Ellen DeGeneres [...] DeGeneres and how her life has influenced the Gay and Lesbian community within the entertainment world. Ellen DeGeneres; comedienne, talk show host, and lesbian. Her candid exposure of her life has made a difference to gays and lesbians everywhere, and has created a new understanding of gender and sexuality in much of the media.
Ellen DeGeneres was born on January 26, 1958, in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, and spent much of her young life in the suburbs of New Orleans. She has a brother, Vance, who is four years older than she is, and grew up in a Christian Scientist family. Ellen spent her high school years in Atlanta, Texas, after her mother and father divorced and her mother moved to Atlanta. She seems to have been good at some athletics, such as tennis, and a bit heavyset. When she graduated from high school, she moved back to New Orleans and began working at a series of jobs like oyster shucking and running errands for a law firm. Her first job in comedy was as the emcee for a local club called "Clyde's Corner." She began her stand up comedy career at clubs in New Orleans, and entered the "Funniest Person in New Orleans" contest, which led to her winning the "Funniest Person in America" contest in 1982. She moved to San Francisco in 1983 to capitalize on her "Funniest Person" title, and then moved on to Los Angeles in 1986, where she worked such notable venues as The Improv. A representative of the Johnny Carson show caught one of her appearances, and invited her to appear on the show. She was the first female comic on the show to be invited to sit on the couch and visit with Johnny during a first appearance on the show. She went on to appear on the show six times, and later appeared on the Jay Leno show, Oprah Winfrey, Letterman, and Arsinio Hall. These experiences were good practice for her own talk show that currently runs in syndication on several networks. In 1991, DeGeneres won the American Comedy Award for Best Female Comedy Club Stand-Up, and has been nominated for several other awards. She made guest appearances on several television shows before her own series developed in 1994. "Ellen" ran for four years, and made television history in 1997 when her character, Ellen Morgan, came out in an hour-long episode and admitted she was gay. These critics note, "Ellen DeGeneres, who had publicly sidestepped questions about her own sexuality for years, took a loud and very public step out of the closet. Everyone heard the words the moment they left her mouth. For 'Ellen' and Ellen DeGeneres, there was no turning back" (Carstarphen & Zavoina 185). She won the Peabody Award in 1997, and an Emmy for the coming out episode of her show. Publicly, Ellen also admitted she was gay and began openly living with her partner, Anne Heche. She and Heche broke up in 2000. After the breakup, DeGeneres restarted a career she had put on hold to create a stand-up special for HBO, and to voice the character "Dory" in Disney's "Finding Nemo" animated film. Her talk show has won a Daytime Emmy, and her career continues to thrive. She lives in Los Angeles, where her mother also lives (Hillier).
DeGeneres is a gifted comedienne and writer, but that is not the key to her importance and celebrity. She is a lesbian, as are many others in the Hollywood community. Her importance lies in that she was the first openly gay character on a television show, and that created the opportunity for a new level of entertainment in television and film. DeGeneres' decision to come out on national television opened up a great door of opportunity to other gay actors, but it also gained major publicity for DeGeneres and her life choice. She appeared on countless talk and interview shows after her public announcement, and when her relationship with Hecht became public, the two traveled the talk show circuit extensively, discussing their lives and sexual choices. Americans became used to seeing the pair together, and it seems they got used to the idea of alternate sexualities, too. The same critics continue, "Not since the gays in the military controversy in 1992 at the beginning of President Clinton's first term in office had homosexuals and homosexual issues been so widely discussed and debated in the public discourse" (Carstarphen & Zavoina 187). While it is clear that it was difficult emotionally and mentally for DeGeneres to discuss her personal life, and to admit she was gay, it is clear her motives were sincere and honest. She simply wanted to tell the truth about herself and her lifestyle. Ellen once said Johnny Carson said of her, "To tell you you're fresh and clever & original, which was all I ever wanted to be. I don't wanna be just good, I wanna be original, I wanna be myself and so that was amazing to hear that from him" (Hillier). Clearly, one of Ellen's professional goals was to be different and unique. She could not have accomplished that goal any better than when she announced she was gay.
In a society where many gay people are still afraid to admit to the world that they are gay, she created a type of safety net. Millions of people watched her "Coming out" show, and millions more read about it in magazines and newspapers in the days after it aired. It gave credence to a gay lifestyle, and made more people understand gays were just like everyone else. They own businesses, have relationships, and interact with their families. Ellen's coming out was a personal decision, but its affect was widespread and all encompassing. She learned about herself, but she also taught many people about the gay lifestyle, and helped some people become more accepting of that lifestyle.
While many people became more accepting of the gay lifestyle, and it became more common to see gay characters on television, DeGeneres acknowledges that her life has not always been easy, especially in Hollywood. She says, "In this town, you've got your 800-pound gorillas. Your meek, squashable rabbits. And your jackasses, a whole lot of jackasses. When the show started, I was a little bunny, and now I'm a chimp. A big chimp. A friendly, lovable chimp" (Hillier). While her persona may be innocent and a bit klutzy and self-deprecating, it is clear DeGeneres has a strong felling about herself and her life. She is a strong woman, who illustrates that gays can be successful in show business and still acknowledge their sexuality. Show business is a difficult and demanding business for anyone and women in show business face even greater odds because their success is so based on appearance and sexuality. For DeGeneres to be successful in a business that places so much emphasis on beauty and outward appearance is especially telling, because her talent is her greatest strength, but her sexuality could have gotten in her way. Being gay makes her vulnerable in a business that discards those who are too vulnerable. Her vulnerability shows when she notes, "We all feel like idiots at one time or another. Even if we feel we're cool 98% of the time, that 2% doofus is poised to take over our bodies without any warning" (Hillier). DeGeneres is a unique blend of vulnerability and strength, and her ability to tell the truth about her personal life added to her openness, but also added to her charm, and opened the door for others to do the same.
DeGeneres came clean in her television show, and gave many other gays the impetus to admit they were gay, but that did not end their struggle for identity and experience. Critics Carstarphen and Zavoina continue, "The struggle was not only over control of gayness on television but over the power for lesbians and gays to control their own identity and to validate the meanings of their own social experiences" (Carstarphen & Zavoina 191). This is the ultimate challenge in a society that still views the gay lifestyle as an alternate and not altogether acceptable life choice. DeGeneres notes, "If people have learned one thing about me, it's that I'm honest. They'll know how I'm feeling'" (Toto B05).
While many openly accepted DeGeneres after her confession, there was a large section of America that condemned DeGeneres for her choices and her opinions. Reverend Jerry Falwell dubbed her "Ellen DeGenerate," and others boycotted her show, including sponsors Chrysler and Coca-Cola, among others, dropped Ellen's show from their advertising lineup after her announcement that she was gay (Gross 161). There are continuing estimates that about ten percent of the population in America is gay. While these numbers are disputed, it is clear there are growing numbers of openly gay people and couples in today's world, and that the media will continue to recognize them as a growing political and societal force. DeGeneres' coming…