In the late 1990s, LGBTQ Americans started to take on greater visibility in popular culture — and few personalities embodied that social change like Ellen DeGeneres, who came out as a lesbian in a Time magazine cover story (“Yep, I’m Gay”) and via her alter-ego on the sitcom “Ellen.”
But 24 years after those cultural landmarks, she once again finds herself at the center of a social revolution: the reckoning over allegedly toxic and abusive behavior in workplaces across the country, especially in the film and television industries.
In recent months, DeGeneres has faced intense scrutiny over an alleged culture of harassment, racism, fear and intimidation behind the scenes of her popular daytime talk show, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” The claims were detailed in a BuzzFeed News report published last July. There were no reports of complaints made directly about DeGeneres' behavior.
The growing criticism seemed to reach a climax Wednesday with her announcement that she would end the show after 19 seasons.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, DeGeneres said the decision was not directly linked to the BuzzFeed exposé. But the fact remains that the show’s ratings slipped this year — and the show’s mantra, “Be Kind,” has been overshadowed by troubling questions.
The allegations about the environment on the show’s set, paired with its imminent departure from the airwaves after a long reign in syndication, represent a stark new chapter for a comedian and actor widely seen as a path-breaking performer.
DeGeneres came out against a backdrop of rising LGBTQ prominence. In the fall of 1998, Tammy Baldwin broke ground as the first openly gay non-incumbent candidate elected to the House of Representatives and the first out lesbian elected to Congress.
The same year saw the debut of “Will & Grace” — a sitcom that Joe Biden once credited with educating the country. (The show aired on NBC from 1998 to 2006, and again from 2017 to 2020.)
DeGeneres’ career was nearly derailed after she came out; ABC canceled “Ellen” after ratings sagged in its fifth season, and the comedian had difficulty finding work in Hollywood for several years.
“Ellen’s career was not immediately helped by all of the attention she received for coming out in 1997,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and chief executive of GLAAD, “but her coming out became a watershed moment in creating understanding about gay and lesbian lives, both in our culture at large and in Hollywood.”
With the debut of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in September 2003, she regained her stature and soon became one of the titans of daytime television, equal parts ratings powerhouse and viral trendsetter.
And yet the cultural landscape in which DeGeneres found new levels of influence and fame was eventually reshaped all over again, this time by renewed national attention on alleged abuses of power and workplace misconduct.
The sexual abuse allegations against the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein — first reported by The New York Times and The New Yorker — were among the most significant early developments in this new social movement, drawing particular attention to the norms of the entertainment business.
But the scope of the reckoning widened to other industries and encompassed other forms of toxic behavior and sexual misconduct, exposing prominent figures in politics, finance, the news media and beyond.
The broader national focus on social justice played a crucial role, too. In a time when leaders are increasingly held to account for all manner of alleged behavior and comments, DeGeneres was not spared.
The report published by BuzzFeed, coupled with a Variety article that detailed accounts from some employees who claim they were treated poorly by top producers during the coronavirus pandemic, set off a wave of reappraisals of her public image.
In response to a request for comment Wednesday, Time’s Up — an organization founded in the wake of #MeToo movement that combats systemic harassment in Hollywood and other industries — directed NBC News to a tweet from July that said in part: “There is no room for discrimination or harassment in any workplace. Employees should be heard when they speak out.”
DeGeneres’ next chapter in entertainment is still coming into focus. (She hosts a game show that airs on NBC.) In her interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she said she was still thinking of her next move.
“I wouldn’t have thought I was ever going to do a talk show when I stopped doing movies and sitcoms,” she said. “I thought that that was the only path. And then all of a sudden, there was a talk show that took me on this 19-year journey.”