Ellen DeGeneres might be better known for her short spurts of memory as Dory in Finding Nemo, but she is also known for her shocking coming out in 1997 on network television. Her coming out was one of the most important events to happen that year. Her show and career suffered for a bit, but she was able to show society another face of the gay community, and she went on to become one of the most influential women in today’s world. Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out was one of the best things to happen in 1997.
DeGeneres first got national recognition when a video of her emceeing at a comedy club in her hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana, won an honor from Showtime award for “Funniest Person in America (“About Ellen DeGeneres”)”. In 1986, she was then invited on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. She became the first female to be invited to “the couch”, a huge honor to comedians that came on the show. She starred in a few small roles before getting her own sitcom titled Ellen. According to Ellen’s website, the show was a success and DeGeneres won numerous awards for it (“About Ellen DeGeneres”).
Her character on the show, Ellen Morgan, came out in the April 30th episode (“Ellen”). The show was soon cancelled after this announcement, although it had left its mark. Ellen became the first show of its kind to have a lesbian as the main character. Critics had been complaining that the show was not going anywhere. According to the show’s executive producer, Mark Driscoll, Ellen Morgan was “an asexual character who hung out with friends, really exhibiting behavior more suited to 20-somethings” despite the character being in her mid-thirties (Biddle). The character’s coming out was memorable.
In the show, an old college friend of Ellen’s, Richard, comes to visit and the two go to dinner. They are soon interrupted by Susan, Richard’s producer. Ellen and Susan hit it off immediately. After dinner, they go back to Richard’s room, but Ellen soon feels uncomfortable as Richard starts to talk about dating, making up an excuse to leave. After leaving his room, Ellen stumbles into Susan who invites her to her room. Conversation begins and soon Ellen asks Susan if she’s dating any men. This is when Susan tells her she’s gay and immediately Ellen gets defensive when Susan assumes she is as well.
She leaves again, coming home to a phone call from Richard, telling her he’s left for the airport. Knowing Susan will be there too, she rushes there in hopes of confessing she is in fact gay. She speaks to Richard for a few minutes before seeing Susan, wanting to speak to her. Ellen confesses her feelings, eventually leaning on the flight attendants podium, not realizing the microphone is on until she says “I’m gay,” and everyone in the gate turns to look at her. But it did not come as a surprise to those who watched the show when Ellen Morgan came out. There had been hints dropped about her sexuality in nearly every episode (Biddle).
Before the episode aired, she confirmed her homosexuality in a TIME magazine article, causing controversy before the episode was even shown to the public (“He Called Me Ellen Degenerate”). The cover is iconic. A smiling Ellen with the words, “Yep, I’m Gay,” are bold and monumental (“He Called Me Ellen Degenerate”). DeGeneres’ career was stunted after Ellen, though. She had a CBS sitcom after Ellen that was short-lived. She got her first talk show in 2003 titled Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show. She did not want to be known by her sexuality. As noted in the TIME magazine article, she said, “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” (“He Called Me Ellen Degenerate”). She went on to say that she wanted to show another side of the gay community. Previously, the gay community was “dykes on bikes or. . . men dressed as women” (“He Called Me Ellen Degenerate”). She wanted to show that “We’re individuals” (“He Called Me Ellen Degenerate”). It was not easy for Ellen or her show. Show sponsors J. C. Penney and Chrysler both stopped their partnerships with DeGeneres’ show and a station in Alabama refused to air her coming out episode.
They also received a bomb threat during the taping of the final episode (Hubert 31). The producers, writers, and directors were faced with problems before the show ever aired. The script had to undergo vigorous edits to make sure nothing would be too offensive (Hubert 32). Lynette Rice reported that one of the writers said, “There were so many fences to walk. If we go one way, someone will get offended. . . ” (qtd. in Hubert 31). Ellen had similar thoughts to anyone who chooses to come out. She was in the public eye, but she held up a facade.
In a TIME magazine interview from April 14th, 1997, she said she was constantly worrying, “I just thought, ‘Oh God. What if they pick up that I’m gay? ’” (“He Called Me Ellen Degenerate”). She went on to say that “I never felt like I belonged to the gay community, [and] I never felt like I belonged to the straight community” (“He Called Me Ellen Degenerate”). Many people who are discovering themselves put up a face to hide who they truly are, much like Ellen had to do. According to Jennifer Reed, a teacher of women’s studies at California State University Long Beach, DeGeneres is “arguably the most famous lesbian in America” (23).
Ironically, though, she is also a spokeswoman for J. C. Penney, the company that earlier in her career had dropped their advertisement on her show due to her coming out. Recently, the Facebook group, One Million Moms, called out J. C. Penney for using DeGeneres as their spokeswoman for a campaign. The CEO of J. C. Penney defended their choice, saying, “We believe in Ellen. She shares our values. . . ” (Task). At the end of every show, Ellen says five words: “Be Kind to One Another. ” It’s a simple phrase but she practices what she preaches.
She’s always doing kind things for others, trying to be more than just a celebrity. Today, Ellen DeGeneres is a household name. She has captured the hearts of Americans, known for her relatability, kindness, fun interviews, and bubbly personality. In 1997, the year of her coming out, it proved to be one of the most important events of the year. It wasn’t easy for her by any means, and she was able to show society another facet of the gay community, which has led her to become one of the most famous women of today. Ellen is truly an inspiration.