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Coming Out to Applause

Why Ellen's Lesbianism Is No Big Deal in Liberal America

By Noah Oppenheim

Ellen DeGeneres is a comedian and the star of a second-rate sitcom, "Ellen." Last week, her name graced the covers of both Newsweek and Time. What significant contribution has she made to our national life? What grand achievement warrants this outpouring of attention? Well, it seems that DeGeneres enjoys having sex with other women.

As most Americans already know by now, not only does DeGeneres boast this particular bedroom proclivity, but in the coming weeks her TV alter ego--conveniently named Ellen--will also profess to being a lesbian. And, this it seems, forms the basis for all of the hoopla. In less than a month, American television will showcase the first homosexual leading lady. Hurray for another cultural landmark.

Time accompanies its seven-page coverage of DeGeneres with an interesting sidebar depicting other such momentous occasions. Listed there are television's first inter-racial kiss (courtesy of "Star Trek" in 1968), the first character to have an abortion (the title character of "Maude" in 1972) and the now infamous decision of Murphy Brown to bear a child out of wedlock. The banner headline reads, "Ellen is far from the first TV series to take on a controversial social issue."

The corresponding question, further expanded on in the larger article, is whether television, still over-whelmingly our most pervasive media, influences or reflects society. When Captain Kirk locked lips with Lieutenant Uhura, did the event inspire greater interracial harmony, or did it indicate that a wave of tolerance was already sweeping through the nation? Today we are asked if Ellen's momentous announcement will inspire greater acceptance of homosexuals in larger society, or if it is simply a product of the gay-rights movement's progress in recent years.

The influence argument is far from persuasive. Those sickened by the idea of interracial romance were probably not converted by the example of some horny Starfleet officers. Further, those with moral reservations regarding homosexuality will probably not find their deeply held principles shattered by Ellen's amiable personality.

So, to the extent that television has any significance whatsoever, the idea that television reflects society is far more convincing. The decision of producers and executives at ABC/Disney to go along with a lesbian lead in a sitcom is indicative of society's growing acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle. Of course, it is also a ploy to revive a creatively stagnant program, but it is a ploy that would have been counter-productive had it meant the abandonment of sponsors and viewers. The entertainment industry has calculated that Americans are willing to watch a lesbian star on television. Most of us recognized this growing tolerance years ago. Why should lesbianism enter the spotlight of our national discourse now?

It seems that some would like to interpret Ellen's outing as a landmark event. She is being heralded as the Jackie Robinson of the gay community. In fact, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has declared a national "Come out with Ellen" day built around the consequential episode. Even the mainstream news coverage has worn a revolutionary tone: "Roll over, Ward Cleaver," proclaimed one headline. One is almost convinced by the sheer weight of the collective media reaction that this event is important to our culture.

It is not. The liberal establishment of this nation is simply caught up in another self-congratulatory spasm. They chant: "Blessed be us, the increasingly tolerant. Another marginalized social group has achieved acceptance!"

In the fight to tear down every last remnant of moral accountability left in our national life, clear symbols of success are hard to find. Apparently, some activists have found a symbol in the outing of Ellen. But what a pathetic symbol it is. No hard-fought legal battle has been won, no ultimate freedom from discrimination finally afforded. Rather, a sitcom star, already assumed by most to be a lesbian, has decided to openly proclaim her sexuality. This revelation comes as no shock to any fan of the show, and it has already been acknowledged as an attempt to boost ratings. DeGeneres claims that her decision to have the character come out was made to pacify her own soul. How convenient that her catharsis is to take place just in time for May sweeps.

This supposedly stupendous event is further discounted by the disappointing lack of controversy. Sure, Jerry Falwell and some other oddball, pseudo-fascist groups have all protested and threatened boycotts. But, then again, these are the same people who are still upset that the Jews have been let off the hook for killing Christ. ABC has said that it expects "Ellen" to be fully sponsored. William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, cuts to the core of the event's absolute irrelevancy. He writes, "What is most annoying is the false courageousness of it. All they are going to get is applause and approbation."

This has proven to be true. Most Americans aren't upset that Ellen is a lesbian. I wholeheartedly believe that this atmosphere of acceptance is, for the most part, a good thing. However, what the activists and the media don't realize is that most Americans probably don't even care. They do not need nor wish to have issues of sexuality constantly thrust in their faces. I do not condemn homosexuals, and I adamantly support their right to be treated as equal citizens. However, I do not need to be constantly reminded of what they do in the privacy of their homes. The fact that Ellen likes women is no more important to my life than whether Jerry Seinfeld enjoys receiving fellatio.

Unfortunately, gay activists wish that I, and the rest of America, did care. A great segment of the gay-rights movement, or at least a vocal portion of it, has adopted an aggressive tone. This group wants mainstream America to stare homosexuality straight in the face without blinking. On one level, this tactic seems to work as an outing mechanism for homophobes. Those who are disgusted will be tagged as bigots and chastised for their sins. In another direction, it supposedly serves to force homosexual acts into a framework of normalcy. Ultimately, it is counter-productive. Why is it not enough that we accept and respect homosexuals as people? Why must we constantly be forced to examine the concrete--and private--ramifications of their sexuality?

In 1972, when the character Maude made the decision to have an abortion, I might have been convinced--had I been alive--that it was an important cultural moment. In the context of a nation torn by Roe v. Wade, a case could be made that television was tackling something truly controversial. In 1997, the outing of Ellen has no larger meaning.

Sure, some ideologues may take the opportunity to re-register their opinions concerning homosexuality, the decline of morality and other fashionable issues. But just as "Ellen" will most likely remain a mediocre sitcom, average citizens will most likely remain indifferent to the bedroom antics of their neighbors.

Noah D. Oppenheim '00, a Crimson editor, longs for the return of the "Love Boat" episodes of his youth.

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