After Ellen DeGeneres came out on her late '90s sitcom and landed on the cover of Time magazine with the header "Yep, I'm Gay" in big, bold letters, she became an instant target in Hollywood -- paparazzi stalked her (and her then-girlfriend, Anne Heche), late night comedy show wankers made her a staple punchline not just for days but for years, her show was cancelled not long later, and the snippy old refrain "she'll never work in this town again" echoed in sensationalistic tones on info-fluff shows like "Access Hollywood"and "Extra!"
So when the comedian landed back on top of the entertainment industry A-list with her self-titled talk show in 2003, she has mostly steered clear of talking about her sexuality on-air, aside from sporadic, improved wise-cracks and innuendo usually initiated by one of her guests, and a video snippet once every few months of she and her partner, actress Portia deRossi, attending the Emmys together or buying Christmas trees together. If DeGeneres has seemed to make an active choice to talk about her sexuality as little as possible on her daytime show (though never hiding it or denying her relationship with deRossi), it's perhaps an understandable reaction to the massive backlash she faced when proudly acknowleging her sexuality almost turned into career suicide. Who wouldn't be a little shell-shocked after all that?
But the media climate has changed -- in part because of Ellen's visionary decision to bring LGBT visibility into the most mainstream of arenas, a popular primetime network sitcom -- and queer characters are now present throughout much of scripted and reality programming. In this light, it has always struck me as just the slightest bit hypocritical for Ellen to relentlessly (if amusingly) grill straight Hollywood It-girls about who they're sleeping with and whether they might be hearing wedding bells and all sorts of other intimate details while they squirm at her good-natured yet insistent questions about their sex lives, while keeping her own personal life mostly off limits, albeit with a wink and a nudge.
So I was pleasantly surprised to see DeGeneres speak out on her show this week about the murder of a 15-year-old gay student named Lawrence King by the classmate he'd hoped would be his Valentine. After describing the facts of the tragic attack, she told her audience:
"I don't want to be political, this is not political, I'm not a political person, but this is personal to me. A boy has been killed and a number of lives have been ruined. And, somewhere along the line the killer, Brandon, got the message that it's so threatening, so awful, and so horrific that Larry would want to be his Valentine -- that killing Larry seemed to be the right thing to do. And when the message out there is so horrible that to be gay, you can get killed for it, we need to change the message. Larry was not a second-class citizen. I am not a second-class citizen. It is ok if you're gay.
I don't care what people say and what people think, and I know that there are entire groups of people who face discrimination every single day and we're a long way from treating each other equally. All of it is unacceptable. All of it. I would like you to start paying attention to how often being gay is a punchline of a monolouge or how often gay jokes are in a movie. And that kind of message, laughing at someone cause they're gay, is just the beginning. It starts with laughing at someone, then it's verbal abuse, then it's physical abuse, and then it's this kid Brandon killing a kid like Larry. We must change our country..."
More in the full video, including DeGeneres' call for voters to evaluate presidential candidates' positions on whether all people are truly equal under the law and, if the answer is no, to change their vote:
I could be wrong, but hearing Ellen qualify her outrage at a gay child's murder and her call for wide-spread cultural change in America by saying "This is not political" seemed to map to her discomfort in addressing serious and, yes, political LGBT issues on air after what happened to her career the last time she did that. A hate crime resulting in a kid beig killed simply for asking a boy to be his Valentine is not political? Talking about the way the entertainment industry encourages a culture of violence against queer youth is not political? And encouraging citizens to make gay rights an election year issue is not political?
As the director of Women In Media & News, I applaud Ellen DeGeneres for taking two and a half minutes of her usually-light-and-airy daytime chat show to address this incredibly serious, deeply important issue. Yet I wish she didn't feel the need to qualify doing so with the pretense of being apolitical. Ellen's statement was rare not only for her show but for television in general, which trades in superficiality over all else. By coming out so publicly eleven years ago, this entertainer has helped change the media landscape and has affected palpable change in the culture, and while I understand that she might still be a bit shellshocked from he backlash she experienced in the '90s, I don't think she needs to play it so close to the vest now. Viewers watch The Ellen DeGeneres Show for her comedy, not for daily political musings -- but once in a while it really is OK for a talk show host to raise the dialog above the usual product-placement plugs for specific advertisers' movies, music, fashion and food, and to bring people and the usual bland banter about which Desperate Houswives are fighting with each other and which airbrained beauty was booted from The Bachelor. There is a place in daytime TV for a little bit of intelligent engagement, a little bit of politics, sprinkled amid the celebrity worship.
This post originally appeared at WIMN's Voices: A Group Blog on Women and the Media , a project of Women In Media & News, the national women's media analysis, education and advocacy group. To bring Jennifer L. Pozner to discuss media and politics at your college or high school campus or your comunity group, see here for info on available lectures and media trainings. To send organize a lecture, send WIMN blog tips or just for more information, email info [at] wimnonline [dot] org. To subscribe to WIMN's free media alert list, see the Action Center here.