Rosie O'Donnell: A Progressive, But Flawed Hero
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Hollywood has been creeping out of the closet these past few years -- Cynthia Nixon, Portia de Rossi, Lance Bass, T.R. Knight, Neil Patrick Harris, David Hyde Pierce -- but coming out hasn't always meant becoming an LGBT spokesperson.
For most, revealing their sexuality was more a pre-emptive tack to derail a media outing than a political statement. As Nixon said to New York magazine, "If someone is chasing you, stop running. And then they'll stop chasing you."
In fact, it would appear many celebrities prefer to live privately and hope that outing themselves doesn't impact their career. So when someone as famous and successful as Rosie O'Donnell takes the bulldyke by the horns and becomes decidedly out, loud and proud at a time when few are willing to take that risk, it's hard not to extol her as a heroine.
Between her occasionally controversial, opinionated blog Rosie.com and her seat on The View, which she vacated just before Memorial Day weekend after another grisly fight over the Iraq War with Christian conservative co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Rosie has attracted as much media exposure as Paris Hilton without ever flashing her nether regions.
I came out during Reagan's oppressive mid-1980s, so I can really appreciate what it took for Rosie to transform herself from the closeted "Queen of Nice" (a mere ten years ago, the media ordained her as such) to a take-no-prisoners gay activist.
If she'd revealed herself as a lesbian back in the '80s, I would have built the woman a shrine. Even now, I wholly want to embrace her. She is totally fearless and puts her money where her big mouth is. She has three adopted children with her partner, Kelli Carpenter, who gave birth to their fourth child. They were married at San Francisco's City Hall along with thousands of other same-sex couples in the presence of Mayor Gavin Newsom.
She started R Family Vacations, a cruise line for gay and lesbian families, and has founded and funded a number of philanthropic ventures. She salvaged The View's fast-sinking ratings, single-handedly rescuing it from Star Jones's shameless daily play for a corporate-sponsored wedding, and returned the dialogue to current political events, in part, just by being herself: a lesbian mother who is infuriated at the Bush Administration and not afraid to go to the mat for anything. In so doing, she has become the most visible and outspoken lesbian in the nation -- whether by design or accident is unclear.
What I especially love about Rosie is her rare ability to endear herself to Middle America while rattling the cages of idiotic Hasselbeck, megalomaniacal Donald Trump, patrician Barbara Walters and swag-seeking Jones, whom she inadvertently drove off the show.
On her multi-Emmy Award-winning Rosie O'Donnell Show, she confronted Tom Selleck about his NRA membership on the heels of the Columbine massacre. On The View, she talked openly about Kelli the way others spoke of their spouses and boyfriends, which is in and of itself a radical act for daytime talk shows. My jaw dropped when she swapped coming-out stories with lesbian comedian Judy Gold.
Before Rosie, you could find such candid conversations only on cable channels like Logo or Bravo, certainly not on midmorning ABC. And more than once, she pleaded not for swag but for a safe withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and for President Bush's impeachment. "Someone, I believe, should call for the impeachment of George Bush to let the world know," Rosie powerfully argued, "that the nation is not standing behind this President's choices. That the nation -- a democracy -- feels differently than the man who is leading as if it were a dictatorship, and that we represent this country. He does not lead as a monarch."
So it feels weird to say that despite my deep admiration of her courage, her big heart, her good intentions and, frequently, her right-on politics, I am not her biggest fan. Yes, I share many of her views, not least of all her profound hatred of the Bush Administration, but there have been more than a few times when I found myself cringing at her ignorance.
Referring to the international news attention paid to Danny DeVito's drunken guest appearance on The View, Rosie mocked the Chinese language. "You know, you can imagine in China it's like, 'Ching chong, ching chong, Danny DeVito, ching chong chong chong chong, drunk, The View, ching chong." She apologized -- sort of. Rosie said she didn't realize "ching chong" was offensive to Chinese people and warned, "There's a good chance I'll do something like that again, probably in the next week -- not on purpose. Only 'cause it's how my brain works."
She also loves a conspiracy theory. Back in May, Rosie held forth about how one of the World Trade Center buildings was brought down by a controlled demolition engineered by the US government. It appears much of her information was culled from Loose Change, a dubious documentary that developed a huge cult following on YouTube. Charlie Sheen was equally swept up in the frenzy. Until late May, he was planning to narrate a new cut of the film that suggests 9/11 was a secret US government conspiracy. Both Rosie and Charlie Sheen have since begged off the project.
Since leaving The View, she has been putting up more home videos on her blog -- her usual postings are inexplicably written in her unique brand of verse -- and while she is bold enough to film herself sans makeup, her blog is totally unedited, for better and for worse.
Late last month, she baffled and disturbed some of her most devoted fans when she put up a photo of her 4-year-old daughter, Vivi, decked out in military regalia, complete with an ammo belt, with the caption "a picture is worth a thousand words." Her readers tried to parse the message, but Rosie, a crusader for gun control and an opponent of the war in Iraq, never offered an adequate explanation.
Don't get me wrong: I love that Rosie is as filterless as a Lucky Strike, and there are often great ideas that get buried under odd segues. But I wish for a shrewder, more eloquent critic stumping for the left. If only the genius for entrepreneurial endeavors that Rosie has evidently demonstrated would extend to every aspect of her life, especially her political expression.
She deserves it, and we (and by "we" I mean to imply anyone who agrees with her politics) do too. Of course, we're all prone to being hypocritical and ignorant, but most of us have the benefit of doing this in private. And perhaps, blessed with a staff of yes men, Rosie has no reason to think of herself as ill informed or wrongheaded.
For now, Rosie is taking a break from television -- as it turns out, she won't be hosting The Price Is Right -- but there are plenty of videos on YouTube and her own fresh v-logs to hold us over until her return. She will be back, she always comes back, and some will cheer, and others, not so much.
At the end of the day, her nobility must be recognized, because it truly is a burden to represent the LGBT community on such a grand scale. It must be, because no one else is rushing to do it. Ellen DeGeneres hasn't exactly retreated into the closet after the "Yep, I'm Gay" moment; she is, however, cleaving to Rosie's old "Queen of Nice" crown like a life raft. It seems Jodie Foster will never kick open that door, and after her defense of Mel Gibson, she can stay in there for all I care. But Rosie could use a hand. I know a lot of people who'd appreciate it.