Ellen’s Strange ‘Apology’ Won’t Satisfy Anybody

Contrition is bad TV. Maybe that’s why it almost never happens.

Don’t be mistaken. There have been iconic televised moments of apologies, moments that set the zeitgeist aflame when they happen and which debate over burns for ensuing decades. But they’re never satisfactory, because television, let alone celebrity, is not a hospitable host to earnest regret. And those watching at home, so cynical and so bloodthirsty, are rarely bothered to have the open hearts necessary to receive them.

When someone says sorry on TV, people don’t believe them. They’re merely acting, listening to crisis managers, or desperately gasping for air while drowning in controversy. Certainly, it’s never done satisfactorily. They don’t say the thing Person A wants to hear or reference the caveat Person B needs to have acknowledged in order to move forward. Or the thing that Persons C-Z were tuning in to see—the person crushed and canceled on live TV—doesn’t happen.

That’s a longish preamble to discussing Ellen DeGeneres’ apology that will air Monday on her talk show, as the apology itself follows years of an open secret—the “be kind” lady is actually a monster to work for—and months of allegations and a formal investigation into a toxic work environment, which included reports of sexual harassment and misconduct in addition to sexism, racism, and a hostile workplace.

“As you may have heard, this summer there were allegations of a toxic work environment at our show and then there was an investigation. I learned that things happened here that never should have happened,” DeGeneres says in the monologue, performed in front of a virtual audience on TV screens, that will air on Monday’s season 18 premiere of Ellen.

“I take that very seriously and I want to say I am so sorry to the people who were affected. I know that I’m in a position of privilege and power and I realized that with that comes responsibility, and I take responsibility for what happens at my show.”

Every sentence, gesture, and giggle—more on that, specifically, later—is going to be intensely scrutinized. But that there is something of merit, not to mention an improvement over DeGeneres’ earlier statements, is certainly a start.

The trend in celebrity crisis management is denial, deflection, and finger-pointing, to that point that even getting that “I am so sorry” in this video didn’t seem as inevitable as it should have been. Certainly, an acknowledgement of privilege wasn’t either. That alone is something.

By the same token, DeGeneres and her show has been accused of the systemic abuse of staffers for years.

A Buzzfeed News report in July delineated accounts from former employees that they faced racism, fear, and intimidation while working for the show: “They said they were fired after taking medical leave or bereavement days to attend family funerals. One employee, who claims she was fed up with comments about her race, essentially walked off the job. Others said they were also instructed by their direct managers to not speak to DeGeneres if they saw her around the office.”

Executive producers Ed Glavin, Kevin Leman, and co-executive producer Jonathan Norman were fired after accusations of gross sexual misconduct and harassment. As to the matter of DeGeneres’ temper and unreasonable, demeaning demands, the rumor mill has churned for years—and where there was smoke there appears now to be fire.

I’m not sure anyone realistically expected the specifics of these allegations to be addressed in the apology, but that doesn’t make it any less disrespectful and inadequate to the experiences of the victims they weren’t.

If the scandal of all this was the shock that this public-facing persona of “Ellen,” TV’s patron saint of niceness, was so at odds with the way DeGeneres, the rich and powerful host and producer, treated those who worked for her and around her who were not famous, then this apology seemed glaringly and upsettingly in service of redemption for the former without properly addressing the sins of the latter.

In an industry where apologies don’t exist, DeGeneres’ on Monday was monumental. But that doesn’t change that large chunks of it were bullshit.

DeGeneres pledged that “today, we are starting a new chapter,” which is one of those benign promises that we can’t superficially judge from the outside. You have hope that the environment at Ellen will improve, but you also have hope that an LGBT trailblazer who faced such cruelty and injustice at a turning point in her career wouldn’t aid and abet—or, arguably, cause—an environment so heinous in the first place.

These moments, then, drip with skepticism. And they should.

Fully aware how much attention was on her first public comments on the matter—she had previously addressed staff in an emotional leaked statement this summer—and that most people were tuning in specifically to see her crumble under the controversy, she said, “If you’re watching because you love me, thank you. If you’re watching because you don’t love me, welcome.”

That’s the thing about apology television. At its core, it’s a bloodsport.

If you go on Twitter after watching this video, you’ll already see the social media gladiators continuing to pummel her and this apology. Mistakes never die in the digital internet age, and as such the person who commits them can never truly atone for them. They’re brought up, be it on social media, in comment sections, or in the press, every time there’s a news story surrounding the perpetrator.

That’s not a defense one way or another of DeGeneres, or of anyone who transgresses, but rather a comment on the impossibility of delivering a satisfactory apology. We’re a society that constantly demands them, but almost never accepts them.

How, then, do you judge DeGeneres’ apology?

It makes sense, but it’s an interesting choice nonetheless, that DeGeneres delivered her statement in the usual manner of her comedy monologues, at times giggly and self-effacing, laced with good-natured sarcasm.

It makes sense, but it’s an interesting choice nonetheless, that DeGeneres delivered her statement in the usual manner of her comedy monologues, at times giggly and self-effacing, laced with good-natured sarcasm.

As big of a media scandal as all of this has become, the truth is that much of her audience likely had no idea about it at all. Or, if they did, likely didn’t care or think about it as much as the press. Finding a familiar tone in which to address it is smart, least of which for the ways it uses humor and levity to lift the moment from its dark gravity. Then again, that’s also the thing that will likely piss so many people off.

“How was everybody’s summer?” she quipped at one point, with one of those laughs that acts as an eyeroll. “Good? Mine was great. Super terrific.” Resentful sarcasm may not be the best note to strike considering the behavior DeGeneres was accused of.

Would somber, blanket sincerity and seriousness play well on the Ellen show? Probably not. But it’s maybe the only thing so many people angry at her would have wanted to see.

On the other hand, peppering the moment with comedy signifies a path forward, that DeGeneres is capable of acknowledging and internalizing the moment and continuing on without losing the brand that people love. See? Apologies are impossible. Nobody’s happy.

The section of DeGeneres’ comments Monday that will probably be parsed the most is when she addressed reports of her cruel and entitled behavior and the dissonance between that and the niceness she preached; the fact that she set a standard for humanity that she failed to meet herself.

But the executive accused of terrorizing her staff reminding people of that work while seeking forgiveness is a clever, if gross and exploitative means to an end—especially since she never truly validates the severity of the accusations against her.

DeGeneres started advocating her “be kind” catchphrase, which she says on almost every episode of her show, following the suicide of gay teenager Tyler Clementi, who killed himself after being bullied in 2010.

The longtime advocate is owed credit for the work she did in spotlighting the issue of the suicide and bullying of LGBT teens. But the executive accused of terrorizing her staff reminding people of that work while seeking forgiveness is a clever, if gross and exploitative means to an end—especially since she never truly validates the severity of the accusations against her.

“Being known as the ‘be kind’ lady is a tricky position to be in,” she said. “So let me give you some advice out there if anybody’s thinking of changing their title or giving yourself a nickname, do not go with the ‘be kind’ lady. Don’t do it.”

Here is that imperfect tone again. The dashes of humor are very DeGeneres, but even in jest the insinuation that the problem was that she branded herself a nice person and not that she treated people terribly is probably going to make some people apoplectic. Yes, again, it’s an observational joke, of the kind that DeGeneres is great at. But maybe now is not the time?

“The truth is I am that person that you see on TV,” she continued. “Sometimes I get sad. I get mad. I get anxious. I get frustrated. I get impatient. And I am working on all of that. I am a work in progress. And I am especially working on the impatience thing because—and it’s not going well because it’s not happening fast enough. I will tell you that.”

Again, it’s impossible to write about celebrity apologies without contradicting yourself several times. That’s how tricky these things are. In one moment, the humor is offensive. In another, it’s needed.

You have to be able to laugh through the hard moments—to an extent—and the impatience joke works because it comes not at a moment of deflection, but of reflection. Implicitly, she’s asking for empathy. Be mad for what she did, but also acknowledge that she wants to grow, or at least says she does. So give space for that journey to happen. And laugh about it, too.

We’ve said it before, but this is the reason that these apologies are necessary and why it’s so confusing that they’re so rare among the celebrity set, where innocuous Instagram text posts and passing of the blame is the name of the game.

Celebrities are going to be pilloried by critics and “canceled” if they don’t admit they did something wrong. And, frankly, they are going to be pilloried and “canceled” if they do. The saving grace of the latter option is at least being on the right side of history.

It’s dejecting when there’s a palpable sense from people in power that the experiences of those beneath them don’t matter. When a platform is taken for granted, it’s an offense to those who not only wish they could have one, but to so many people whose lives can be changed or affected by what happens from that platform.

That’s why, for all the “who cares” arguments from people who hate celebrity culture and the entertainment industry, what DeGeneres does and how she atoned for it Monday matters.

There are people who are not going to buy it. As she keeps repeating the phrase “if I’ve ever let someone down…” they are going to move further away from believing her, exhausted by her refusal to own explicitly and name the behaviors she’s being called out for, instead apologizing for people’s hurt feelings about it. And there are people who are going to be willing to just move on already because she said sorry, and what else could we ask for.

Her show is one that, whatever you think of Ellen the celebrity and these accusations, is notable for its good intentions.

It’s the moving on that’s the interesting notion.

Her show is one that, whatever you think of Ellen the celebrity and these accusations, is notable for its good intentions. She echoes that continued mission at the end of her speech.

“People are losing their jobs, people are losing loved ones to a pandemic, people are losing their homes and lives in raging fires that are going on,” she said. “There’s blatant racial injustice all around us. I watch the news and I feel like, Where do we even begin? So my hope is that we can still be a place of happiness and joy.”

It is perhaps borderline offensive for a person mired in the kind of scandal DeGeneres is in to invoke the tragedies of the current climate, including the Black Lives Matter movement, and posit herself and her show as a possible respite from it all, and even as a tool for moving forward. Yet, whatever you may feel about her apology, that is exactly what the show is, has been, and, if it’s still going to exist, will be for the people who watch.

This is a daytime talk show approaching two decades on air. Assuming that everything DeGeneres acknowledged and promised Monday is true—that this is a new chapter, a more welcoming workplace, and a calmer, nicer Ellen—then we’ll likely never hear about this whole scandal again.

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