Ellen DeGeneres
​(Ryan Pfluger / The New York Tim​es)

What Ellen’s Kindness Concealed

The recent scandal at her talk show suggests that the host’s smiling facade covers up something dark—and hints at why that facade had to be created in the first place.

The Ellen DeGeneres Show features a recurring segment, called “Cash for Kindness,” that spreads good cheer by lying to people. DeGeneres will send a producer or an audience member out into the world to pretend to be some harried worker—a cater-waiter, a delivery person, a birthday-party magician—and then, in spectacular fashion, spill whatever they’re carrying on the sidewalk. As potatoes go rolling or greeting cards flap in the wind, a trap is laid. DeGeneres watches through hidden cameras to see which passersby do, or don’t, stop to help pick up the mess.

The bit is funny because it is mortifying. Speaking into her producer’s wireless earpiece, DeGeneres feeds her staffer ever-more-distressing banter to recite: There’s an engagement ring in the tiramisus! The greeting cards are supposed to be in alphabetical order! The strangers who stop to help are, you may suspect, a bit nervous that they’ve been roped into some scam—or maybe worse, roped into a situation that will expose the limits of their time, means, or generosity. Eventually, the undercover staffer reveals that they work for Ellen. The random Good Samaritan is brought onto the talk show’s set, and DeGeneres hands them cash: a reward for being kind, but also, it feels, payoff for being messed with.

Like any good prank, especially the pranks DeGeneres loves, cash-for-kindness revels in voyeurism, deceit, and discomfort, all of which get forgiven in the name of a laugh. Yet, like so much of DeGeneres’s comedy, this mischief doubles as do-goodery. It is part of DeGeneres’s grand campaign to merchandise kindness—which is also seen when she says “Be kind to one another” at the end of each show, or when she gets taxi drivers to hug Uber drivers on air, or when she hawks kindness-themed subscription boxes for up to $250 a year. Her aesthetic of cream colors, goofy grins, and uplifting tears, along with her amusing displays of light sadism, have earned her a $330 million empire, a raft of Emmys, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

DeGeneres poses with her trophies at the 33rd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards in 2006. (Frederick M. Brown / Getty)

Recent accusations against DeGeneres and her show’s set raise the question of whether her kindness rhetoric covers up something darker. In two BuzzFeed articles last month, Ellen DeGeneres Show staffers alleged sexual harassment, racism, and abusive management by DeGeneres’s top deputies. The accusers disagreed with one another about the extent to which DeGeneres herself was complicit, and she has asserted ignorance of any malfeasance. “I’m so, so sorry for what this has become,” DeGeneres reportedly told staff on a video call announcing the firing of three producers accused of abuse. “I’ve left this to be a well-oiled machine, and I realize it’s not a machine … it’s human beings.” The workplace complaints also drew attention to a number of unverified stories about DeGeneres acting callously to fans, entertainment professionals, and service workers, hinting that DeGeneres has, as Kathy Griffin put it in 2016, a “mean streak that all of Hollywood knows about.” DeGeneres, who previously dismissed rumors of rudeness as lies, last week told employees that she apologizes “for anyone whose feelings I’ve hurt.”

Part of what’s extraordinary about the scandal is how ordinary it is. On SNL, Fox News, and The Rosie Show, for instance, the history of live-taped TV is a history of hostile workplaces, sexual predation, and tempestuous bosses. Celebrity rudeness is so pervasive that it helps fuel a whole industry of gossip publications, and so-called diva antics never canceled the careers of, say, Christian Bale or Aretha Franklin. Yet DeGeneres may well be held to a different standard than other entertainers—because her product is her own persona, because she has centered that persona around niceness, and because the same cultural forces that led her to create that persona still exist today. To look back over her career now is to wonder whether the secret, bitter ingredient in her success has been revealed. Softness has long been her shield—and this scandal, on some level, shows what it was protecting against.

Telling her life story for Oprah’s Master Class in 2015, DeGeneres begins with a memory of being 10 years old and rescuing a baby bird that other kids had been poking with a stick. The anecdote, she says, reveals that she was always paying attention to things other people weren’t paying attention to. But it also fits with DeGeneres’s habit of projecting saintliness in unsubtle ways—she told Larry King in 2004 and her Master Class audience in 2015, “I think I’m a good person”—and highlights her abiding love for the animal kingdom. In an early stand-up routine, DeGeneres joked that people should shoot burglars rather than deer. Among the recent complaints from anonymous staffers is an account of her freaking out at the phrase “pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” because it sounds like it would be painful to the rabbit.

If she sometimes seems to prefer animals to people, she may have good reasons. Born in Metairie, Louisiana, to Christian Scientist parents, she moved schools frequently and was, from an early age, a “tomboy” who used comedy to earn acceptance from her peers. Her parents divorced, and her mom then married a man who DeGeneres says sexually abused her in their home. When she came out to her father as gay, he asked her to move out of his house for fear of the influence she might have on his stepdaughters. Another horrifying foundational story: When DeGeneres was in her early 20s, her girlfriend died in a car crash on the way back from a concert they’d both attended. At the time, the two women were in a fight, and DeGeneres’s girlfriend had attempted to reconcile with her at the concert. DeGeneres pretended she couldn’t hear her over the music, and ended up driving past the fatal wreck on her way home.

Her grief over that loss would feed into the stand-up routine that propelled her to fame as a 27-year-old making her debut on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. The 1986 set displayed her easygoing, pseudo-airheaded wit—think Dory from Finding Nemo—with punch lines fusing absurdism and banality. In a now-legendary bit, she pretends to call God to ask about the mysteries of life and then gets impatient as He tries to tell her knock-knock jokes. Carson, in a sign of approval that he’d never before given a female comic, invited her to chat with him on air after the performance. “It’s always tougher for a woman to do comedy,” Carson told her. “Because [people will] accept a little more aggression in men.” DeGeneres agreed, saying, “I think men can get away with a lot more, which is understandable, I think.”

Which is understandable: Right there is the peacemaking reflex that has served DeGeneres in moments of great controversy. When she announced she was gay, in 1997, she went on Oprah’s talk show and relayed the story of her father kicking her out. “I understand people not understanding,” she said of such intolerance. “I’m fine with that.” Some of those non-understanding people were in Oprah’s audience and got a chance to tell DeGeneres that she was glorifying sin by having her character on the sitcom Ellen come out too. DeGeneres, with directness and poise, addressed their criticisms before landing on broad punch lines. Such unflappable bonhomie made an implicit mockery of the pastor Jerry Falwell and others who called her “Ellen Degenerate.” The stereotype of gay degeneracy seemed absurd when applied to her.

Still, the public wasn’t ready for even as gentle a messenger as this one. Ellen was a hit and in its fourth season when DeGeneres came out; in Season 5, viewership dropped and ABC canceled the show. Though DeGeneres’s name is synonymous with LGBTQ assimilation today, back then the knock on her—even from some queer leaders—was that she’d put her character’s same-sex romances in the spotlight too much. In a segment about the sitcom’s failure, Diane Sawyer asked DeGeneres about Elton John and Chaz Bono criticizing her show for being too gay. “In my house, I have things to say about them, but I wouldn’t do it publicly,” DeGeneres replied. In the years since, she’s spoken about the deep anger and disappointment she felt from the backlash to her coming out. What seemed to hurt her wasn’t merely the homophobia itself—it was the way in which her charm couldn’t overcome it.

“I wanted everyone to like me,” she said on Master Class, thinking back to when she was on Carson. “I wanted to be whatever it was, so that they liked me. And that’s a really interesting thing, to be born with that trait, with that quality, and be gay. God goes, ‘Okay, you’re going to be someone who desperately needs approval, desperately wants people to like them, and you’re going to be gay. Good luck. Go on!’”

In the time since her sitcom’s cancellation, a period during which she has spent 17 years as daytime-TV royalty, DeGeneres has gilded her agreeability with kindness. Or not kindness but Kindness, the type you capitalize. This means ostentatious giveaways to audience members, big philanthropic efforts, and dramatic interventions for people in need: excellent uses of fame and wealth. When she controversially palled around with George W. Bush and gave cover to the homophobic comedy of Kevin Hart, she also defended her actions by saying she was trying to be kind, implying that observing nice manners is better than pushing back against intolerance.

Yet if DeGeneres were simply a goody-goody, it’d be hard to imagine her having the longevity she still enjoys. Cutting the schmaltz, all along, has been an intelligent coldness. Her stand-up regards humans from a clinical distance, addressing topics that include airline food and abusive parenting with a bemused “Huh!” On her talk show, she has a tendency to needle guests with mockery, respond to their ebullience with blank stares, or hound them for personal details they’re not willing to give. Instances in which she’s gone so far as to cause memorable awkwardness have gone viral in recent months—see her Dakota Johnson party-invite catastrophe, or the time when she tried to get a pregnant Mariah Carey to drink champagne. Yet in most celebrity interviews, what DeGeneres conveyed was, simply, a healthy irreverence: She has a bullshit meter.

President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to DeGeneres in 2016. (Cheriss May / NurPhoto via Getty)

She gets a big kick out of humiliation too. Ellen DeGeneres Show viewers know how much she loves to sneak up on staffers and startle them; the footage isn’t so cute given what’s now alleged of the work environment. On Ellen’s Game of Games, a wacky competition show airing on NBC, she comes off as a calm, collected comic-book villain, plunging participants down trap doors or shooting them with fog geysers. Recently, in talk-show episodes taped during the shutdown, she has had her producer Andy Lassner—who generally plays the role of court stooge on her set—sequestered outside her mansion’s glass walls, looking in forlornly. Unintentionally, it’s the perfect visual to accompany the now-popular impression of DeGeneres as emotionally walled off from the “regular” folks who work for or admire her.

Psychoanalyzing a star by comparing their performances with rumors about their private behavior is a dicey exercise. It's also an unavoidable one when the star is as big as DeGeneres and the cognitive dissonance created by those rumors is so great. That someone who has shown such smarts, self-awareness, and generosity might leave a trail of destruction in her personal encounters is baffling. That an avatar of kindness could have been oblivious to, or even enabled, abuse on her set is disturbing. It is natural to wonder whether having to continually modulate herself to be, per the title of her recent Netflix special, Relatable, has had an effect on how she acts when cameras aren’t rolling. It is also natural to wonder if this is simply another story of fame’s bubble having a corrupting influence.

For the Ellen DeGeneres Show’s happy-go-lucky antics to go on without first dispelling the cloud around it seems unfathomable, and the firings of its allegedly abusive producers do not address the larger problem of DeGeneres’s tarnished image. Perhaps with time, DeGeneres will make amends with anyone she may have hurt and explain herself honestly. Maybe the show will morph (already, staffers have been told they will be given more time off). Or maybe she’ll find a new outlet for her talents, an outlet that lets her flaunt her edge without harming others.

Yet even now it is clear why DeGeneres had to forge an image of overdetermined cheer to get where she is. Earlier this month, I wrote an article critical of DeGeneres and her defenders, and I heard a lot from readers who were glad I had. Some of those readers’ emails cheered the potential downfall of the “heterophobic” “Ellen degenerate,” a “dyke” with a “femdom need for control.” She has hustled so intently, her whole career, to head off the bigots who would reflexively assume her to be a monster. Hollywood history makes clear that no one group has a monopoly on misbehavior. But now looms the sad possibility that in having her facade ripped away, one of pop culture’s greatest people pleasers may have finally given the worst portions of her audience what they’ve always wanted.