20 Years Later: A Look Back at Ellen’s Coming Out

In this course, we have been shown repeatedly how sitcoms have a multi-faceted relationship with the culture of the time that they were produced in. It is easy for us to look back on popular television shows of the 1950s and 60s that reveal the societal issues of the time and identify how far we have come as a society in the past 60 to 70 years.

We have watched sitcoms like The Cosby Show of the 1980s or Roseanne of the 1990s that served to reflect the cultural climate of the time, but also push society towards a more progressive mindset. While these case studies are important for historical context, it wasn’t until I stumbled across a YouTube clip in my Facebook feed of Ellen coming out as gay on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997 that I truly understood the impact of sitcoms on our culture.

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For me, Ellen has only ever existed in the realm of my Facebook feed. Almost every day, I see her fun fluff pieces about children with amazing skills and segments of celebrities playing guessing games for the audience’s viewing pleasure. As a talk-show host and a public figure, she exudes confidence, brings joy and hope to her viewers, and never ceases to push positive messaging on her show – her sexuality has never been a consideration in my mind as I digest her content. A seemingly short 20 years ago, however, Ellen served in a completely different role.

On April 14, 1997, Ellen came out as gay on a TIME Magazine cover titled “Yep, I’m Gay.” For months prior, Ellen had been teasing out the homosexuality of the character Ellen Morgan on her popular sitcom Ellen, making jokes in response to gay rumors about her, but had never addressed her own sexuality.

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On April 30, 1997, Ellen DeGeneres also had Ellen Morgan (played by DeGeneres) also came out as gay on Ellen. The episode, titled “The Puppy”, garnered 42 million viewers and received widespread backlash, both from the public and advertisers. Though it ultimately led to the cancellation of Ellen, the episode is still “widely hailed as the moment that helped usher in a more inclusive era of television” according to the Hollywood Reporter. The afternoon before that premiere, DeGeneres joined The Oprah Winfrey Show as a guest to discuss her coming out for the first time on air and that episode is one that revealed to me so clearly how impactful sitcoms can be on our culture.

What makes this piece such a valuable historical text, in my opinion, are the questions from the audience that are so telling of the public perception of television’s handling of controversial issues and how powerful of a medium sitcoms can be to address such issues. As an example, one audience member stands up in an outrage shouting:

“I feel like if the ‘families’ out there had the PR person that the gay and lesbian community does, they’d be great for families too. Because I feel like right now we’ve got the lesbian weddings on Friends, the lesbian relationship on Relativity, and I just found out there’s a lesbian relationship on NYPD Blue and now you, I just feel like we are being stuffed with this right now – down our throat and I want to know why.”

This is so important because it speaks to how the public reacts to what they are consuming through media and the power sitcoms have to influence and shape public perceptions. In a piece looking back on the 20 years since this monumental moment, Vanity Fair quoted Mark Driscoll, an executive producer of the fourth season of Ellen, saying that the staff hoped this episode would “break ground on a hot-button social issue.” He goes on further to say that using Ellen Morgan’s character was so pervasive because Ellen was so popular with audiences, “Ellen was so loved by audiences; she was so much the girl next door and so sweet. She was the perfect person to dispel people’s fears about what a gay woman might be like.” In this way, Ellen Morgan’s character was functioning for lesbian women nationwide in the way that Bill Cosby’s character functioned for black men across America – they humanized and broke down preconceived notions about a certain demographic, paving the way for not only more progressive television, but a more progressive America.

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7 Responses to 20 Years Later: A Look Back at Ellen’s Coming Out

  1. mediaphiles says:

    I absolutely love this post. Since I’ve been home this summer I have found myself watching Ellen a lot of afternoons, and her show is funny, inspirational, and filled with kindness. Ellen is truly talented, but her life has not always been this easy and glamorous. I had no idea her character on the sitcom came out as gay as well, and was not aware of the audience response about it. I am definitely going to go back and watch this episode. -Sam Ostmann

  2. mediaphiles says:

    I really like how you pointed out that you nowadays only see Ellen through Facebook videos, because I do, too, and I’m sure many other people can relate to this. Its interesting how different generations receive different parts of celebrities’ lives through different time periods and different media outlets (Caitlyn Jenner comes to mind). These factors strongly dictate how their images are perceived, especially when it comes to millennials’ perceiving celebrity life through social networking. I think sitcoms as well as social media today have the power to, like you say, “[humanize] and [break] down preconceived notions about a certain demographic, paving the way for not only more progressive television, but a more progressive America”.

  3. mediaphiles says:

    Thank you for this post! It was extremely informative. I had never heard of the sitcom entitled Ellen and I only know Ellen DeGeneres from her talk show! It is also interesting to me how her character on the show came out right around the time she did. Sitcoms have a way of being in sequence with our lives. Another example of how sitcoms often have some resemblance of the characters real lives occured on I love Lucy. Lucy Ricardo and Lucille Ball were both pregnant at the same time and both gave birth to a baby boy, ironically. I also agree with the point that most of interaction with Ellen takes place via small video clips on my Facebook news feed. She is always so positive, encouraging, humorous, and just a kind-hearted individual. I really enjoyed your post!

    -Shanice Street

    • mediaphiles says:

      Great point about I Love Lucy! I hadn’t thought of that and had totally forgotten that context about Lucille Ball, definitely another example of actors/resses sequencing their lives with their shows. Thank you for this!

      -Adrienne Henderson

  4. mediaphiles says:

    Your analysis on Ellen coming out for the first time on the Oprah Show, and what it meant for sitcoms and the American agenda is very interesting. Clearly, homosexuality was a hot-button issue in America during the ’90s, and Ellen was in essence the perfect person to bring the issue to the forefront of American conversation. 20 years ago, the act of coming out surprised some people (and confused some, as you pointed out with one audience member’s reaction). Today, Ellen is regarded as one of the most lovable figures on television, as well as in the public sphere. I cannot think of anyone who does not like this woman! Her personality definitely worked to “humanize” the homosexual population in the eyes of those who were less well-versed in this realm, and her sitcom (although unsuccessful) shifted our culture’s perspective on many other social issues.

    -Jim Walton

  5. mediaphiles says:

    Thanks everyone! Just FYI Professor Dalton, this post was by Adrienne Henderson – realized I didn’t tag who it was by.

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