Changing TV Landscape

By Philip Kennicott Of The Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), April 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

Changing TV Landscape


Philip Kennicott Of The Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


* DeGeneres comes out for real and on her sitcom. Here's some analysis of the hype surrounding it.

THE walls at the Loading Zone are painted bleak black, the better to set off the multiple video screens that pop with endless, rapid-fire streams of familiar images.

The gay video bar is not for dancing nor, unless you have strong vocal chords, for conversation. Instead, there is a nonstop, hypnotic, visual barrage of great moments from camp film classics, interspersed with pin-up images of athletic young men culled from television, advertisements and MTV dance parties. The effect is rather like the large glasses of red wine served there - aggressively numbing, reassuring, dull making. On Wednesday evening, patrons of the Loading Zone will use the video monitors to watch the television character played by Ellen DeGeneres "come out" as the first lead television character to be openly gay on prime time (8 p.m. on Channel 30). "People are really excited," says Michael Mullen, a bartender who is organizing the 30 bash on Wednesday at the Loading Zone. "Some people get cynical about it, but it is the first time something like this has happened. It's a good step for gay rights." A few blocks away, at Magnolia's, there are fewer television screens, and no one pays much attention to the two that are turned on. The crowd is older and quieter, playing pool and talking on a slow Sunday night. A young lesbian woman checking IDs at the door doesn't have much to say about the "Ellen" show. "Most of my friends don't watch it," she says. "I'm not sure if we're doing any sort of party here or not. It's not a real big thing." And so no surprise. Gay culture reflects mainstream culture, and when it comes to "Ellen," it shows the same range of responses - yawns to enthusiastic applause. For some it's a milestone, for others just another blip on the pop-culture radar screen, signifying little beyond the surreal commercial/cultural nexus of the media. If there's an unofficial official line in the gay community, it comes from the Human Rights Campaign, the largest national gay and lesbian rights organization. "We think that there may be people who come out as a result of this," says Kim Bell, a spokeswoman with HRC. "It gives friends and family reasons to talk about the issue. I think we are pretty much of the view that this is a step forward." HRC is preparing packets of information for potential party hosts around the country about how to hold an Ellen DeGeneres coming-out event. Most of their suggestions are of the Miss Manners' sort, advice on when to send invitations, how to follow up, possible party games and so on - advice for the socially timorous. The advice suggests that, as in St. Louis, small private gatherings to celebrate the show will be cropping up around the country. But while very few in the gay community will say that having an openly lesbian lead character on network television is a bad thing, some critics decline to recognize the event as part of the gay civil rights movement's "agenda." Ellen's coming out, like the pre-emptive right-wing strike against gay marriage, comes primarily from the straight world's agenda. Though DeGeneres initiated the idea, and came out herself in Time magazine, the events, the drama, the nattering of pundits, preachers and pop icons, has been staged and controlled by heterosexual institutions. If Ellen's coming out has significance, it is for what it says about mainstream American culture, not for what it does to legitimize gay subculture. Ellen Eisenbach, author of "Lesbianism Made Easy," finds Ellen an appealing character and welcomes her openness in both her career and television persona. Yet Eisenbach finds the actual "coming out" to be almost unnecessary. "In essence, she's been out all along," says Eisenbach from her home in New York. "Gay people have recognized Ellen as a lesbian from the beginning, and were irritated by how diluted the show was with its needless, extraneous straight characters around her. …

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