Terms of Identity: Ellen's Intertextual Coming Out
In the spring of 1997, the cultural waves moved with the season's media event: Ellen Degeneres's character was coming out on the ABC television sitcom Ellen. The event was widely heralded as a breakthrough, a first for television: The lead character in a network show openly acknowledged her homosexuality ( Handy 1997). The coming out was doubled: The lead character in the show, Ellen Morgan, admitted to herself and others that she was gay; and in linked magazine stories and television interviews the actress, Ellen Degeneres, acknowledged that she, too, was gay.
This lesbian prominence on prime time television can be viewed as a major victory of the gay and lesbian movement. Cultural theorist Arthur Kroker claims that nothing happens in our society unless it happens on television ( Lipsitz 1997). Public visibility is understood as a first step toward public acceptance and toward the "mainstreaming" of gays and lesbians in various sociocultural niches. When gay and lesbians are visible in the media, another step has been taken toward their visibility and acceptance as a "natural" part of social life. Rosemary Hennessy summarizes this position nicely:
Cultural visibility can prepare the ground for gay civil rights protection and affirlmative images of lesbians and gays in the mainstream media . . . can be empowering for those of us who have lived most of our lives with no validation at all from the dominant culture. ( 1994-95, 31-32)
From this position, Ellen's television coming out was demonstrable progress, worthy of celebration.
But as Joshua Gamson suggests, the desire of homosexuals and bisexuals to be recognized and validated has been stronger than the desire