A Brief History of Backlash Against Ellen DeGeneres
In the 20 years since her tumultuous coming-out and sitcom cancellation, Ellen DeGeneres launched a second act as a successful talk show host, voiced a beloved blue tang fish for Disney, racked up dozens of Daytime Emmy Awards, and generally avoided drama.
But controversy and scandal caught up to her in recent months — particularly with the recent reports of sexual harassment and a toxic work culture on the set of The Ellen DeGeneres Show — so much so that she reportedly wants to end her hit talk show.
From those reports to her alleged cultural insensitivity and even her tension with Dakota Johnson, here’s a cursory timeline of the backlash DeGeneres has faced over the years.
April 1997: DeGeneres experiences homophobic backlash after coming out
DeGeneres publicly came out as gay in an April 1997 issue of TIME, and her character on the ABC sitcom Ellen did the same thing in “The Puppy Episode” two weeks later. It was Ellen’s highest-rated episode yet, but right-wing groups criticized the episode and advertisers backed out. The show was canceled a year later. The fixation on DeGeneres’ sexuality flared up again in 2012, when the conservative organization One Million Moms protested JCPenney’s choice to hire her as a spokesperson.
August 2016: DeGeneres posts image of herself on Usain Bolt’s back
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) August 15, 2016
In August 2016, amid Usain Bolt’s Olympic glory at the 2016 games in Rio, DeGeneres posted a Photoshopped image of herself riding on the Jamaican sprinter’s back, captioning the pic, “This is how I’m running errands from now on.” Twitter users pegged the tweet as racist, and a TIME column by Sevonna M. Brown pointed out that DeGeneres has a “history of cultural insensitivity” that includes the times she dressed up as Nicki Minaj and Sofia Vergara.
October 2019: DeGeneres hangs out with George W. Bush
DeGeneres and wife Portia de Rossi caught flak in October 2019 after they were photographed looking chummy with former President George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys game. Critics lambasted the comedian for bonding with a president known for his opposition to same-sex marriage, his response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and his involvement in the Iraq War. On her show, DeGeneres tried to defend the outing, saying, “When I say be kind to one another, I don’t mean be kind to the people who think the same way you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”
June 2018: DeGeneres’ vacation photo stokes “poverty porn” allegations
A trip to Africa is not complete without the trademark poverty porn photo op. https://t.co/RwDcupVcNC
— Bruce (@ngwata_) June 5, 2018
In June 2018, DeGeneres posted photos from her trip to East Africa, which included a gorilla-sighting expedition in Rwanda. One photo, however, included DeGeneres posing with more than a dozen children, giving rise to “poverty porn” allegations. “This is a misfire. White tourist taking a pic with anonymous group of ‘happy but poor African kids’ always is,” one Twitter user wrote. “Examine your motivations in taking this pic — be honest. Showing how ‘real’ your experience was? Did kids consent to this being posted? These kids aren’t props.”
November 2019: DeGeneres’ interview with Dakota Johnson goes awry
DeGeneres conducted a contentious interview with actress Dakota Johnson on her talk show in November 2019, accusing the Fifty Shades star of denying her an invitation to Johnson’s 30th birthday party. “Actually, no, that’s not the truth, Ellen,” Johnson responded. Eventually, a producer on the show backed Johnson up, and DeGeneres admitted she had a “thing” that night, and the Internet seemed to side with the actress, too.
March 2020: Twitter users respond to thread about DeGeneres’ behavior
Writing that DeGeneres is “notoriously one of the meanest people alive,” comedian Kevin T. Porter started a Twitter thread in March 2020 in which he offered to donate $2 to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank for every story of the talk show host being mean. The thread received more than 2,000 replies, including tales of DeGeneres allegedly getting a waitress in trouble for chipped nail polish, shutting down a birthday party over the aroma of grilled steak, and picking a random staff member to “really hate” each day.
April 2020: DeGeneres likens quarantine to prison
In April, DeGeneres filmed an episode of her talk show at home and compared COVID-19 quarantine to prison. “One thing that I’ve learned from being in quarantine is that people—this is like being in jail, is what it is,” she said. Viewers took notice. “Guess her designer clothes are her jumpsuit,” one tweeted. “Poor Ellen got quarantined in a jail worth $24 million,” another wrote. A third Twitter user wrote, “People are literally dying in jail from COVID-19 while Ellen is out here making jokes about it.”
April 2020: Variety reports on “furious” Ellen staffers
DeGeneres told Ellen viewers that she resumed her talk show from home to “support” her staff and crew. But later in April, Variety reported that the core stage crew, more than 30 employees, was “furious” to received no written communication about their working hours and pay or written inquiries about their health from Ellen producers in over a month, and that they were “further incensed” that the show hired an outside non-union company to handle the remotely-filmed episodes.
July 2020: BuzzFeed News reports on toxic work culture, sexual harassment allegations
In July 2020, after speaking to former and current Ellen DeGeneres Show, employees, BuzzFeed News ran a story about the “racism, fear, and intimidation” the workers said they experienced in the show’s “toxic” workplace culture. The story prompted a WarnerMedia investigation and an apology from executive producers Ed Glavin, Mary Connelly, and Andy Lassner — who said, in part, that they were “truly heartbroken and sorry to learn that even one person in our production family has had a negative experience” and were “committed to do better.”
Two weeks later, BuzzFeed News reported on ex-employees’ accusations of on-set sexual harassment and misconduct, including an allegation that head writer Kevin Leman asked one employee to perform oral sex on him. In a subsequent statement, Leman denied “any kind of sexual impropriety.”
The two pieces seem to put blame more on the executive producers than on DeGeneres, but one former employee told the site that the host “knows s**t goes on, but also she doesn’t want to hear it.”
DeGeneres addressed the alleged workplace misconduct in a staff letter obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, saying, in part, “As we’ve grown exponentially, I’ve not been able to stay on top of everything and relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I’d want them done. Clearly some didn’t. That will now change and I’m committed to ensuring this does not happen again.”