As the future of Ellen DeGeneres’ hit daytime talk show hangs in the balance, Levi Joule takes a look at the impact the comedienne has had on LGBT representation in pop culture.
With the very real possibility of Ellen being ‘cancelled’ both figuratively and literarily, it’s easy to join the pile on, but there are some important points to be made in regard to DeGeneres that the screaming Twitter mob baying for blood will overlook.
This op-ed is by no means an apologist piece for DeGeneres – she has to go!
DeGeneres has nobody but herself to blame for the mess she is currently in. From all accounts, she has behaved in an appalling way, from being a hypocritical bully, a tyrannical vegan threatening to sack her workers for eating meat, to allowing accusations of sexual misconduct by her executives to go ignored for years, the case against DeGeneres is a solid one and her time on television should now come to an end.
Issues of DeGeneres character aside, Ellen itself leaves a lot to be desired. There were always the cringy elements, the audience of tragic middle-aged women, screeching at high pitch each time DeGeneres uttered a half-assed joke being just one example, but in recent years, the talk show has shifted from celebrating the fun and trivial, with celebrity interviews thrown into the mix, to morphing into a show where Ellen would exclusively sit around with her rich friends pontificating. It has become self-indulgent and sycophantic.
Ellen hit peak caricature, when DeGeneres, once a firebrand liberal decided it was a good idea to parade around her bizarre friendship with George W Bush, attempting to rehabilitate the legacy of a President who openly pandered to America’s more homophobic tendencies while in office, setting the LGBT rights movement back a decade.
The tragic fact is that the Ellen of 2020 is a world away from where DeGeneres started off. There was a lot to be admired about the DeGeneres of decades past, the unconventional left-wing, lesbian stand-up comedian with working-class roots. She was an outsider and it is clear from her early stand-up work that DeGeneres displayed a disdain for the obnoxious entitlement culture that she herself has now fallen into.
The outsider persona stayed with DeGeneres just long enough for the duration of a four-season run of her sitcom in which she famously came out as a lesbian (to a therapist played by Oprah Winfrey, no less.)
The most useful way to view DeGeneres’ sitcom or talk show is not through the prism of what it has done for DeGeneres but what it has done for LGBT representation. DeGeneres coming out on her sitcom was a watershed moment for gay and lesbian visibility. In 1997, we barely existed on television and when we did, it was less than flattering. Our representation was reduced to being circus-like freaks on The Jerry Springer Show, tragedies to be pitied, on Ricki Lake or inconveniences in sitcoms such as Ross’s lesbian ex-wife on Friends. We weren’t making the jokes – we were the jokes.
After coming out, the sitcom’s network displayed a parental advisory warning for each episode following, because it was deemed ‘non-PG’ for homosexuals to exist in the late 1990s. Regardless, for the first time in TV history, rather than being a punchline, one of our own was delivering them to an audience of millions on a weekly basis.
When Ellen premiered in 2003, DeGeneres became the first lesbian host of a network talk show and she didn’t shy away from her identity, often talking about her Australian wife, Portia de Rossi. She wasn’t afraid of booking openly gay and lesbian guests’ either. It’s easy to dismiss these things as tokenistic in 2020, but it’s worth keeping in mind just how hostile the United States of America in 2003 was for LGBT rights (partly due to DeGeneres’ friend George W Bush, but I digress.) After all, it was only in 2008 that ‘progressive’ California decided by public vote to ban same-sex marriage.
Attitudes and laws have thankfully changed and there is no denying television has played a role. For that, DeGeneres surely deserves some credit.
Millennials, such as I, might like to think Netflix is the be-all and end-all, but day time talk shows on free to air television still hold powerful sway in the United States. Ellen acts as a bridge from its glitzy, liberal Los Angeles studio to the more conservative tendencies of ‘middle America.’ It showcases LGBT voices at a timeslot in which we still struggle to get a look in.
DeGeneres is imperfect (to put it mildly) but there is no denying she was a trailblazer for our community and its representation. DeGeneres gained prominence at a time in which we didn’t need perfect gay or lesbians on television, we just needed them to simply exist on television – we still do.
DeGeneres demise and rumoured replacement by a straight white man in the form of James Corden is a huge step backwards by any measure of LGBT representation.
In the current climate, having a talk show cancelled on grounds of a toxic workplace means DeGeneres’ critics will also seek to have her erased from Pop Culture entirely. With Ellen already in decline, the laundry list of accusations may well mark the end of DeGeneres’ career and act as the final blow to any favourable standing the world’s most famous lesbian once held.
With her show possibly gone and legacy diminished, DeGeneres risks being regarded as a sad footnote in LGBT culture, rather than holding her rightful place as a pioneer.
DeGeneres’ show deserves the axe, but that doesn’t mean we can’t grieve the resulting loss of LGBT visibility on our TV screens or the lesbian who once championed it.