What do we make of Ellen?
As Ellen DeGeneres signs off, her ambivalent legacy signals a shift in our relationship to celebrities and a bygone era of television.
Thursday marks the end of an era. Ellen DeGeneres will sign off on her daytime talk show Ellen, after nearly two decades of what has, for better or worse, largely become an institution of television. In her final episodes, Ellen has paraded a list of all-star celebrity guests — Michelle Obama, Jennifer Lopez, Oprah — to give her a glitzy send-off and also in a way symbolize the outsized influence that she and her show have amassed since it first premiered in 2003.
But, of course, the storybook ending is shadowed by the last couple of years, when Ellen’s reputation as a fun-loving, pure-hearted icon was obliterated: first the controversial George W. Bush buddy-dom and the endlessly satisfying Dakota Johnson shade, then the open secret of Ellen as a behind-the-scenes menace going viral on Twitter, then the exposés and investigations confirming a hellish environment that the host lorded over.
What do we make of something that started out as a revolutionary program — an openly queer woman beaming into nearly every home in America on every afternoon in the early aughts, becoming a universally beloved figure — and ended as an outdated symbol of the soullessness of the celebrity facade?
This dramatic and swift shift in her legacy (which, despite her denials, surely played a factor in Ellen deciding to end her show in the first place) is fully informed by just how wide the gap was between Ellen’s outward persona and who she was revealed to be in the final tumultuous years of her show. For years, she was known as the host who would play well-meaning pranks on her celebrity guests, ostensibly revealing a kind of humanizing playfulness to both her and her A-list visitors (what makes Taylor Swift more unguarded than seeing her scared shitless in the bathroom?), and dance with her audience to open each show. She even had a simple, pure mantra for us: Be Kind.
The dissonance between that character — someone who literally sells Be Kind subscription boxes “as a way to help people spread kindness” — and the multimillionaire who would write an angry letter complaining about a waitress having chipped nail polish was too comically absurd for it not to eventually come to a head. Yet, it was far worse than one would’ve imagined, from the racism among her staff to the sexual harassment among the show’s executive producers. Ellen herself even had to address it on her show — you know things are bad when what started out as mindless Twitter gossip from a comedian has to actually be acknowledged to your audience of mostly suburban moms.
This kind of ambivalent reputation that Ellen leaves with is firstly another example of a trite lesson that, particularly in our era of parasocial relationship PSAs, is nevertheless ever-relevant: a public persona is and always will be a construct, that in some cases is in direct opposition with the real-life person and ultimately does not actually care about you, the consumer, or about being kind to you.
But also, the conclusion of Ellen and the downfall of her happy-dancing legacy signals another larger, more abstract shift in the last couple of years. Her empty platitude of telling others to just be nice to each other now reads not only as false, but insultingly simplistic and out-of-touch in the same way that Gal Gadot & Co.’s “Imagine” video (which, interestingly enough, occurred literally two days after the initial Ellen Twitter thread was first posted) registered at the start of the pandemic.
The end of Ellen, in other words, coincides with the end of our buying into a kind of hollow virtue-signaling from celebrities. There’s no more space for deluded apolitical earnestness that claims to be making the world a better place. We’re in our doomed era, and the rich and famous ought to read the room.
There’s no more space for deluded apolitical earnestness that claims to be making the world a better place. We’re in our doomed era, and the rich and famous ought to read the room.
This all adds up to another nail in the coffin for a bygone period of entertainment. Ellen’s departure marks the last “prestige” face for daytime TV: while it has been true for well over a decade that television no longer carries the same cultural weight, Ellen is an enduring A-list fixture that remains recognizable across all generations. It also marks the increasing obsolescence of this ethos of carefree network television, where monologues nervously evade politics, softball interviews are more dead-eyed than ever, and escapism on a stage under industrial-sized fluorescent lights at 3 o’clock in the afternoon feels more willfully insane than ever.
“I feel so much pride for what we have done with this show,” Ellen reportedly said to the crowd after finishing taping one of her final shows. She noted that she simply wanted to make people laugh over the years. She did provide that to millions for many years, and that work as an entertainer, particularly as an openly gay one, cannot be discredited. We could say at the end of it all that it was one hell of a ride, that Ellen encouraged us to just dance and be nice, and that it’s the bookend to what was a groundbreaking show for television history and even for our social mores at-large. But actually no, that is not exactly the truth, Ellen, is it?