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.
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.
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.