Tuesday 25th July 2017,
Televisual

Ellen, the Academy, and Improving Media Criticism

ellen_and_portiaIn the academy and in the humanities, we’re trained to be skeptics. It’s almost part of the job. When it comes to representation, the idea that what we see in the media is a reflection on the real world, the academy is still way behind the times, something I’ve written about before. Skepticism has turned into blind cynicism, and it makes us look silly.

One point some academics — who shall remain nameless — are very reluctant to concede is whether mainstream America can accept openly gay celebrities. The pessimism continues to this day. While there’s plenty of evidence this may be warranted, especially concerning gay (and black gay) men and Hollywood cinema, Ellen Degeneres and Portia de Rossi’s relationship is the glaring exception.

But I still hear scholars and people on the left say all the time that Ellen “isn’t really out,” that she whitewashes her image, etc.

This simply isn’t true. It’s the exact opposite actually. Ellen regularly talks about Portia on her show. Portia has been a guest on Ellen. Ellen famously challenged John McCain on gay marriage during the campaign. Portia herself cut an anti-Prop 8 video. The photos and video of Portia and Ellen’s marriage have been widely circulated, including, once again, on her show, on Oprah, (and above). Finally, the New York Times today put a nail in the coffin when it narrated Ellen’s appearance on Oprah, where she and Portia get all lovey-dubby, hold hands and such.

Is that enough for the left? Do they have to make out on screen? Ellen has never been, and cannot be, any more out.** What’s so shocking to me is that Ellen is always the example people use when they want to say mainstream America can’t accept gay celebs. Really? One of the most popular people in all media? Even less popular celebs are doing okay: Rachel Maddow, Rosie O’Donnel, Melissa Etheridge, Wanda Sykes, Suze Orman, and gay men Neil Patrick Harris, TR Knight, David Hyde Pierce, etc.

I never want to hear this complaint about Ellen again. What makes it even more aggravating is that straight talk show hosts are even more private with personal lives than Ellen. When is the last time you heard Oprah say the word “Stedman”? Diane Sawyer say “Nichols”? Who is Tyra Banks dating? What about Whoopi Goldberg? Barbara Walters? Laughable. Go past daytime, and anchors become even more cagey.

The problem here is that the academy has not updated its language on representation. We’re still in the model that pits minorities against the mainstream. But the truth is media companies and celebrities have become incredibly saavy at marketing minorities — from Neil Patrick Harries to Wanda Sykes, Mo’Nique, George Lopez, Rosie O’Donnell, Whoopi Goldberg, Sherri Shephered, of course Oprah, hey, A Different World was 20 years ago, and on and on ad infinitum. I know I don’t need to mention Barack Obama here. Younger people are still showing more openness to various images; polling shows broad trends are changing the cultural landscape. Yes. Culture changes.

We need to start moving past representation, I don’t know where, but somewhere. Perhaps into talking about how images circulate, shift and take on meaning for people — a more ethnographic approach which has been in practice for decades. Some scholars are calling for a return to political economy and structure, saying that identity and images are too complicated to create viable links to politics. That might be a good way to go.

But please, stop saying Ellen isn’t gay enough.

**If you want to claim that Ellen is “normative,” well, that’s a different argument. Yes, Ellen is normative. She’s married and rich.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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