Ellen DeGeneres’s brand and reputation have always been built on the illusion that she was nice. She was called the “Be Kind” Lady. Then, last July, BuzzFeed reported that several of her popular daytime talk show’s former and current staff members said they had been subjected to “racism, fear and intimidation” on the set. Other staff members said producers had sexually harassed them. Warner Bros. investigated the complaints and concluded that there were major problems. Three of the show’s producers were fired. When DeGeneres returned from the show’s summer hiatus to open its 18th season, she began with a vague and deeply unsatisfying apology. “I learned that things happen here that never should have happened,” she said in part. “I take that very seriously. And I want to say I am so sorry to the people who were affected.”
Well wait a minute: whose name is on the title card? Who believes that Ellen DeGeneres had no idea what was going on in the management of the Ellen DeGeneres show? How is that even possible? And if it is possible, it’s still unforgivable. She is accountable.
There were also increasingly frequent accounts suggesting that Ellen herself wasn’t so nice. (I am reminded of my late night conversation with the late Broadway choreographer Thommie Walsh, who said, “You have to remember, Jack, that virtually all star performers are horrible people.”) Among the disturbing allegations was the claim that staff on DeGeneres’ show were instructed not to talk to her. She supposedly tried to get a waitress fired who chipped one of Ellen’s nail. There were leaks that she expressed contempt for her audience behind the scenes.
Sometimes the public surprises me: after all, it voted for Joe Biden to be President, and Joe has a completely phony nice-guy image that has been exposed again and again as a cynical facade. Yet in Ellen’s case, her hypocrisy was rejected. “Ellen,” the ratings companies report, has lost more than a million viewers since September, averaging 1.5 million viewers over the last six months, down from 2.6 million in the same period last year.
Welcome to the cognitive dissonance scale, Ellen! Here it is…
Dr. Festinger’s simple chart tells us that that when the gap between someone or something people like and someone or something they don’t like that is associated with what they like is too large, their minds have to fix the disparity. It may elevate regard for the previously deplored items, it may lower regard for the admired items, or much of the time, do both until the dissonance is eliminated. Being nice is high in positive territory; racism, fear, intimidation and sexual harassment are deep in negative numbers. A mere apology won’t fix the problem, especially an apology as disingenuous as Ellen’s
That’s what happened to a million viewers.
Luckily for Ellen, the horrible people who run show business are understandably forgiving of such flaws as not being nice, as long as someone isn’t a Republican. Ellen may not be nice or kind, and she may duck responsibility, but she’s still a celebrity with a huge following in the LGTBQ community, so nice or not, she has two major new deals: the HBO Max competition series “Ellen’s Next Great Designer” and the Discovery+ documentary film “Endangered.”
The public sometimes surprises me, but Hollywood never does.