Ellen DeGeneres: TV Talk Show Host as Social Activist


rodger-streitmatterThe comment couldn’t have been more casual.

When Ellen DeGeneres pointed out that today was her guest’s birthday, actor Jamie Foxx smiled sweetly and said, “Yes, I’m a Sagittarius.” Then he asked Ellen about her Zodiac sign, and she said she’s an Aquarius. Foxx picked up on that comment and said his daughter is an Aquarius as well, prompting Ellen to add, “Portia is, too.”

The talk show host didn’t have to identify who Portia was because Foxx and the 3 million viewers watching NBC knew she was talking about her wife, Portia de Rossi.

No trumpets went off when Ellen mentioned Portia’s name, and yet a solid argument can be made that the highly popular comedian had just scored a point for the LGBT team.

Activists have been fighting for increased media visibility for decades, arguing that the more LGBT content the public’s exposed to, the more comfortable media consumers will become . . . and that’s just a step awayPortia di Rossi and Ellen Degeneres from those same folks supporting LGBT rights.

That’s why there was so much commotion back in 1976 when TV reporters first got wind of the fact that ABC was thinking about airing a new comedy featuring a gay man in the cast. “If this situation comedy makes it into the ABC schedule,” the Washington Post reported, “it will be a breakthrough in prime-time network television programming.”

Soap was, indeed, a media milestone, marking the first time a gay character had a recurring role on an American TV show.  Billy Crystal’s affable character was such a hit that viewers eagerly welcomed him into their living rooms every week from 1977 through 1981.

The next milestone was more of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back variety. In 1997, ABC decided that having the lead character in its sitcom Ellen—starring Ellen DeGeneres—identify herself as a lesbian on the show just might be sufficiently novel to boost its ratings. DeGeneres then opted to come out in real life as well.

Although the coming-out episode drew a huge audience and won the program an Emmy, viewers didn’t stick around once the show began focusing on lesbian themes. Time magazine sniped, “Instead of being integrated into the show, Ellen’s homosexuality has become the show.”  Within a year after airing the coming-out episode, ABC cancelled the show.

Another plus of the Ellen phenomenon, though, was that it helped nudge a rival network toward adding Will & Grace to its comedy lineup the next season.

Some observers initially criticized the program’s approach to LGBT content. The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, carped that NBC had “caved in” to anti-gay pressure by not having its lead gay character kiss or otherwise show affection for another man.

Ellen interviews MadonnaAs the audience grew to a jaw-dropping 19 million viewers and the show won multiple Emmys, the criticism faded and the praise increased. Observers were particularly laudatory of the program when it aired episodes showcasing committed gay men joining together in civil unions and then adopting children.

Soap, Ellen, and Will & Grace were followed by a steady stream of other shows with significant LGBT content. Two current shows that are getting a lot of attention are Modern Family and Glee, while others on the list include Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, and Brothers& Sisters.

But I put The Ellen DeGeneres Show in a class all its own because the host doesn’t just play a lesbian on TV, but she’s the real deal. What’s more, she makes frequent references to her and her wife’s life together—such as the one about Portia being an Aquarius.

There hasn’t been a quantitative study of the topic, but any long-time viewer who’s been paying attention to such things will agree that the comments have multiplied since the two women got married in August 2008.

Most of the references are brief. On an episode just before Christmas, for example, Ellen was talking about having recently watched the classic holiday film It’s a Wonderful Life. This happened during her comedy monologue at the beginning of the show when she said she hadn’t realized the film was in black and white, so she’d yelled out, “Portia, my eyes broke!”

Another reference came later in that same episode when the host talked about the couple having adopted two cows. A background screen then popped up on the set, with the phrase “Ellen and Portia’s Cow Update” scrawled across it. The segment then continued with Ellen announcing that she and her wife had named the cows Holy and Madonna.

Yes, the comments were subtle—which is the beauty of them. Ellen isn’t strident or preachy, which might prompt viewers to switch channels. Instead, she casually mentions the woman who shares her life, exactly as a straight talk show host might matter-of-factly refer to his or her spouse.

At least one of Ellen’s comments went viral, thanks to her comedic brilliance. She delivered the line on a segment that aired last year: “Last night I took my socks off, and I had these deep rings around my ankles. I showed Portia, and I was like, “Look at the lines on my ankles!” She was like, “Look at the road while you’re driving.”

The laugh-out-loud line appears on any number of “funniest jokes of the year” lists.

Because of the talk show host’s commitment to mentioning her wife virtually every day to that massive audience of hers, I’ll second one of the statements Portia made about Ellen in an Advocate cover story in 2010:
“She was so courageous in 1997, and now she is doing something that is more subliminal. She’s changing the world—she really is.”

By Rodger Streitmatter

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