’m imagining, anyway,” she said. The viewers laugh, their expressions lagging on their massive screens. “Sometimes I get sad, I get mad, I get anxious, I get frustrated, I get impatient. And I am working on all of that. I am a work in progress. I am especially working on the impatience thing and it’s not going well because it’s not happening fast enough, I’ll tell ya that,” she said. Another joke, another laugh.
What is the nature of the comedian’s apology? We’ve recently had a lot of opportunities to consider that question. In 2020, when Jimmy Kimmel apologized for his repeated use of blackface in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Jamie Foxx rushed to Kimmel’s defense, with Foxx saying, “You are a comedian…and a great one at that.” Tina Fey and 30 Rock cocreator Robert Carlock, meanwhile, apologized for four different instances of blackface on the series: “I understand now that ‘intent’ is not a free pass for white people to use these images,” Fey wrote in her apology. “I apologize for pain they have caused. Going forward, no comedy-loving kid needs to stumble on these tropes and be stung by their ugliness.” The episodes were removed by streaming services. Kimmel still hosts a television show on a major network. Fey remains beloved and iconicized. All they had to do was apologize, say they learned from the experience, and stay funny. DeGeneres’s effort is simply an extension of this pattern.
“Not only did Ellen turn my trauma, turn our traumas, into a joke, she somehow managed to make this about her,” a former Ellen employee told BuzzFeed in response to the monologue. “As you may have heard, this summer there were allegations of a toxic work environment at our show and then there was an investigation,” DeGeneres said. It’s here that she does appear to thoughtfully address the allegations brought against her workplace and her own leadership. “I learned that things happened here that never should have happened. I take that very seriously and I want to say I am so sorry to the people who were affected. I know that I’m in a position of privilege and power and I realized that with that comes responsibility, and I take responsibility for what happens at my show.” As DeGeneres stood, on stage, speaking on a major daytime talk show on a major network that literally bears her name, I kept thinking: We give white women so many chances. Bad white women bosses can just find a new job. They might feel a little awkward for a while, or be overcome by the temporary disorientation of being #canceled. But it is just temporary.
When white women make mistakes, they can lean on self-deprecating jokes; they can lean on the goodwill of audiences; they can lean on their own humanity and the fact that they’re always learning. And it works because we have been socialized to see their humanity.
As the BuzzFeed report went viral in July, several reporters rushed to defend her. Amanda Kerri wrote a piece for The Advocate about how it’s unfair to cancel DeGeneres for not being “nice,” and LGBTQ Nation published a similar piece arguing that DeGeneres doesn’t owe kindness to her employees just because she’s a lesbian. The scramble to interpret and justify DeGeneres’s behavior is illustrative of our knee-jerk tendency, when faced with white women’s tears, to protect and coddle them. So what if she’s a 60-year-old woman who is somehow still a “work in progress?” She’s a person, like you and me. We should allow for nuance, give her a break, offer a second chance. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t. DeGeneres is just another human being. But we’re a lot less quick to grant second chances to leaders and pop culture icons who aren’t white, even when their transgressions have less real-world impact. When white women make mistakes, they can lean on self-deprecating jokes; they can lean on the goodwill of audiences; they can lean on their own humanity and the fact that they’re always learning. And it works because we have been socialized to see their humanity.
There is something calming about the idea of a world where we can make mistakes in public, be cruel to those in our employ, and still remain as loved and valued as DeGeneres will likely always be; her legacy will be one of kindness. But it’s important to remember who doesn’t have that same ability, and to consider how this impacts the shape and scope of pop culture available to us. Who do we lose when white people are able to fall so hard and then rise again so sharply as long as they maintain their sparkle? I can’t help but think about the people who chose to leave comedy, or television, or perhaps both, because of their experiences at Ellen. What could they have created? What would we have gained if they had been nurtured and embraced instead of mocked and berated? At the end of the episode, DeGeneres gifted each member of her virtual audience a 65-inch television set. She introduced DJ Stephen Laurel Boss as the new co-executive producer of Ellen. She introduced fellow comedian Tiffany Haddish. And the cameras kept rolling.