The Power of Ellen

American Idol is a show everyone watches - young, old, from Red States and Blue. It is a throwback, almost, to the days of television when families would gather around a television set and watch enriching programming together.

And one of its big draws these days is a lesbian.

The New York Times pointed out last weekend that Ellen DeGeneres "finds a way to remind audiences of her sexual status on almost every episode of 'American Idol.'"

It continues: "More than in any other of her ventures, Ms. DeGeneres's performace on America's favorite television show suggests how hard she works to seem effortlessly funny and how determined she is to be openly but unthreateningly gay."

She brings it up gently, making jokes and bright-eyed allusions, mentioning her wife Portia, talking about her suits and short, tousled hair.

And America loves it.

Ellen is America's sweetheart of the moment, funny, down to earth, a pretty, sparkly woman whom everyone can relate to. And the extraordinary thing is that her gayness doesn't get in the way of that or hide it - instead, she makes being gay seem to be the absolutely normal thing that it is.

And an icon of Gay Normal is important. All too often - still - anti-gay conservatives point to people on the edges of our community as being representative of all gays and lesbians. They take images from Pride Parades and television and gay circuit parties and try to paint us as social outliers who are strange and frightening (or inappropriate and silly) and thus a danger to mainstream marriage, work and family.

Those who lie on our edges - Adam Lambert, say, or Johnny Weir, or any of the Dykes on Bikes - are important to us and are part of our community. They help us define our LGBT culture as one that celebrates fiercely individual personalities who nonetheless come together for common causes and celebrations. We need them and we love them and we celebrate their outrageousness.

But we need our Ellen DeGenereses and Dan Chois (and now Ricky Martins and someday Anderson Coopers), too. We need public figures who seem like the best friend that you wish lived next door, people who are safely sexy, people you can trust to watch your dog, people who you'd welcome to meet your kids and your folks and your elderly Aunt Martha.

Ellen works hard for us. As the Times says, her private life is "served up as an affirmation of gay marriage set in a Harlequin romance frame." And she brings her life "with her on America's most conventional reality show."

She makes gay marriage and gay rights seem easy to take - and not just easy, but almost as if they are a fait accompli. Ellen had a beautiful wedding and the many pictures and videos of a beloved Gay Normal icon getting hitched surely made marriage equality easier for middle America to imagine.

They can picture being at a wedding of a gay couple now. Which means that they are slowly being won over to our side.

America loves Ellen. Her daytime talk show may collect the gigantic Oprah Winfrey audience once Oprah moves on at some point next year. (The Times says she is the best bet to inherit "Oprah's mantle as talk show queen.") Her gentle jokes and self-deprecating bits have made her the most amusing judge to watch on American Idol.

Ellen has hosted the Emmys and Oscars, won 12 Emmys herself, and convinced then-candidate Barack Obama to dance on her talk show.

She is happy and successful and famous and - normal.

She is what middle America wants to be.

The contest for best singer might still be going on over at Fox, but America has already crowned it's next American Idol - and it's Ellen DeGeneres.

4 Comments for “The Power of Ellen”

  1. posted by Billy Glover on

    I agree absolutely. But how did the times arrive that Ellen et al are able to be open? They, especially she, took a risk, but not like it would hav been for earlier glbt people. But some few did, such as authors like Joseph Hansen, while people lie Turman Capote did not-they were known to be homosexual, but did nothing to help people, that was left to the garden variety lgbt people who did take risks. Yet, who is ‘celebrated today” the Trumans’ and andy Warhol, the extremes of our community.

  2. posted by Christo Pace on

    I like to think of Ellen as a part of a trinity (or troika) of lesbians who Main Street Americans respect

    The other two? Personal finance expert Suze Orman and cable television personality Rachel Maddow.

    (I know some of the readers here will cringe when they hear Rachel Maddow’s name. However the sense of decorum she brings to cable television lets her program stand out among the bloviators on cable. The duo of Rachel Maddow/Pat Buchannan is the most interesting pairing since Neil Simon put Felix and Oscar to paper.

  3. posted by Jimmy on

    “Yet, who is ‘celebrated today” the Trumans’ and andy Warhol, the extremes of our community.”

    Capote and Warhol are celebrated for their considerable achievements as literary and fine-art figures and have rightfully earned their place on the pantheon of American cultural deities. They were on a different paths in different times in different arenas. Neither of them, even if they were straight, can be seen as affirmations of what it means to “likable”. To the contrary, in fact.

    Warhol invented the whole concept of “brand”. Ellen, as a brand, is both contemporary and egalitarian, so her affable, non-threatening persona works well for the times. Today, Ellen’s raison d’etre is to be the funny, safe, lesbian celebrity/entertainer. That is a world away from what motivated the likes of Capote and Warhol.

  4. posted by Jorge on

    I’m not watching this season of Idol anymore, so I can’t tell. I think Ellen is testing the limits. The first that I remember was her accusing Simon of coming on to her–hilarious. What if people hadn’t found that funny?

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