Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed May 1997
Copyright ©1997 by Sasha Torres

Good for You, Ellen, You're Gay

Sasha Torres teaches television studies at Brown University.

"For once, a gay storyline on television wasn't the saga of what homosexuality means for heterosexuals. Ellen Morgan's struggles for self-understanding and self-acceptance remained firmly at the core of the program"

This week something important happened on television, but it wasn't what most people think it was. Certainly, the fact that Ellen Morgan, the central character on ABC's series Ellen, fell in love with a woman and identified herself as gay was a newsworthy event. After all, it wasn't until 1988 that TV introduced its first recurring lesbian character in the form of HeartBeat's Marilyn McGrath. HeartBeat (an Aaron Spelling franchise that aired on ABC) lasted only about 20 episodes, so Gail Strickland's portrayal of Marilyn was easy to miss. Not so, of course with Ellen. In the wake of the media's short-lived if much-hyped embrace of "lesbian chic" circa 1990, as well as the cautious but persistent integration of minor gay and lesbian characters into dramas like Northern Exposure and situation comedies like Friends, Ellen's coming out generated a media feeding frenzy, a frenzy which was further intensified by Ellen Degeneres' coming out on the cover of Time.

The elevation of the April 30 episode to the status of media event says a lot about Americans' relation to questions of sexual identity. On one hand, many of the conversations among on-air personalities and in print media were supportive or at least respectful of Ellen's (and Ellen's) decision. On the other hand, the mere fact that this decision constituted news suggests how far the struggle for gay and lesbian civil rights still has to go.

Now that the episode has aired, the terms of the conversations have shifted to talk of ratings and advertising revenues. But these shifts miss the point. What was remarkable about Ellen this week was not, as many have claimed, its embrace of heretofore untapped material. Nor was it, as detractors have asserted, Degeneres' and ABC's cynical exploitation of that material. The subject matter is not new, of course, and by the time the show aired the clips from it had seen such wide circulation that Ellen Morgan's declaration was anything but surprising. What was remarkable, though, was the perspective from which this story was told, and how it imagined its audience. Since Degeneres' appearance on Time's cover, with the matter-of-fact headline "Yep, I'm gay," her audiences - gay and straight alike - couldn't help but know that this was a story about coming out told by someone who has had at least some of the experiences she's enacting. For once, a gay storyline on television wasn't the saga of what homosexuality means for heterosexuals. Ellen Morgan's struggles for self-understanding and self-acceptance remained firmly at the core of the program.

The effects of this shift in perspective shouldn't be underestimated. The fact that Degeneres has braved the risks of coming out positions her series to mine sources of comedy that have previously remained untapped. In the process, she will certainly afford unprecedented viewing pleasure to her gay and lesbian audiences, and she may teach straight people a thing or two at the same time. We had a hint of how this might work in the April 30 episode, in the hilarious scene set in a lesbian coffeehouse which featured k.d. lang in a terrible wig that evoked perfectly a certain (thankfully now outdated) lesbian hairstyle, singing earnest and humorless songs about sisterhood. This lesbian, at least, was thrilled to see this parody of sapphic culture, with all its foibles. The scene poked fun at gay and straight alike, but it was undeniably rendered with the loving, critical authority of an insider.

There's a moment in the first half hour of the show in which Laura Dern's character, Susan, dealing with Ellen in full-blown homosexual panic, cracks a joke about her failure to "recruit" Ellen for the lesbian cause. "Damn," she says, as the laugh-track explodes, "just one more and I would have gotten that toaster oven!" "Is that gay humor?" Ellen asks, "`cause I don't get it. That's how un-gay I am." Later in the episode, Ellen tells Susan that she "got the joke" just before she comes out, and the end of the episode features a cameo of Melissa Etheridge signing Ellen up as a lesbian and giving Susan the longed-for toaster oven. This week, Ellen taught us both that gay humor may be different from straight humor, and that, with a little effort, perhaps everyone can get the joke.