The "Ellen" Backlash

NOTE TO EDITORS: Op Ed writen in past tense to compensate for production schedules.I didn't watch the "Ellen" show on April 30, even though almost every other gay person I know around the nation did. My television set was turned off. Instead, some friends planned a house party featuring readings of the late Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." Now there's a gay Allen event I could get behind. Consider it a counter-"Ellen" party, part of the brewing "Ellen" backlash.Gays and lesbians across the country planned "Ellen" viewing parties for the big coming out night. National gay political organizations mass mailed "Ellen" houseparty kits (complete with membership forms and trivia contests). Theaters in Dallas, D.C. and elsewhere were booked for big screenings. Gay leaders exclaimed Ellen DeGeneres' "courage," even provoking one to say, "Ellen stands on the shoulders of tremendous work (for gay rights) that has gone on in this country."I'm always up for a good party, but my take on this spectacle is somewhat different. The hoopla and hype generated by the show invokes broader issues and implications not just for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender movement, but for all progressively minded individuals now and in the future. It focuses attention on the role of "celebrity" in securing cultural visibility and acceptance, and whether or not "visibility" itself is tantamount to progressive social change. After the longest lesbian tease in the history of popular culture, Ellen DeGeneres has finally come out -- as her character on TV and in real life. Apparently, she is the first major TV "star" to take the plunge. But the backlash against the eight-month campaign of hype took off long before the show aired. In a scathing piece by television critic Caryn James on April 13, the New York Times asks, "Ellen DeGeneres has come out. Soon, her character on 'Ellen' will too. Shouldn't all of this amount to more than a sweeps-month stunt?" Grumblings could be heard in gay bars and lesbian potlucks everywhere.Meanwhile, how has the newest "celesbian" handled her role as gay cultural figure? DeGeneres has spent most of her precious media time (a) defending her closet; (b) disavowing gay activism ; and (c) slamming butch lesbians and drag queens.Let me quote from her April 14 "Time" magazine cover interview:"It would be great if [Hollywood stars come out] if for no other reason than just to show the diversity, so it's not just the extremes. Because unfortunately those are the people who get the most attention on the news. You know, when you see the parades and you see dykes on bikes or these men dressed as women. I don't want to judge them ... It's just that I don't want them representing the entire gay community, and I'm sure they don't want me representing them ... It's like seeing scary heterosexuals or talk shows -- it's like saying Joey Buttafuoco represents the heterosexual population."Thanks for the insightful words of encouragement, Ellen. Drag queens, butch lesbians and leather folks are not the problem. There is no dress code for civil rights. The problem is a myopic media -- including the ABC network, which airs Ellen -- that thrives on sensationalism instead of accurate, insightful reporting and programming."I never wanted to be 'the lesbian actress.' I never wanted to be the spokesperson for the gay community. Ever. I did it for my own truth."Ellen, honey, you're on the cover of Time because you are a lesbian, not because of your comedic talents. You were pitched to Time editors with the bait of coming out. So that means you are a spokesperson for lesbians and gays, regardless of whether you want the role or not. Rise to the occasion and say something transformative. Don't attack other gay people. Use your platform to communicate a meaningful message. Reach out to young lesbians so they're not so alone. Push your own network to accept lesbian and gay advertising instead of rejecting it."I want to get beyond this [controversy around being "out'] ... Let's get beyond this, and let me get back to what I do. Maybe I'll find something even bigger to do later on. Maybe I'll become black."DeGeneres says this after brilliantly staging a carefully choreographed media campaign predicated upon the controversy of being gay. Now that she's scored headlines and houseparties, she wants to "get beyond" it. And is she suggesting race would be an even bigger publicity stunt?A media activist friend of mine came to Ellen's defense, saying she has said the same things other gay people say when they first come out. True, I'm sensitive to her personal ordeal. At the same time most gays do not make the cover of Time magazine when we came out. Stars must use their spotlights to shine awareness on subjects of cultural importance, such as being gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. That's the social contract I want to sign with them in exchange for my adoration. I'm not proposing gay activists "own" Ellen DeGeneres or any other celebrity. In Ellen's case, she is owned by ABC, which is owned by Disney/Cap Cities, which means Ellen is owned by Mickey Mouse. Television and popular culture are inundated by superficial celebrity and commercial fluff. It's positive that stars are coming out. I wish more of them would. Hey, anything that increases lesbian visibility is good. But if the gay and lesbian community -- and other social change movements -- are going to invest so much capital into promoting stars, if we are going to be accomplices in the global trafficking of commercial celebrity glamour, we should require more for our worship.When we sell our soul to the ratings devil to deliver a possible 33 percent market share to ABC during sweeps week, what do we get in return? Stupid soundbites from defensive stars?That's why I, with tongue placed firmly in cheek and in the wake of the "Ellen" circus, propose the formation of the new Celebrity Liberation Front (CLF). The CLF is a group dedicated to helping recently out entertainment and political figures fulfill their newfound role as "spokes-celebs." It's also about exposing the fact that celebrity does not necessarily equal leadership.A first action of CLB could be a Gay 101 Media Charm School for celebrities. We would teach them that if they can't say anything enlightening, at least they shouldn't attack other queers -- including those on the vulnerable "margins" of communities.The Ellen fever points out that celebrity and its attendant media consumerism -- buy me, buy my show, buy its commercials -- should not be mistaken by queers or any other activists as social and cultural liberation. I believe we must set our sights higher. A true progressive movement for social change can have stars and substance simultaneously. We can have ratings and revolution, glamour and guts.But as long as we blindly follow the pied piper tune of hype we forsake opportunities for real social change and sell others out in the process. It makes me think of that famous line from Allen Ginsberg's "Howl": "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked." Add seduced by celebrity to that stanza.Robert Bray is the former media director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the current director of the S.P.I.N. Project, a media training and organizing effort at the Institute For Alternative Journalism in San Francisco.

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