Ten years ago this week, Ellen DeGeneres set off a media frenzy with this headline on the cover of the April 14, 1997, issue of Time Magazine. Two weeks later, Ellen Morgan, the character DeGeneres played on her self-titled sitcom “Ellen,” came out as well, breaking ground for gay lead characters on primetime television.
My first editor here at Southern Voice had a bit of a sadistic streak, at least when it came to story assignments. I had griped loud and long about what I saw as the overblown media hype surrounding the episode and my frustration that DeGeneres waited to come out until her financial security was guaranteed, so I wasn’t at all surprised when I was assigned to cover it.
Luckily, most gay Atlantans weren’t as jaded, and a packed crowd gathered at The Otherside to watch the April 30, 1997, coming out episode. And despite myself, my heart jumped when Ellen Morgan came out into an airport microphone, and the gay bar — which had reopened just two months before after being bombed by Eric Rudolph — erupted in cheers.
I suddenly remembered the time, as a closeted teen growing up in central Georgia, that I sneaked out to the living room in the middle of the night to watch the television adaptation of Jeannette Winterson’s lesbian novel “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” on some cable channel. Terrified that my parents would wake up, I kept one hand on the remote and the volume so low that I could barely make out the words.
Now I was watching Ellen come out on a major network in primetime. Despite all the dire predictions that her career would end, there she was, saying the words; and despite the very real fear gripping gay Atlanta that spring, there we were, cheering her on.
INITIAL RATINGS for “Ellen” were strong, and the coming-out “Puppy Episode” won an Emmy. But my enthusiasm for Ellen’s show, like many viewers, dampened in the following months. By the next spring, Chastity Bono, the lesbian daughter of Sonny and Cher, accidentally said in an interview what we were all starting to think.
“‘[Ellen] is so gay it’s excluding a large part of our society,” Bono allegedly told an interviewer. “A lot of the stuff on it is somewhat of an inside joke. It’s one thing to have a gay lead character, but it’s another when every episode deals with specific gay issues.”
Bono worked at the time as entertainment media manager for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and had even appeared in a scene on “Ellen,” and she later explained her comments were “taken out of context.”
But the show at times did seem as much like a public service announcement on Gay Issues as a comedy.
I THOUGHT OF “ELLEN” ON TUESDAY as I watched the season premiere of “Little People, Big World” on TLC. The reality show chronicles the Roloffs, an Oregon family headed by Amy and Matt, both affected by dwarfism.
I admit that I first watched the show last year out of somewhat prurient interest, the same interest behind all of the cable medical shows, which draw us in to learn about 800-pound men and the woman who carried a calcified fetus for decades.
I continued watching the show for its compelling stories of the family life of a couple who just happen to be only four feet tall. But an interesting thing happened between last season and this one.
Last season, most of the episodes focused in some ways on the effects of dwarfism on Matt, Amy and one of their four children. But while the opening credits still focus on being “little people” in a “big world,” with shots of Matt and Amy climbing up to reach things, those issues were completely missing from this week’s premiere episode.
One of the Roloff children was seriously injured in an accident on their farm. The episode focused entirely on that, every parents’ worst nightmare. It has become a show about a family, not about a dwarf family.
I sometimes think gay people still haven’t reached that level of portrayals on television. Since “Ellen,” we’ve had “Will and Grace,” but that featured gay content mainly as comic fodder. And we’ve had all-gay cable melodramas like “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word,” which are entertaining and groundbreaking, but basically soap operas with mostly gay followings.
TLC and other cable channels like Bravo and HGTV have integrated gays seamlessly as one-time guests on home design shows like “Trading Spaces” and its cousins, and even in the lead in shows like Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and “Work Out,” among others.
But we still haven’t seen a mainstream-targeted show with a sustained, sympathetic focus on the daily lives of gay people to the extent that sexual orientation stops being an Issue, like dwarfism for the Roloffs this week.
HERE’S WHERE Ellen could break ground again. A decade after some critics called her career over, DeGeneres is now more successful than ever, hosting her award-winning talk show and the 2007 Academy Awards.
These days, Ellen doesn’t hide being gay, as we could see from the Oscar red carpet photos that treated DeGeneres and her partner, Portia de Rossi, as any other celebrity couple. Yet she also doesn’t discuss her personal life in any depth on her talk show.
Rosie O’Donnell, another late bloomer on coming out, already makes frequent comments about her partner and children as a co-host of ABC’s “The View,” but her increasingly shrill tone (like advancing 9-11 conspiracy theories) keeps audiences from bonding with her to the depth that would make them feel like they are actually getting to know a gay person.
Ten years ago, Ellen told the world, “Yep, I’m gay.”
Imagine the impact if she followed it now by really allowing America to see that part of her life.