restricted access Ellen : Making Queer Television History
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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 7.4 (2001) 593-620

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Making Queer Television History

Anna McCarthy

When a television broadcast is hailed as a "first," when it alters the flow of the network schedule, when it is described as television history, you know you are in the realm of the media event. This was certainly the case with Ellen's coming-out episode on 30 April 1997. The historic status of this program was cemented by some linked observations that cropped up, in different forms, throughout the extensive coverage of the broadcast. The first was the perception of the show's lesbian character and star as a first, as something that had never before occurred in television. But the second observation, which often followed on the heels of the first one, was the somewhat contradictory assertion that gay characters and stars had existed on the small screen for a long time. Writers in the gay press and in mainstream entertainment news would affirm the status of the show as a first, then generate long lists of the queer people of all sorts who had appeared on television in decades past. Such moments often turned into genealogical recitations of milestones in the liberalization of the sitcom's representational politics. In April 1997 a writer in the Denver Post, for example, awarded Ellen a place on the liberal all-star team of sitcom firsts:

In bringing her character out of the closet, DeGeneres joins the ranks of other TV "firsts." She'll be in the pop pantheon with the first black dramatic co-star in a regular series (Bill Cosby in "I Spy," 1965); the first black sitcom star (Diahann Carroll in "Julia," 1968); the first Hispanic sitcom (Norman Lear's "A.K.A. Pablo," which came and went in 1984, starring Paul Rodriguez); and the first unmarried woman allowed to have a sex life in prime time (career gal Mary Richards in 1970's "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"). TV already has dozens of gay supporting characters; the numbers have increased steadily since Billy Crystal played TV's first [End Page 593] openly gay character in 1977's "Soap." At the end of this month, TV will count a gay lead in a regular series, too. 1

This litany of firsts is interesting because of its errors (why no mention of Beulah, or Desi Arnaz?) and because its length unintentionally diminishes the significance of the firstness of Ellen's coming-out episode. In keeping with the characteristics of coming out as a speech act, the episode had "nothing to do with the acquisition of new information"; rather, it was a largely ceremonial first, an occasion we were all supposed to remember as the moment when queer lives finally became part of mainstream television. 2 In other words, the event was a formal one, in both the textual and the ritualistic sense of the word, within television as an institution. Queer fictions and characters could now permanently and officially shape the structure of American sitcom narrative (as opposed to haunting its edges conspicuously, as Tony Randall's Sidney did in Love Sidney, or lasting only temporarily, as Crystal's character on Soap did). 3

There were good reasons to be ambivalent about this moment of mainstreaming in television as an institution. As comic Lea Delaria pointed out, not only was the firstness of the coyly named "Puppy Episode" highly manufactured, but its celebration as a historic moment in lesbian and gay political circles reflected assimilationist celebrity worship that devalued the work of entertainers like herself, "butch dykes . . . drag queens or nellie fags" who defy heteronormative conventions of stardom. 4 Indeed, DeGeneres rejected any connection to defiantly queer forms of publicity. Eric O. Clarke notes that DeGeneres's media statements about the coming-out episode only enforced normative ideals of representative gay citizenship, most notoriously when she denounced "Dykes on Bykes" as queer extremism in a Time interview. Transforming the name of a venerable pride parade contingent into a rhyming sound bite, this slam on "scary" homosexuals echoed...