From the pages of Z Magazine


The "Ellen" Event

By Elayne Rapping


When Gil Scott-Heron famously sang, back in the 1960s, that "the revolution [would] not be televised," we all knew what he was talking about. Yet, of all the now legendary "errors" we of the generation of 1960s activism made in those zanily hopeful and idealistic days, one of the most trenchant may well have been our misunderstanding of the vexed and contradictory relationship between television and social reality. For, as it turns out, the revolution—if it is ever to happen at all—will most certainly have to be televised in order to make its way into recorded history. Therein lies a complicated problem for activists. It is very difficult—far more difficult in 1997 than in 1967—to think or speak reasonably about politics at all these days, without taking into account the vast, informing role of mass media in defining, framing, and packaging political reality. TV, we hear, is on, and so "consumed" in some fashion, for seven and three-quarters hours per day in the average American home. It is difficult—or perhaps foolhardy—to ignore its formidable presence, no matter how "frivolous" or inane its content may seem.

Which brings me to the much ballyhooed media event which has inspired these musings. For those who take pride in ignoring such milestones in pop culture history, on the evening of April 30, 1997, much of the nation—some 42 million to be as exact as Nielsen allows—sat rapt before their TV sets awaiting a media event that had been as hyped in the gay and lesbian press as in the mainstream: the official "coming out" of Ellen Morgan, the star of a once highly rated, and still pretty popular, weekly sitcom starring comedian Ellen de Generes as a bookstore owner with a small but humorously idiosyncratic circle of close friends.

The hoopla surrounding this event was surely inspired by commercial concerns as much as anything. Sponsors and network heads were, it’s said, on the verge of canceling the series, which had seen its ratings drop precipitously. The decision to allow de Generes to take this risky step—which for her was both a professional and personal one, since her own public coming out was part of the deal—was not an easy one. In these days of right-wing anti-media lobbies and public campaigns, neither ABC nor "Ellen’s" sponsors could be altogether sanguine about the results. Nonetheless, they went for it at last, and much of the credit undoubtedly goes to gay and lesbian activists who, for years, have aggressively waged a variety of campaigns to force mainstream America to acknowledge, and even respect, the legitimate presence of gay Americans in every arena of public and private life.

Ellen’s coming out then was a real, if hard to measure, victory. The throngs of gays and their supporters who gathered in living rooms and bars across the country to participate in it were justified in popping the champagne corks and patting themselves on the back. The show was pretty intelligent, sensitive, and often hilarious in its treatment of a touchy, controversial issue. Ellen’s confusion, her doubts about her family’s and friend’s reactions, her soul-searching talks with her understanding therapist (played by the most officially understanding of all Americans, Oprah Winfrey) were just right, as was her awkward, embarrassed negotiations with the woman (played by Laura Dern) who had aroused her to consciousness of her previously unconscious tendencies. The show could rightly claim to have publicly documented, in lighthearted humorous fashion, a rite of passage which many had struggled through silently and painfully. It could also claim to have presented "a positive role model"—that old staple of activist media demands—to ease the way for future generations.

But wait, for those who really follow pop culture, in all its intertextual meandering, the show was only half the story. In the midst of all the publicity about Ellen’s coming out, another young blond Hollywood starlet, Ann Heche—whose career as a romantic lead in blockbuster movies was just taking off, after years of working in such lower-profile genres as soap opera and independent cinema—found herself "powerfully drawn" to de Generes, whom she met at a Hollywood celebrity bash (you know what they say about celebrity being a great aphrodisiac), and saw fit to come out herself, as Ellen’s new real-life "love interest," as they say in the gossip columns. Heche and de Generes were even (gasp) caught publicly snuggling at a "White House dinner later that week, making the publicness of their mutual coming out about as public as it could get.

This "piggy back" coming out was in many ways even more significant, because Heche was on the verge of a big-time career her new disclosure could easily demolish. She does not, after all, have the clout and bankability of an established star like de Generes. Her position as a heterosexual romantic lead will be far more tricky for Hollywood to adapt to than Ellen’s always more or less (that was probably one of the shows problems) asexual persona. But Heche—whose father had been a closeted Protestant minister who died of AIDS in his early 40s—was determined to live "honestly and truly" as her father had not been able to. So her decision comprised an act of courage and potentially great sacrifice, one which, surely, must be counted among the relatively few examples, among Hollywood luminaries, of the  moral courage that fits one for the title of "positive role model." So the entire "Ellen" extravaganza created a moment of enlightenment and hope in an otherwise grim political season.

There were of course many who cynically pooh-poohed the media event as so much money-grubbing hoopla signifying nothing of any real social importance. But that is a position which fails to understand the truly central role of culture, and mass media in particular, in American political life. The political power of mass media is hardly confined to the area of news coverage and commentary. On the contrary, national news programs, with the exception of local news (which hardly qualifies) are watched sporadically by most Americans. But entertainment television—especially sitcoms—are solid mainstays of the American "informational" diet, watched and discussed by most people with great regularity and interest. In fact, it is more than arguable that fictional TV characters—Murphy Brown, Roseanne, Archie Bunker—are among the most well-known and influential representatives, even spokespersons, for any number of political positions and attitudes through which Americans, especially young Americans, come to understand and articulate their own identities and attitudes about any number of personal and political issues.

If there was ever any doubt of that truth, it was surely dispelled when the New York Times ran a picture of Murphy Brown on its front page, above the fold, the day after Dan Quayle made headlines by simply referring to her. The Times, uncharacteristically, acknowledged that Quayle’s reference to the sitcom heroine—in a speech meant to address the issue of teen pregnancies in the inner cities by criticizing Murphy Brown’s public and proud decision to become a single Mom—had set the agenda for the day. It was only by referring to a mass media pop icon of Murphy Brown’s popularity that the hapless Quayle, whose political charisma till then had been largely nonexistent, captured the national limelight.

Nor was Quayle wrong about Murphy Brown’s "liberal agenda." Who could deny that this sitcom, about a high-powered television journalist who chooses to become a single mother, was informed by attitudes and ideas that smacked suspiciously of a "liberal," feminist influence? Of course, Murphy Brown is a liberal and a feminist. So, for that matter, is Roseanne Conner of "Roseanne." So, since the mid-1970s, have been more than a few other central characters—Norman Lear’s shows come immediately to mind—in popular long-running sitcoms. The reasons for this influx—since the early 1970s—of so many in-your-face liberal media icons are at least partly political and encouraging.

But politics isn’t all that explains the media’s soft spot for at least a mild form of liberal gender politics. To understand the larger context within which Murphy, Roseanne—and now Ellen—found their places in the sun, it’s important to look at a few economic and sociological aspects of TV production since the 1970s. TV is, and always has been, a "women’s medium." Set up to sell consumer goods and family values back in the post-war 1950s when advertising took off as a major industry, its natural target audience was always the "little woman" who did virtually all of the shopping and caretaking. Today, women make up a full 60 percent of the viewing audience. In today’s more efficient programming system, it is the women in the upscale demographic segments who watch shows like "Murphy Brown" and "Ellen," and who are especially sought after by advertisers. This demographic happens, also, to be the population segment most likely to be liberal, especially around social issues. So it’s not all that surprising that sponsors and networks have been willing to give in a bit in this area.

But to explain Ellen’s coming out on TV in terms of money and greed is to discount another important factor: progressive political action. There has been—since the late 1960s—an ongoing battle between progressive activists, especially feminists, and the entertainment industry, the results of which have been spotty, inconsistent, but nonetheless—even in an age of backlash—visible, even today.

To see this, one need only look back to the beginnings of TV history, when every (good) women looked, talked, and behaved almost identically. There was Mrs. Cleaver, nailed to the vinyl floor, endlessly tearing lettuce into that Pyrex bowl, in her spiffily starched and ironed shirtwaist, with her ubiquitous string of pearls. There, looking and sounding just like her, were Mrs. Anderson, Donna Reed, Harriet Nelson and so on, all in the same attire; all retiring to the same chaste, heterosexual, twin marriage beds at night.

But after feminism reared its angry head, some of that began to change. Mary Tyler Moore, and even a light-skinned Diahann Carroll, got to have careers (if not sex lives) and live happily as single women. Eventually a whole lot of other changes took place in the presentation of women. Until, by the 1990s, it was possible for performers like Melissa Etheridge and k. d. lang to publicly declare themselves lesbians and thrive and prosper as musicians. Anyone who thinks that the visibility and clout of mass social movements had nothing to do with any of that is seriously myopic or in political denial.

Hooray for our side, then. So why am I feeling vaguely uncomfortable and even nervous about the whole celebratory atmosphere which I have just insisted is justified? Perhaps because—despite the true victory which Ellen’s outing represents—there is something very unsettling about the times in which this media event is occurring. And the absence of any acknowledgment of those times in shows like "Ellen," and "Seinfeld," and "Friends"—the very series which are most likely to make room for such liberal interventions in their fairly flexible, free-wheeling generic formulas—makes the enjoyment of even a moment like Ellen’s coming out more disappointing than it should have been. For Ellen—like the characters in these other hip, youth-oriented, highly popular series—is incredibly white, incredibly middle class, and incredibly devoid of any social, political, or economic context.

This wasn’t the case for earlier sitcoms in which progressive activist influence could be traced. In the 1970s, Norman Lear produced politically engaged TV in which not only race, class, and gender, but virtually every other hot issue of the day formed a mainstay of plot development. "All In the Family"—a series which still holds up on Nick at Nite reruns as a biting example of American social satire and commentary—dared to show working-class families torn apart by the battles of the day, around Vietnam, civil rights, gay rights. While it managed, always, to keep its disputes "all in the family," there was never any question that what was happening in the Bunker family was happening all over America. This tradition of "reality-based" programming isn’t entirely dead either. Roseanne, especially in her early years, blazed across American’s TV screens howling in rage at the conditions—economic and cultural—under which women and the working class were forced to live and be treated, had a clear link to the conflicts of her day, conflicts which were clearly articulated as rooted in the enormous changes wrought by the political shifts of the Reagan/Bush years, during which liberalism took such a beating.

But "Ellen" has not taken its cue from this tradition, unfortunately. It seems, to exist in some rarefied Emerald City in which nothing of political or social importance ever happens. This failure raises serious questions about the direction and inherent limitations of identity politics as it is practiced today. For it is certainly to identity politics that both the credit and the blame for Ellen’s lukewarm run to the barricades must be laid. Not that I want to join the steady chorus of Left voices who have been trashing identity politics and calling for what sounds to me like a return to the bad old days when the white boys ran the movement, without any interference from women, gays, and blacks. On the contrary, I can’t imagine a political Left worth its salt today that was not built on the basic ideas which identity politics brought to public attention so forcefully: gender, race, ethnic, and sexual difference. But there was a time—and even "All in the Family" reminds us of it, although Jesse Jackson’s abortive efforts to form a Rainbow Coalition may be a better example—when it was understood that these issues and groups had to be brought together under a common activist umbrella if any serious social change was to come about. That time is largely over however. What we seem to have instead—to the extent that "we" have anything—is a disjointed set of single-issue campaigns and groupings, informed too often by an agenda so narrowly conceived as to be dangerously unmoored from the larger social and political world in which most people—including many for whom it claims to speak—live.

The implications of this kind of political unmooring and narrowing down was very much on my mind as I attended Ellen’s coming out party. For there were other things happening on television that night that I would normally have been watching. Most pressing was the trial of Timothy McVeigh, the alleged Oklahoma City Federal Building bomber, which, while unfortunately not being televised, was being carefully analyzed and discussed on my media drug of choice: Court TV. But not too many people I ran into seemed interested in talking about the McVeigh trial. "Ellen," the main topic of conversation among activists and non activists alike the next day, was so much "sexier," so much more upbeat and amusing a topic. Indeed, there seemed no way to make the conversational leap from one topic to the other, so much did they seem to exist in different universes entirely. That in itself is troubling. While Ellen’s friends, and their audience, seemed not to care much about McVeigh, it was highly unlikely that he and his pals were unconcerned about her. Gay baiting and bashing are favorite sports of the fringier elements of the right wing with whom McVeigh pals around, after all, as we Court TV addicts—having followed many criminal trials of right-wing gay-bashers lately—well know.

But there is a more problematic reason. For this fringy movement of right-wing paranoids and wackos has been growing by leaps and bounds. We need to ask ourselves why. What is the appeal of a movement that seems to believe that the United Nations is part of a Zionist plot to create a New World Order in which whites will be enslaved or exterminated? It must be something powerful because this movement has touched a nerve somewhere in middle America. Not only is it building a mass base, but those who join seem committed to taking action.

It is too easy to dismiss the lot of them as wackos and hate-mongers. According to reports, many of the followers are not particularly bigoted, and seem not to be too aware or concerned about the bigotry of the leaders. Rather, what draws them to the cause is a sense that the leaders of the militias—and this is what is most scary about them—seem to be "speaking truth to power" in a way that we on the Left used to do, with a deeply felt rage. They are angry, violently angry, at the power structure of this nation. In their rage, there are more than a few grains of truth which, I would argue, the Left was more likely to have understood back in the 1960s than today. For if their analysis is wacky and vicious and their methods extreme, they are not wrong to feel disempowered and abused by our government and other powerful forces. Nor are they wrong to fear the excessive use of government violence against them. Waco and Ruby Ridge are not the only examples in American history of U.S. willingness to wipe out dissent. Nor, obviously, are women and gays safe on the streets of America. And it is hardly a priority of most police—so busy fighting the war on drugs—to seriously change that situation.

If Ellen is not concerned with Waco, then, she might well be concerned about violence against gays and lesbians (an ongoing menace in my Manhattan neighborhood). But it is unlikely that she is. To the extent that Ellen has made a political statement, it is a statement which limits itself to a brand of identity politics confined to a very narrow element of the lesbian population—the white, upscale, and educated branch, for whom being a lesbian, at least on TV, seems a pretty cozy, even glamorous, "lifestyle." Nor is her brand of identity politics in any way relevant to most of the problems of most other groups, perhaps especially the rural working-class whites who are joining the militias.

It may seem far-fetched to end an essay about "Ellen" with political musings about the militia movement and the McVeigh trial. But there is something truly unsettling about a situation in which progressive forces agitate on behalf of upscale, urban, white lesbians on television, while right-wing fanatics—lesbian haters all—successfully market themselves to the rural, middle-American working class as the defenders of the oppressed. The irony is not the political arena chosen by each. Television is today among the most central of media battlefields. But if the inheritors of the banner of identity politics want to make a real difference in that ideological battlefield, they are going to have to be a lot more bold and pushy about their political agendas. The militia movement is certainly not afraid to be bold and pushy about their public agenda. According to NPR, there were almost as many Americans with access to literature instructing them in how to build bombs as were watching "Ellen" on April 30. It’s something to think about.