The “Ellen” Event



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
York Times
ran a picture of Murphy Brown
on its front page, above
fold, the day after Dan Quayle made headlines by simply
referring to her. The
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

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

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
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.