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Monday, April 02, 2007

Ellen + 10

This is my article on the 1oth anniversary of Ellen DeGeneres' coming out on screen and off, published in this month's Gay Community News

In our ‘post-gay’ era of Will and Grace, The L Word and Queer as Folk, when audiences have grown largely desensitised to seeing homosexuality on TV and in movies, it can be easy to forget just how momentous a decision it was for comedienne Ellen DeGeneres to come out as a lesbian, both on screen and off.

This month marks the tenth anniversary of Ellen’s famous coming out episode, which proved to be a milestone in American culture, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that it provoked a socio-political controversy not seen since Murphy Brown (but, crucially, not Candice Bergan, the actress who played her) was condemned for becoming a single mother by then Vice President Dan Quayle in 1992.

Throughout the early 1990s, British television saw an explosion of gay storylines in soaps and dramas, but gay characters had only begun to creep into American television series like My So-Called Life, Melrose Place and thirtysomething and into reality shows like the popular MTV Real World series.

Stand-up comedienne Ellen DeGeneres landed a sit-com based around her own witty, self-deprecating stage personality in 1994, the same year that Roseanne Barr shared a lesbian kiss with Mariel Hemingway in Roseanne and where David Schwimmer’s character Ross discovered his wife was gay on the new sit-com behemoth Friends.

The show, Ellen, was well-received, but, as San Francisco Examiner journalist Joyce Millman perceptively observed in a 1995 column, there was an ambivalence encoded in the show towards dating and romance that marked it out from other comedies. Ellen the character, Millman wrote, was really a closet lesbian.

Rumours about DeGeneres’ sexuality were common in showbiz circles, and in March 1996, the then 39-year-old made the decision for her and the character to come out during the show’s fourth season.

DeGeneres spent the summer of 1996 in secret meetings with Disney, the owners of the show and ABC, the network that aired it. Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney, was reluctant and expressed concerns that the broad American public was not ready for “a weekly show about lesbianism”.

At the same time as these secret discussions were going on, network executives told the writers that they needed to make the character Ellen Morgan care about something in the next season, and that if she wasn’t going to have a boyfriend, she should at least have a puppy. From August 1996, the planned coming out episode was code-named ‘The Puppy Episode’ to preserve its secrecy, and the name stuck.

But in September, somebody leaked the plans to The Hollywood Reporter and the American media “went crazy with it”, as DeGeneres later recalled. From then until March 1997, Disney and ABC refused to comment on whether Ellen’s character would come out.

Evangelists and right-wing family rights groups filled the ensuing vacuum. The notorious Pat Robertson professed that Ellen couldn’t be a lesbian because “she was such an attractive actress”. Reverend Lou Sheldon, from the Traditional Values Coalition, called for a boycott of Disney and the show, during which his supporters sold their Disney stock, and refused to purchase Disney merchandise. Protestors mounted pickets outside Disney and ABC with signs reading ‘Ellen Degenerate’ and ‘Fags worthy of death’.

Such was the impact of the boycott, that when the fourth series began in September 1996, producers were told to move the coming out episode from the scheduled sixth episode of the series to the following spring, so as to avoid it clashing with a crucial meeting of the Disney stockholders.

As the air date kept being pushed back and back, gay activists took to the internet to keep pressure on the show, led by Chastity Bono, entertainment director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), who set up an ‘Ellen Watch’ website. The show’s writers kept dropping hints into episodes to arc the season so viewers could see the revelation coming (for instance, in one episode, Ellen asks, ‘What if my life is a lie and I find I’m really, I dunno, left handed?’). DeGeneres herself kept speculation alive by creatively dodging, but not killing, the rumours (‘I’m going to discover I’m really Lebonese’, she told David Letterman).

In January and February 1997, the first draft of ‘The Puppy Episode’ was written (on maroon paper so it couldn’t be copied) and sent to Disney, who vetoed it on the grounds that it was dancing around the issue. After a week of rewrites, Disney gave the green light. On March 5, ABC announced that Ellen would come out.

At the same time, DeGeneres came out via a TV interview with Diane Sawyer, and by appearing on the cover of Time magazine accompanied by the headline, ‘Yep, I’m gay’. Stars began lining up to appear in the episode, the most significant being America’s national therapist Oprah Winfrey, who was cast as Ellen’s own councillor. Laura Dern was cast as Ellen’s love interest, and there were scheduled cameos from Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, Melissa Etheridge, k.d Lang and Gina Gershon.

The episode was taped in March (during which the set had to be cleared and the bomb squad brought in after a threatening call was made). Also that month, DeGeneres began a high-profile romance with actress Anne Heche, drawing undeserved criticism for being “too affectionate” (i.e. holding hands and hugging) in front of President Clinton at the White House Correspondents Dinner (DeGeneres and Heche split in 2000. DeGeneres has been in a relationship with Arrested Development star Portia de Rossi since 2004).

On April 30, 1997, ‘The Puppy Episode’ was broadcast on ABC. Huge parties were held on the east and west coasts for the event, and even in Birmingham, Alabama, whose ABC affiliate had refused to broadcast the episode. In the end, 42 million people tuned in to watch the poignant but extremely funny moment when Ellen accidentally announced over an airport tannoy that she was gay. As an executive told the show’s director Gil Junger, “if that episode were a feature film, you just directed a $280 million opening night”.

The episode was highly praised, and was editorialised by in The New York Times. DeGeneres won a Peabody award and Emmy for writing the episode (but egregiously lost the acting prize to Hollywood’s blandest actress Helen Hunt, for Mad About You).

But after the hoopla died down, DeGeneres and the show’s writers had to determine how they were to explore Ellen’s sexuality without scaring off viewers and, more importantly, advertisers. The network issued a statement saying they would be taking “baby steps” with the character, but when the fifth series of the show began in September 1997, the ratings flatlined at just 12 million. A parental advisory warning was slapped onto each episode, much to DeGeneres’ chagrin, as Ellen slowly began dating. But the studios were extremely nervous, and when Chastity Bono admonished the show for being “too gay”, it not only ended her career with GLAAD, it also expedited the network’s decision to axe Ellen in March 1998.

DeGeneres returned to TV in 2001 playing a lesbian (though it wasn’t forced) in the short-lived sit-com The Ellen Show, which was cancelled after one season. But later that year, DeGeneres drew rave reviews for her tasteful emceeing duties on the Emmy awards, which were held two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks (DeGeneres also hosted the awards after the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 to similar acclaim).

Following a critically praised voiceover job as the forgetful fish Dory in the animated film Finding Nemo (2003), DeGeneres started her own talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which is now in its fourth season and has won her seven Emmy awards, and boosted her personal wealth to an estimated $65 million. Two months ago, DeGeneres’ was elevated higher into the entertainment pantheon by landing the prestigious gig of hosting the Oscars, becoming the first gay person and only the second woman (after Whoopi Goldberg) to serve as emcee.

But DeGeneres must have been surprised when, six months after her sit-com was taken off the air in 1998 for having a gay lead that was “too gay”, a new sit-com was commissioned by NBC that would feature not just one, but two gay characters in a four-person ensemble – that show being, of course, Will and Grace, which went on for eight years and was a huge hit during its run. The politics and specifics of Will and Grace’s success – and Ellen’s ultimate failure - are complex, but it was clear from that point on that homosexuality was becoming embraced by the mainstream.

In the decade since DeGeneres’coming out, the dynamic had shifted in favour of gay characters on television, almost to the point where some believe that gay culture has been too commodified by the entertainment industry.

Yes, gay representation on screen is not perfect and gay actors still face deeply engrained prejudices. But a new discussion and sensibility about homosexuality had begun, and, for good and for bad, that change was midwifed by the historic move made by the goofy and charming sit-com star Ellen DeGeneres. Whoever said the revolution would not be televised?

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