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Ellen DeGeneres' show ending underscores the LGBTQ icon's complex, hypocritical legacy

Ellen helped define a culture of kindness that now feels more like complicity. And a visibility earned through performative respectability.
Image: Ellen Degeneres
The many faces of Ellen.Shahrzad Elghanayan / Getty Images; NBC News

The announcement that “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” will end in 2022, at the conclusion of 19 seasons and more than 3,000 shows, heralds the end of an era. Ellen’s legacy will be one largely emblematic of the particular culture that she both helped define and represented on her show — a culture of kindness not distinct from that of complicity. Inclusion through assimilation. And visibility earned through performative respectability.

Does culture breed character, or does character breed culture? Ellen reflects the tension of this question.

Does culture breed character, or does character breed culture? Ellen reflects the tension of this question, as, arguably, do we all. The answer is not either/or but both/and. Scorned and — literally — canceled after coming out as a lesbian on her hit sitcom, “Ellen,” in April 1997, Ellen fought for years to rebuild her career. And 2003 proved to be transformative: She voiced the widely adored character of Dory in Disney’s “Finding Nemo,” released in May, and later that year, on Sept. 8, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” had its inaugural episode.

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That Ellen’s coming out served as a watershed cultural moment cannot be overestimated. “It’s easy to forget now, when we’ve come so far,” President Barack Obama said as he awarded Ellen the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, “just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages … just how important it was, not just to the LGBT community but for all of us to see somebody so full of kindness and light, somebody we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbor or our colleague or our sister, challenge our own assumptions, to remind us that we have more in common than we realize.”

Before Ellen, LGBTQ representation in entertainment could best be described as the “celluloid closet,” to evoke both Vito Russo’s 1981 book and, later, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary of the same name. During the 1980s and ’90s, the LGBTQ community was synonymous with death and disease as the HIV/AIDS epidemic swept the nation and the globe. The ’90s brought sweeping federal legislation like the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which both restricted civil rights and sent the message that discriminating against the LGBTQ community was legal and permissible.

The context for Ellen’s coming out is essential to comprehending its significance. The year before that episode aired, in 1996, Olympian Greg Louganis’ admission that he had HIV at the time of his diving board incident was met with media sensationalism and gay panic; the year after, 1998, Matthew Shepard died in a hospital in Colorado after being tortured.

With network TV’s national audience, Ellen had the opportunity to change how people thought about and related to gay people. She endeavored — quite successfully — to humanize the gay community through the logic of equality and, specifically, the language of sameness. Ellen, like all gay people, was just like you. As Obama remarked, she “could be our neighbor or our colleague or our sister.”

She endeavored — quite successfully — to humanize the gay community through the logic of equality and, specifically, the language of sameness.

And it cannot be overemphasized how much sameness mattered in September 2003, as then-President George W. Bush declared Iraq to be the “central front” in the “war on terror.” It was a time of “us” versus “them.” And Ellen was intent on showing how gay people — gay, god-fearing Americans like her — were very much a part of the “us.”

Likeness fosters likability. Ellen cultivated this through her “Be Kind” motto and her character, which became the living embodiment of this motto. To be welcomed into the homes of millions of Americans — especially the key daytime demographic of straight women — Ellen had to look the part.

The right kind of lesbian is the innocuous one: not too femme and not too masculine. Like Rachel Maddow, the other lesbian welcomed into millions of homes in the evening, Ellen gave the mainstream nonthreatening androgyny — but with just the right touch of lipstick.

This relatability is something that Ellen addresses in her aptly titled Netflix special, “Relatable,” in 2018. But as BuzzFeed’s Shannon Keating so smartly observes, it is this push for relatability — clearly tied to ratings — that trapped “Ellen in a prison of her own making.”

The consequential irony of humanizing the gay community for Ellen is that she could not be human — fallible and flawed — herself. As she commented in her interview with "TODAY" show host Savannah Guthrie this week, sexism influences this likability bind, as it does for all women. There is no room for error. There are few, if any, second chances — especially considering that her show is her “second chance,” of sorts. And she has spoken variously, including in “Relatable,” about how the “Be Kind” motto has ultimately boxed her in: “I cannot do anything unkind now, ever. … I have bad days, but I can’t do the things you do because I’m the 'Be Kind' girl.”

But an entire generation has passed since “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” premiered. And visibility as a tactic for acceptance, for any marginalized community, is no longer enough. Responsibility for social problems is often placed onto “systems," yet the fact is that systems are made and managed by privileged people like Ellen, whose actions empower those very systems.

The visibility that Ellen, among countless others, helped usher in is no longer the endgame. And neither is respectability, as Keating observes: “[W]holesome respectability, of universality, of ‘gay people are just like you’ — has fallen out of favor these days with certain more radical groups within the LGBT community.” Autostraddle’s Heather Hogan similarly writes that “calls for civility have most often been used to silence the oppressed … kindness is not justice,” and “being nice isn’t enough.”

Hogan elaborates that “what Ellen has continued to refuse to understand, however, is that … it is not enough to simply publicly wish we could all get along. We can’t. Not because we’re mean, but because we’re arguing about the literal humanity of oppressed people who have suffered — and continue to suffer — endless, compounded violence rooted in white supremacy.”

The culture has changed.

But Ellen hasn’t.

Entering the third decade of the 21st century, ours is a culture where a character based on kindness and likeness rings hollow like T.S. Eliot’s modern man, “stuffed,” corrupt and complicit.

Our culture has moved into an era of authenticity and accountability — a movement heavily resisted by those who cry “cancel culture.” Societal resistance to change is not surprising. But what is surprising is how Ellen has acted (behind the scenes) during this time of cultural change. The past year’s allegations and revelations (which, for industry insiders and queer people with any connection to the community have heard rumors about for years) suggest Ellen’s kindness was a fiction masquerading as authenticity all along.

For example, in her recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, in which she announced the end of her show, Ellen demonstrates her unwillingness to take responsibility for her behavior, which contributed to the show’s toxic environment. The criticism “was all so stupid,” she said, adding that she “didn’t want to address it” because she “had no platform.”

This is odd, considering that Ellen not only has a following in the millions across several social media channels, she also has own own digital publishing platform, EllenTube.

Instead of acknowledging the power and access she has to take responsibility for her own actions and the actions of her deputies, she doubled down on victimization: “[A]ll I cared about was spreading kindness and compassion, and everything I stand for was being attacked. So, it destroyed me, honestly. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. And it makes me really sad that there’s so much joy out there from negativity. It’s a culture now where there are just mean people, and it’s so foreign to me that people get joy out of that.”

Ellen may claim that she is ending her show after 19 seasons because “it’s just not a challenge anymore,” but she has the opportunity, throughout the final season, to take on the challenge of accountability by doing the work, by learning and growing — not by disavowing and denying. A symbol of courage, she is now associated as much with hypocrisy as bravery. But Ellen knows more than most that her story doesn’t have to be over. Her legacy can still be one of redemption.