Oprah Winfrey's appearance on Thursday's The Ellen DeGeneres Show was a reminder how far DeGeneres has come since it was Winfrey who played a therapist on DeGeneres' groundbreaking 1997 coming-out episode of her ABC sitcom Ellen. "Nearly 25 years later, and after DeGeneres fought back from being essentially blacklisted in the industry for daring to be openly gay at the top of her career, Winfrey resumed her role as the sounding board for a monumental career decision," says Kevin Fallon. "It should be an occasion for emotional remembrances of all that was suffered, all that was triumphed, and all that was accomplished. But, damn, DeGeneres is making that hard. Their interview was perfectly sweet. It turns out it’s been nearly 10 years to the day that Winfrey announced she was ending The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the two talked through their processes in coming to their respective shows, and the parts of hosting daytime TV that they do or will miss. But the genuine sentiment is overshadowed by deeply cynical interviews with The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday and Savannah Guthrie on Thursday’s episode of Today. DeGeneres queued up similar talking points in both conversations, though her talk with Guthrie seemed especially tone-deaf...Each time the allegations about her behavior were brought up, there was an incredibly off-putting flippancy in DeGeneres’ responses. She kept referring to stories from low-level employees about not looking her in the eye as ridiculous, something that she at first laughed at, assuming it would go away. She equated the avalanche of continued stories to a conspiracy or an agenda. 'It was too orchestrated,' she said. 'It was too coordinated.' She even told Guthrie she believed it was easy clickbait—'What if the "Be Kind" Lady isn’t kind?—and misogynistic. She said she was being unfairly targeted because she is a successful woman in Hollywood." DeGeneres was especially off-putting when she told Guthrie, "All I’ve ever heard from every guest who comes on this show is what a happy atmosphere this is and what a happy place it is." As Fallon notes, "A few things about that. One, if you are a person who has even been tangentially associated with the entertainment industry over the past decade, you have heard the whispers—which eventually grew to the volume of a banshee’s wail—of DeGeneres being difficult, demanding, and entitled toward people who work for her. But beyond that, it takes a certain privilege and blindness to reality to assume that because Sofia Vergara and Taylor Swift never noticed that junior employees were being harassed, abused, or taken advantage of, there was no such problem in the workplace. In fact, each time she has been asked about the allegations of a toxic work environment, DeGeneres has brought the conversation back to her personal insult that people found her mean. The effect is a dismissal of the people who worked for her and felt harmed. So here we are, wondering where the lines are drawn between this total lack of accountability, the schadenfreude people seem to be delighting in as the show ends, and remembering that this show was legitimately great—and ushered a transition in how we thought not only about daytime television, but the entire industry."
Ellen DeGeneres is a reminder that even the most relatable celebrities are still putting on an act, still trying to sell us on an image: "That disarming tone and Everywoman vibe — just as starstruck by her celebrity guests as we might be — helped turn Ms. DeGeneres into a household name with a daytime hit that has lasted nearly two decades," says Amil Niazi. "Her showcasing of regular people doing remarkable things was the strongest asset: From yodeling kids to star teachers, Ms. DeGeneres understood that the secret to her success was becoming a vehicle for everyday American exceptionalism. But as her own fame and fortune grew, and stories emerged about her less friendly reputation behind the scenes, Ms. DeGeneres’s relatability began to look like a performance. It’s easy to forget how paradigm-shifting The Ellen DeGeneres Show was at its inception. Six years after her coming-out as a lesbian on her sitcom Ellen drew praise in some quarters and also raised questions about her career future, Ms. DeGeneres reached a turning point with the talk show, as well as a milestone in the mainstreaming of L.G.B.T.Q. culture. Her playful affability and ability to laugh at herself caught on quick with viewers. A palpable sense of joy, exemplified by the way she danced onto the set every day, stood out in a sea of stiff, old-fashioned daytime hosts. She became, if not America’s sweetheart, its lovable lady next door. Even as her star rose, she was able for years to maintain an identification with the normalcy of the audience — marveling at the celebrities who graced her couch, as awed by their charm and shiny hair as we might be. Ms. DeGeneres’s aw-shucks humility also allowed her to bring an unthreatening version of progressivism into America’s living rooms, though her on-air politics were muted at best, often avoiding thornier subjects like race and sex. At the height of her influence, she was criticized by some as the kind of centrist, toothless liberal who could navigate controversy simply by avoiding it altogether. Meanwhile, her massive real estate holdings, star-studded birthday parties and a friendship with former President George W. Bush began to chip away at her ordinary-person image."
It's deeply cynical for Ellen DeGeneres to play the victim: "Cancel culture is often painted as a modern, social media-fueled phenomenon, but in reality, celebrities have been suffering career setbacks and public backlashes over innocuous reasons for decades," says Dani Di Placido. "Laura Dern was blacklisted after playing DeGeneres’ love interest in 1997, the Dixie Chicks were blacklisted (and even received death threats) after speaking out against the Iraq War, and Sinéad O’Connor suffered an intense public backlash after condemning child sex abuse in the Catholic Church during her SNL performance - she was never invited back to the show. Few would argue that the reveal of the toxic environment of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and the subsequent public backlash, is an example of cancel culture run amok."
What’s even more apparent through Ellen's interviews is the narrowness and narcissism of her framework: "All the reports were about people who worked for her going through hell—racism, intimidation, sexual misconduct— as well as about her own chilly distance from the toxic mess she presided over," says Samantha Grasso. "But in Ellen’s mind, this added up not to something that required any reflection or humility from her. No: what it really was was a personal affront to her. In her retelling of these events, DeGeneres is the real victim here because people said mean things about her and her show. DeGeneres isn’t the person in charge whose oversight these things happened under. She’s the woman who’s just trying to be nice, and it’s sexist to imply otherwise! But the very obvious truth, is that DeGeneres was, at least, a boss who was less kind to her employees than she thought, who didn’t want to admit it, and at most, a boss who allowed a toxic workplace to fester, which in turn affected the lives of so many people who didn’t have the agency to do anything about it. Whether she wants the responsibility or not, DeGeneres has been in control this entire time, and her recent slate of course-correcting interviews are just another instance of that."