How Ellen DeGeneres won, and then lost, a generation of viewers

·13 min read
Ellen DeGeneres is seen in a 2016 photograph made with kaleidoscopes and screens
(Devin Oktar Yalkin / For The Times; source photo: Associated Press)

When Ellen DeGeneres launched her daytime talk show, it felt like a flag planted on lunar terrain.

Six years earlier, the comedian and her sitcom character had come out, in tandem, in what remains the single most well-known moment in the history of queer television. But as one learns in Steven Capsuto’s indispensable book “Alternate Channels” and the extraordinary Apple TV+ docuseries “Visible: Out on Television,” that interest soon waned.

As the news cycle moved on, ABC, which aired "Ellen," grew uncomfortable with its handling of the character's coming-out process, which it depicted in sympathetic, radical-for-its-time detail. Almost exactly one year after its namesake appeared on the cover of Time, the series was unceremoniously canceled.

Now, as Karl Rove strived to turn marriage equality into the “wedge issue” that would win President George W. Bush re-election, Ellen’s next act seemed equally momentous. With the premiere of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” on Sept. 8, 2003, she would drop in every afternoon on our mothers and grandmothers — a lesbian in a sweater vest at the suburban coffee klatch table — and offer a daily reminder that queers were fundamentally “normal,” no threat worth waging an election campaign over.

She would shimmy through the door Rosie O’Donnell had opened the year before, coming out in the home stretch of "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" to protest a Florida law banning gay couples from adopting.

DeGeneres would, in short, become perhaps the most famous LGBTQ person in America, Oscar host and rival to Oprah, icon, omnipresence, eminence — and in so doing carry the banner of queer representation that she held aloft on “Ellen” into a new and more hopeful century.

And for a time she was. She did. But if you have read this far, you will already know the moral of this story: Nothing lasts forever. Which might just be another way of saying that the century doesn't seem so new, or so hopeful, anymore.

Category errors

The final chapter of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," set to conclude Thursday after nearly 20 years on air, began before this season's farewell tour. Even before Buzzfeed's July 2020 report on allegations of a toxic workplace culture on the show that belied its host's "Be kind" mantra, or a follow-up on sexual misconduct and harassment by executive producers. For DeGeneres' fall from favor runs deeper than poor management; such stories inflicted lasting damage because they rang true. Here was confirmation, after months of public-relations miscalculations, that DeGeneres was as out of touch as she appeared.

Consider Kevin Hart's appearance in January 2019, shortly after past homophobic tweets sunk his chance to host that year's Oscars. The segment performed the rituals of celebrity damage control, with DeGeneres, "as a gay person," accepting Hart's apology and demanding his reinstatement as the ceremony's emcee.

But the conversation might be more striking for what it says about DeGeneres than what it says about Hart: Slipping with breathtaking, almost comic alacrity between performance and personality, the talk-show host's defense of her guest hinged not on his decency, his regret, even their friendship, but on... his performance in the movie "The Upside."

"His movie is so amazing," she gushed, by way of defending Hart. "'The Upside' is so incredible. He is so incredible. I've seen it twice."

To mistake a fellow celebrity’s role in a $100-million tearjerker for moral rectitude is a peculiarly Hollywood brand of category error; it's as if DeGeneres' muscle memory for the promotional interview could not adjust to the demands of the moment. Hart, she continued, is "one of the smartest people I know, one of the funniest people I know. And when you see this movie you see the talent and see his acting ability and what the different layers of Kevin Hart is."

After photographs of DeGeneres enjoying a Dallas Cowboys game with former President George W. Bush sparked a social-media controversy nine months later, she doubled down on her impulse to see the personal as universal. Whether you agree with the argument that palling around with a politician is a tacit endorsement of their opposition to same-sex marriage or detainee torture program, DeGeneres, addressing her friendship with Bush on her show shortly thereafter, chose to turn the response into a political statement of her own.

"Here's one tweet that I loved," she read at one point, adamant that the photograph contained no ideological meaning except the self-serving one she ascribed to it: "Ellen and George Bush together makes me have faith in America again."

On neither occasion did she address the merits of the case; indeed, the logic of her conversation with Hart is tortured to the point of incoherence, going so far as to proclaim that his "right" — to host the Oscars — has been violated.

"You can't let them destroy you. And they can't destroy you because you have too much talent. No one can do that. And for them to stop you from your dream, from what you wanted to do and what you have a right to do, what you should be doing, it's why they haven't found another host," she said. "I think it's perfect that all this happened. Because there has to be a conversation about homophobia. And whatever they did, and whoever's trying to hurt you, it brought up you reminding people that you're the bigger person, that you've already apologized."

Watching the interview now, it's easier to see that her problem is not merely the tension between the smiling host of "be kind to everyone" fame and the celebrity once described in a viral tweet thread as "notoriously one of the meanest people alive." It is also, more profoundly, the air of entitlement that leads a trailblazer of DeGeneres' stature to sound the same notes a network executive once might have about a lesbian comedian coming out on TV.

“That's a small group of people being very, very loud,” she said of Hart’s “haters,” impugning the animating logic behind 50 years of LGBTQ activism in the process. “We are a huge group of people who love you and want to see you host the Oscars.”

Call it another Hollywood category error, made all the more insidious in an age of hyper-partisanship: The show must go on.

Foolhardy training

What changed, you ask?

Not DeGeneres, at least not in the way we might say about an intimate. She remains as unknowable as ever, beyond the handful of particulars — sexual orientation, marital status, burnished anecdote — she chooses to reveal.

No, it's time that passed, politics that shifted, history itself that unfurled, with DeGeneres, for good and for ill, standing astride the chasm. From her knowing appearance as "a lightning rod of sexual controversy" on "The Larry Sanders Show" in 1996 to that Oscars selfie she took, as host, in 2014, DeGeneres' trajectory mirrored that of the culture. Alongside the march of same-sex marriage, state by state; the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (2011); the end of the Defense of Marriage Act (2013); and finally Obergefell vs. Hodges (2015), which made protections for same-sex couples "the law of the land," she enjoyed her own rise from comic's comic and sitcom actor to daytime powerhouse, movie star and Hollywood standard-bearer.

Ellen DeGeneres, hosting the Academy Awards in March 2014, gathers celebrities in the audience for a selfie.
Ellen DeGeneres, hosting the Academy Awards in March 2014, gathers celebrities in the audience for a selfie. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

It is our foolhardy training, as Americans, to read this process instinctively as progress, and if DeGeneres rode the wave for 20 years, she has since been dashed by it. Donald Trump's defeat of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and the dissertation's worth of cultural signifiers that accompanied it — the blood red of the MAGA cap versus the soft pink of the pussy hat, "Ride of the Valkyries" versus "Fight Song" — did not singlehandedly render impotent DeGeneres' studied neutrality, but that campaign, and what came after, certainly hastened its decline.

Her recent missteps only underscore the notion that even the most apolitical "center" cannot hold, that saying nothing is saying something whether you mean it to or not. Are we to understand employees unhappy about being left in the dark by top brass in the first days of a pandemic as "haters"? Is it "kind to everyone" if you fail to see that your workplace is toxic because your celebrity guests perceive a "happy atmosphere," then accuse your detractors of a "coordinated" attack? Should our "faith in America" be restored by a powerful person's decision, at the first hint of criticism, to skip over self-reflection and take their ball and go home?

Dakota Johnson's appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" in November 2019, in which Johnson famously said, "That's not the truth, Ellen" about DeGeneres claiming she wasn't invited to Johnson's birthday party, captured the public's attention precisely because it crystallized the suspicion that DeGeneres' "authenticity" was simply an act. With a mischievous twinkle, Johnson pulled back the curtain to reveal the machinery of the celebrity persona, the army of producers and publicists and assistants just beyond the frame, making clear that stars are not at all like us.

"Ask everybody," Johnson added to her accusation, gesturing to the wings as if she'd lined up witnesses — and in the pained, stunned expression on DeGeneres' face, scored by a murmur in the studio audience, a viral sensation was born.

The clip, circulated on YouTube and celebrity news shows, GIF'd and memed into posterity, has since become a minute-long stand-in for this entire period in DeGeneres' career. But its reverberations derive from history that cannot be collapsed into a single sound bite: DeGeneres' importance as a pioneer of LGBTQ representation on TV is inextricable from our expectation — as it turns out misplaced — that political circumstance would prove stronger than the comforts of fortune and fame.

Those of us who grew up with her in our kitchens and living rooms remember when the march of "progress" appeared anything but inevitable — and remember too that Ellen was there. Growing up gay in the Boston suburbs in 2003, the year "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" premiered and the Massachusetts State Supreme Court made my home state the first to declare a right to same-sex marriage, I did not feel assured that wide acceptance of LGBTQ people would be achieved in my lifetime.

Canvassing for a state representative in front of my quiet town hall three years later, or watching the passage of Prop 8 sully Barack Obama's landmark victory while a senior at USC, I did not trust the arc of history to work its magic. Coming out to my high-school students in Reserve, La., one day in late 2009, after one interrupted instruction to call me "a fruit," or hearing a man scream "Faggot!" at me the next summer because I had the temerity to walk down the street in barely-there pink-and-blue shorts, I did not believe that all would be well simply because I hoped it were so.

This is all to say that DeGeneres fell from grace with a thud because she reached such heights the hard way, and because our penchant for making celebrities avatars of change in a world so resistant to it might be our most foolhardy training of all.

Ellen DeGeneres is seen in a photograph made with kaleidoscopes.
(Devin Oktar Yalkin / For The Times; source photo: Getty Images)

After Ellen

Ellen DeGeneres did not “betray” queer people. Such a claim presumes that she owes us, or speaks for us, and that impossible burden — one she has faced since she came out on “Ellen” — is part of what landed her in this mess in the first place. Still, I cannot help but feel exasperation at her defensive crouch when she’s questioned about Bush, or Hart, or her responsibility for the toxic work environment on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” I cannot help but roll my eyes at the self-pitying strain that runs through "Relatable," her scrupulously unilluminating 2018 Netflix stand-up special, in which she professes, or performs, frustration at the indignities of the celebrity stratosphere.

To be sure, DeGeneres didn't ask for this. None of us did. None of us chose to be born into a society that still fights tooth and nail to control and/or eradicate the expression of queer identity. None of us expected to be waging the same battles over representation our forebears did, 25 years after DeGeneres came out on "Ellen." None of us dreamed of a culture that creates and dismantles standard-bearers, symbols and icons, instead of allowing everyone a fair shot.

Which may be why what resonated most about Johnson's enduring appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" was not her suggestion that DeGeneres lied — we are by now inured to the division between public and private selves, to the building of a personal “brand” — but DeGeneres's flat-footed, uncomfortable response, unable and unwilling to answer for herself. Above reproach. Beyond criticism. Walled off.

As in her interview with Hart, her segment on Bush, her farewell announcements on "Today" and with Oprah, the Dakota Johnson moment inadvertently expressed a central feature of modern American life, and of DeGeneres’ own post-aughts crises: that the very rich and the very famous, the odd Dolly Parton excepted, are in solidarity mostly with themselves.

For DeGeneres, who built her career on playing versions of "Ellen," by appearing, as a queer woman in a patriarchal society, not only "normal" but ordinary, this evolution couldn't help but hold symbolic resonance. Because “progress” is not an achievement but an action, and to let up the fight is already to lose it. From “Don’t Say Gay”-style legislation in the U.S. and the prevalence of transphobia in U.K. media to the deadly threat to queers in Russia and its occupied territories, LGBTQ people are engaged in a tug of war on a tectonic scale, struggling ceaselessly just to keep our footing.

It does not seem so outrageous to me, in this context, to expect the most prominent LGBTQ American to pull in the same direction, or at least to accept that the price of holding the vanishing center is becoming a little less beloved.

It’s not as if DeGeneres has been driven into hiding. She simply forfeited her position as the queer celebrity everyone — me, my mother, George W. Bush — could agree on, because in a time and place of such terrifying revanchism, it is not enough to be agreeable. For those of us frightened by the change she once represented being so swiftly rolled back, DeGeneres’ fumbling attempt to keep her distance turns out to be the one choice we couldn’t forgive, and will not forget.

When we lost Ellen, she lost us.

Some photographs in this story, as above, were made with kaleidoscopes and screens.
Some photographs in this story, as above, were made with kaleidoscopes and screens. (Devin Oktar Yalkin / For The Times; source photo: Associated Pres)

For the record:
10:57 a.m. May 20, 2022: A photo caption on an earlier version of this article misidentified the title of the “Ellen” episode in which DeGeneres’ character comes out. It is “The Puppy Episode,” not “The Puppy Disguise.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.