Jul 1 1997

Ellen’s Coming Out Was No Rerun

By the time you read this, the sober cynicism of summer will probably have settled in, but now, it’s spring. I’m as excited about “Ellen” coming out as I am about the budding leaves. By summer, I’ll remember that the obstacles to lesbian equality remain intact long after Ellen DeGeneres and her TV character said “I’m gay.” Then again, anticipating autumn, I may even be ready to see the downside of the leaves.

Obviously there were problems with the way the media covered Ellen DeGeneres and her TV character coming out. If you read Time or Newsweek (4/14/97) or tuned in to Diane Sawyer’s two-part interview with DeGeneres on ABC‘s 20/20 and PrimeTime Live (4/25/97 and 4/30/97), you might have come away believing that the creaking open of one closet door on TV would demolish the barriers to liberation like so many discriminatory dominoes. To restate the facts: In real life, in 41 states a woman who tells the wrong people she’s a lesbian can still lose her job, her home, her kids.

As Kate Kendall, executive director of San Francisco’s National Center for Lesbian Rights told CounterSpin (4/18/97): “While pictures on news magazines and depictions in primetime are important, [they] do very little to ameliorate the real costs of [there still being] no significant legal protections in this country for people who are lesbian or gay.”

On the other hand, Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times that ABC‘s investment in the nation’s first leading lesbian was basically about profits, not justice or equality. Rich was bored long before the April 30 episode aired: “Like so many oversold events in American mass culture, it seems like a rerun well before it arrives.” (“The Ellen Striptease,” 4/10/97.) He talked to a “Hollywood executive” who wondered if the network was taking “any risk at all” in outing Ellen given the show’s “flat quality and ratings.” Even if Ellen is a hit, wrote Rich, “it remains to be seen how many doors it will open.” The big thing was not the hype: “Media power, not gay power or its limits,” Rich reflected after the broadcast, “is the real story here.” (“Disney’s Homosynergy,” New York Times, 5/14/97)

It’s the media critic’s duty to keep an around-the-clock lookout for media failure, but even Eeyore the dismal donkey could not have come up with a more miserable spin than Rich. Miserable and misleading: “Many straight Americans, especially men, find lesbians titillating even as they deplore or are threatened by male homosexuality,” Rich quipped. This ignores one fact: male homosexuality has received much more (and more expensive) attention in Hollywood and on Broadway (Philadelphia, Long Time Companion, Angels in America) than any lesbian plot so far. As for titillation: the real experience of many women who look like someone’s idea of a lesbian is harassment, violence, discrimination, incarceration, deportation, death. If Rich is drawing conclusions from porn-shop offerings, he should watch some. There’s usually not a true-to-life lesbian to be found.

Anyone looking to “Ellen” for sexual gratification must have been pretty disappointed by the star’s non-second touch of Laura Dern’s knee. But Rich wasn’t the only journalist to see acknowledging homosexuality as somehow prurient (or about sexiness), in  a way that assuming a character’s heterosexuality is not. Time writer Bruce Handy (4/14/97) reviewed the changes that have taken place on TV over the years: “It would be a mistake, however, to think of history as one long, uninterrupted drift toward untrammeled license.” The presumption that a show that has never been about sex now will be was unquestioned even by writers claiming to be “pro” queer.

As for the fiscal side of the story, when ABC Entertainment president Jamie Tarses told Time, “Obviously this is an experiment,” reporters should have asked her if revenue loss­es or organized protests could one day cause ABC to abandon the “experiment” and stop showing les­bians as humans.

Similarly, reporters permitted Jerry Falwell, who called Ellen, “DeGenerate,” to don a cloak of moral outrage, and accepted his talk of concern for kids. But do the guardians of morality believe that hiding and lying is a better model for children? Isn’t the message of the right, rather, that women like Ellen should not exist?

With all the talk of TV’s new tol­erance, reporters ignored PBS‘s rejec­tion of a documentary about the real lives of men and women who come out at work. (See sidebar.)

There were indeed failings in the reporting and at ABC. (Among other things, the network rejected announcements from anti-homo­phobia groups.) But for today, I don’t have the stomach for [non-nego­tiable?] negativity about “Ellen.” Or the heart.

Frank Rich is wrong on a key point: “Ellen” coming out was not a rerun. It was a first. After years of deadening invisibility in mainstream media, or lesbian characters who were either fatally psychotic or sickeningly cute, “Ellen” was real. And funny, and seri­ous, in equal parts. As DeGeneres’s own story (told to Sawyer) revealed, telling people you’re a lesbian isn’t hard because you risk your next TV gig. It’s hard because people take actions against you.

Rich may have a point about syner­gistic flexing: ABC World News Tonight did two segments totaling five minutes related to “Ellen” and lesbianism on the day of the coming- out episode. ABC‘s Good Morning America did segments the day of and the day after. ABC‘s Diane Sawyer did extended primetime segments the Friday before and on the night itself. (As media monitor Andrew Tyndall noted, CBS and NBC News devoted not one segment to the event.)

But what Rich calls “hype” actually produced some good reporting about those real risks and their repercus­sions for women who refuse to center their lives on men. Even on non-ABC networks, as in Cindy Crawley’s CNN reports, news programmers used the “Ellen” tie-in to investigate that reality. Those reports could have been stronger, but they underscored the “real story”—which, for once, wasn’t “media power,” but continuing misog­yny and homophobia. Disney/ABC was taking a risk with Ellen precisely because the obstacles to women’s free­dom of choice remain.

Rich and/or his headline writer (4/10/97) called the Ellen story “A long day’s outing into night.” Not quite true. Ellen cracked some light. Let’s see how it grows.


Public television had a chance to engage the broader issues related to coming out in the workplace when the documentary series POV proposed that a production called Out At Work be included in its 1997 season for PBS broadcast. And PBS blew it.

Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold, the producers of Out At Work, told CounterSpin (4/18/97) that POV had selected their film as a finalist for the season–but when the list was submitted to PBS for approval, the network threw it out. “PBS cannot distribute Out At Work because it fails to comport with our normal underwriting guidelines,” Sandro Haberer, PBS Director of News and Information Programming, wrote to the Executive Producer of POV (letter, 3/3/97).

“On its merits alone we found Out At Work to be compelling television responsibly done on a significant issue of our times,” Haberer explained, but the network objected to some funders among the long list of Out At Work supporters–namely, several trade unions and Astraea, the National Lesbian Action Foundation. “PBS‘s guidelines prohibit funding that might lead to an assumption that individual underwriters might have exercised editorial control over program content…even if, as is clear in this case, those underwriters did not,” Haberner wrote. “Those guidelines exist for the purpose of underscoring the independence of public television,” she continued.

PBS doesn’t seem to fret over “independence” when the interested party is not a civil rights group or a trade union but a money-making corporation. To cite just one example, PBS broadcast James Reston: The Man Millions Read, an admiring documentary about the New York Times‘ hallowed pundit. The program was funded and produced “in association with” the Times and directed and produced by a member of the family that owns the paper. (See Extra!, 7-8/94).

Given the shortage of available arts funding, more independent filmmakers are turning to public interest groups for funding. If this makes their programs “unfit for broadcast,” it makes you wonder who the public in public TV really is. Looking at it another way, “PBS is pulling its own plug,” said Gold. Out At Work, which was acclaimed at the ’97 Sundance film festival, was picked up for cablecast by HBO.