Ellen by Sophie Wilkinson
Illustration by Elena Durey.
Sophie Wilkinson is a lesbian journalist born and raised in London and covers pop culture, other culture, society, politics (sometimes) for publications like i-D, VICE, Grazia, Refinery29, The Guardian, The Times, Elle and The Evening Standard.
How radical can an earnest daytime TV presenter be? With frosted hair, an ice-white grin and a glamorous wife with whom she shares a restrained-luxe mansion in Santa Barbara, bought with millions in the bank, how could Ellen Degeneres have ever been anything but glossy-cum-humdrum mainstream?
The answer is in 1997. Because while Ellen’s saccharine, acceptable rendition of queerness has long been frowned upon by more flamboyant modernisers, it’s her blazer-clad shoulders so many queers stand upon.
Ellen Morgan, the titular character of Ellen the sitcom, couldn’t hold a guy down, so bigwigs at ABC suggested she get a puppy. But Ellen - the person - had better ideas. After all, her character’s unconvincing straightness had caused a wane in the show's popularity, and the tabloids, armed with an inkling of Ellen’s true sexuality, had long used rumours to paint in the gaps. She was done trying to thicken the line between her public and private lives.
Work began on the Puppy Episode, in which Ellen, the character, comes out. When pre-de-closeting negotiations between Ellen, the person, and ABC were leaked, she looked for the laugh, telling Rosie O’Donnell: “Yes, the rumours are true, my character will become Lebanese”.
She also worked the hype, telling TIME two weeks before the episode aired “Yep, I'm Gay”, and spending the morning of the broadcast on the sofa at the Oprah Winfrey Show, holding girlfriend Anne Heche’s hand. She told the host - who even played her therapist in the episode! - what coming out meant to her. After describing the “hurt” she felt when her dad chucked her out of home when she was just 19, afraid his young step-daughters might be “influenced” by her, homophobes still had cause to heckle. One man with a handlebar moustache insisted it was a sin but declared himself “not a homophobic” was responded to with kindness, with a dogwhistle of smackdown to anyone watching: “There are people who are not attacking me that are just nice people whohave different opinions, which is the category you fall into. Then there are people who are attacking me, then I think there’s a larger category of people who appreciate what I do and I try to focus on that."
The Puppy Episode, like Ellen, was charming and funny, rebutting straight myths around homosexuality: the queer recruitment drive, lesbians’ desire for all women. It also nodded to the queer community she’d always been part of, despite the closeting she’d needed to reach her platform (she only got her sitcom aged 39). Ellen duets with Melissa Etheridge in the intro, performing a parody blues song about how few lesbians were out in the public eye - Melissa, Martina Hingis, and KD Lang. The latter, Jenny Shimizu and Gina Gershon (fresh from seminal queer film Bound) have bit-parts in the episode and nascent The L Word star Leisha Hailey - then dating KD, features in a crowd scene. In tiny cameos, Billy Bob Thornton and Demi Moore display Hollywood’s tacit support for Ellen’s outing.
Ellen never set out to change culture, admitting to TIME in 2001 the Puppy Episode was made "selfishly for myself and because I thought it was a great thing for the show, which desperately needed a point of view”
But the backlash proved both Ellen’s naive bravery in expecting decency from her viewers, and the folly of those whose sense of humour unfortunately seemed to come with a homophobic deal-breaker.
Advertisers who’d long suffered recurring gay male characters on the show, and all sorts of gross sexism from Jeremy Piven’s character, still pre-emptively refused to be associated with Ellen (the person, the character, the show) anymore. ABC slapped a “viewer discretion” card in front of each broadcast, Ellen was branded a “Degenerate” by the right-wing press and within a year, her show was cancelled. Returning to work was difficult - she got back to regular TV in 2001, with the poorly-rating The Ellen Show, which CBS cancelled after just 13 episodes. Anne Heche left Ellen for her cameraman, and went on to deny she’d ever been attracted to women.
Tireless in her quest to make her way into the bad guy’s hearts through belly-laughs, Ellen worked hard to not be forgotten. And whether she’d wanted to or not, her contribution was doubtless part of the great American patchwork quilt that does its best to smother the flames of homophobia.
By 2003, Ellen landed a role Dory in Finding Nemo, a family-friendly Disney film. Playing just the voice, homophobes couldn't argue that lesbianism was being promoted, and she could win people - families - over by virtue of her playful cadence alone. Riskier, she was awarded a day-time talk show, and slowly but steadily, 15 years on, The Ellen Degeneres Show has 59 daytime Emmys, a spin-off app, a game-show and a top-20 rated YouTube channel. It is the highest-rated woman-fronted talkshow in the States, and she’s the only out queer person to have ever solo hosted a American daytime talk show. In 2008, Ellen married Portia De Rossi, who admitted that she had once never wanted to be a lesbian, in part due to a lack of visible role models: “I had these ridiculous images in my head and there were no out celebrities or politicians or anybody that I could look to and go, 'Oh, I could be like that.' There was nobody that I could say, 'I could date her and I want to be like her’"
Ellen’s queerness now seems veiled by her preppy assimilation with the mainstream. Bar mentions of Donald Trump - who always started it - she’s apolitical, and monogamously fulfils the butch/femme stereotype in its most palatable framing. Her interview questions are marshmallow-soft, and her model of success is built on dad-dancing, wordplay, lightly arch jokes and maybe a kid YouTube star or two. This friendly host’s big stunt when hosting the Oscars 2015? Getting a selfie with a bunch of celebrities.
But what’s so wrong with an out lesbian fitting seamlessly in with the cookie-cutter ideal of an unthreatening daytime TV host? In a world so troubling, Ellen can be cheering, and though there are bigger battles to fight, if we can’t see the light, why fight through the darkness? Ellen tempered herself to fit in with the world, some might claim. But there’s every chance she’s changed the world to make it fit around her, and all the other millions of people who love like her. Not being funny, but I’m quite glad she never got that puppy.
Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.