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Asshole bosses are an entrenched part of Hollywood. Are they finally facing consequences?

From Ellen DeGeneres to Scott Rudin, the entertainment industry’s coddling of jerks is coming under examination. Sort of.

Ellen DeGeneres accepts an E! People’s Choice Award in 2020.
Christopher Polk/E! Entertainment/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the long-running daytime talk show hosted by the beloved comedian, will end its run in 2022, after its upcoming 19th season. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, DeGeneres said, “When you’re a creative person, you constantly need to be challenged — and as great as this show is, and as fun as it is, it’s just not a challenge anymore.”

Much of the entertainment industry and the journalists who cover it reacted to DeGeneres’s statement with a shot-for-shot recreation of the “Sure, Jan” gif. Over the last couple of years, DeGeneres has gone from selling herself as one of the nicest people in show business to a figure steeped in considerable controversy.

Talk show hosts do tend to get burned out after that many years on the job. Oprah Winfrey, for instance, ended her show after 25 seasons, and the longest-running syndicated daytime talk show, Donahue, ran for 26 seasons. Though DeGeneres is a bit short of that mark, she’s not so far off that people in another world wouldn’t take her at her word.

But DeGeneres isn’t just leaving the air voluntarily. She’s leaving the air voluntarily after a July 2020 BuzzFeed report detailed allegations from many former Ellen employees who said the show was a horrible, hostile workplace, full of angry and abusive behavior. The article followed earlier reports and viral Twitter threads about DeGeneres’s behavior and the toxic environment on her show. Three top producers of the show were fired in response to the complaints, but DeGeneres herself did not step down. That said, Ellen lost 1 million viewers during its 2020-2021 season, knocking it off its longtime perch (alongside Dr. Phil) as one of daytime TV’s top talk shows.

Even before that, in a moment that had nothing to do with what went down in 2020, Dakota Johnson had pointed out a bald-faced lie DeGeneres told on her very show back in 2019. In hindsight, that moment feels like it was the start of DeGeneres’s long slide.

In a recent interview with Savannah Guthrie on Today, DeGeneres said the toxic workplace complaints were an “orchestrated” and “misogynistic” campaign against her. Yet stories about Ellen’s awful work environment have been whispered throughout Los Angeles for years, and the show has long had a reputation among Hollywood assistants as a bad place to work. (A few assistants I talked to for this article — none of whom have worked for DeGeneres — pointed to the show’s frequent posting on job sites over the past decade as a telltale sign of substantial turnover due to terrible working conditions.)

DeGeneres’s fall is ironic because of how her show’s alleged backstage environment clashes so heavily with her public “queen of nice” persona. After all, this is a woman who initially adopted “Be kind” as a promotional mantra (something she also reflected on in that surprisingly bitter Today interview). If her real-life demeanor isn’t particularly kind, that undercuts a lot of her appeal.

But the end of Ellen is part of a larger, if still nascent, movement in Hollywood. The announcement of its final season arrived shortly after a Hollywood Reporter story about Hollywood super-producer Scott Rudin — the man responsible for a vast array of stage productions and films, from The Book of Mormon to No Country for Old Men to Zoolander — alleged a longstanding pattern of horribly abusive behavior toward those who work for him. Rudin has subsequently stepped back from his day-to-day duties on his current projects.

“Much has been written about my history of troubling interactions with colleagues, and I am profoundly sorry for the pain my behavior caused to individuals, ­directly and indirectly,” Rudin told the Washington Post in a written statement.

Though it’s taken a while, these recent developments surrounding DeGeneres and Rudin suggest Hollywood is finally inching toward addressing its well-established asshole problem. But will it ever do enough? And what would “enough” look like?

Horrible bosses have long been central to Hollywood’s business model

2017 Tony Awards - Show
Scott Rudin accepts the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical for Hello, Dolly! in 2017.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

One assistant I talked to, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional retaliation, told me just one story from their first week on the job at a major agency. Their boss asked them to send an email to a client, but the phone connection between the two was poor, so the assistant asked the boss to spell out the email address. “Great,” said the boss. “You’re a fucking idiot.” The boss wouldn’t speak to the assistant or take their calls for a month after that, instead speaking with other assistants on different desks about the projects they were supposed to be working on.

That account certainly sounds bad in isolation, but consider it outside of isolation, as part of a collection of similar stories from assistants and low-level employees in the entertainment industry. When even a boss described as “not the worst” this assistant ever had called them “a fucking idiot” for a patchy phone connection, it’s indicative of a much larger problem.

Hollywood’s reckoning with its coddling of humongous jerks has been a long time coming. For more than a century, the entertainment industry has been unfortunately rife with big names who treated their employees like dirt, to the degree that “difficult asshole” has become synonymous with “brilliant artist” for too many people.

Plenty of good bosses work in Hollywood, of course, and there are many brilliant artists who are decent people. But the industry tends to give a lot of leeway to successful people who get results, allowing those people to express their worst selves. The slowly unfolding reckoning probably began with the surge of the Me Too movement in 2017, which followed on the heels of stories about the sexual abuse and harassment inflicted by many Hollywood bigwigs, most notably Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.

Yet what’s happening now is altogether more difficult to solve for an industry built atop the braying of jerks. Technically, being a dick to an employee isn’t illegal like Weinstein’s crimes were. But it does create a hostile workplace, and toxicity breeds toxicity, which is how you end up with a culture so wedded to its assholes that Jeremy Piven (himself the subject of sexual misconduct allegations) won several Emmys for playing his Entourage character Ari Gold, an asshole we were supposed to like to some degree.

Consequently, rooting out Hollywood’s assholes will be even harder than it was to root out its sexual harassers (a process the industry has mostly reduced to a handful of occasionally effectual HR investigations so far). That may be why recent reporting on Rudin’s abusive nature didn’t spur much immediate action; studios and others associated with the super-producer very slowly cut ties with him over the course of about three weeks, and many did so only after direct protest from actors such as Broadway star Karen Olivo. Rudin himself didn’t voluntarily step down for 10 days after the initial Hollywood Reporter article.

The problem extends beyond big names like DeGeneres and Rudin. There is a huge number of assholes in Hollywood who aren’t as well known or high powered, which might be why the industry seems unlikely to do much to combat toxic workplaces outside of gently nudging people whose behavior makes the news to retreat from the public eye or shift their talents to other arenas. (And they are talents! Scott Rudin is a great producer! Ellen DeGeneres is a great talk show host!)

But the asshole archetype is so intrinsic to Hollywood culture that for the press to catalog every single instance of a jerk with power would be a Sisyphean task. So fixing this problem is really a job for the industry itself — and one it is clearly reluctant to take on.

Fixing Hollywood’s asshole problem might mean changing an entire industry

Louis B. Mayer, seated between two unnamed women, circa 1947.
Hollywood’s terrible bosses hark back to its very beginning, including old-time studio moguls such as MGM’s Louis B. Mayer.
Ralph Crane/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Cycles of abuse perpetuate. Abusers are often victims of abuse themselves. As one longtime assistant who finally left the entertainment industry told me, many of Hollywood’s most toxic bosses were once the assistants who suffered the worst behavior of other toxic bosses. For those former assistants, their experiences normalized the idea that with great power comes great awfulness. Now that they actually have power, it’s all too easy to excuse their own bad behavior by either believing what they’re doing is better than what was done to them or by assuming that’s just how things are supposed to work.

Plus, both of these excuses are kind of true. The majority of bad Hollywood bosses aren’t as bad as, say, Scott Rudin is alleged to be. They might scream and scream and scream, but they’ve never thrown a baked potato at an assistant, as Rudin is said to have done. (And workplace toxicity is the kind of thing that is spread throughout the entertainment industry.) But even if you insist you’re “not that bad,” you’re still some sort of bad, which leads to further perpetuation of the cycle of abuse.

A tendency to normalize the abuse that you yourself faced is especially interesting to theorize about when it comes to DeGeneres, whose early career as a comedian was marked by Showtime naming her “the funniest person in America” in 1982, a title that quickly earned her suspicion from longtime comedians. Comedy has always been a male-dominated space, and it was only more so in the ’80s. Even today, it remains an area where aggressive teasing and taunting (and worse) is common among comedians. It’s easy enough to imagine how these attitudes might have influenced DeGeneres.

The asshole problem is not unique to Hollywood. As we saw with Me Too, every single industry has issues with toxic figures at the top. Hollywood’s plight is just more public. The only industry with arguably more visible jerks is politics, but that doesn’t mean other industries don’t struggle with this problem. Hollywood’s reckoning should likely be a cultural reckoning writ large.

But putting the impetus on abusers to fix abuse in any industry by asking them to just be better people or simply go away (even if they seem to go away of their own volition, as with DeGeneres) is the wrong approach. The right approach would be something along the lines of aggressive corrections to existing systems and established Hollywood power structures — to the way things have always been — spearheaded by HR departments that don’t just exist to make problems go away quickly (as HR departments mostly do now) but can actually issue disciplinary actions, or by organizations within Hollywood’s trade unions that can act as checks on bad behavior among their membership.

Because so many bad people are entrenched so heavily throughout Hollywood, I’m really not holding my breath. But toxicity in any capacity destroys too many people to be conscionable as a way to keep building an industry. Hollywood and America’s reckoning with this idea shouldn’t stop at painting figures like Rudin and DeGeneres as bad apples, but how much do you want to bet it will?