No, this note is not another column criticizing Ellen Degeneres for being a friend of George Bush; nor is it an apology for her courage in coming out to the entertainment world at the risk of losing everything.
This article is a double-edged reflection on the monopolization of gender representation, and the need that many of us have for a new cast on the screens.
During the last edition of the Golden Globes, the comedian Kate McKinnon presented the Carol Burnett Award to Ellen Degeneres, an honorary award for a life dedicated to television, which sought to highlight the importance of Degeneres in American television culture.
In her speech, McKinnon acknowledged amid jokes the importance of representation for communities often rejected by established discourses:
“In 1997, when Ellen’s sitcom was in the height of its popularity, I was in my mother’s basement lifting weights in front of the mirror and thinking, ‘Am I gay?’ And I was, and I still am,” said the Saturday Night Live comedian and writer. “But that’s a very scary thing to suddenly know about yourself. It’s sort of like doing 23andMe, and discovering that you have alien DNA. And the only thing that made it less scary was seeing Ellen on TV.”
No one, under any circumstances, can question the importance of Ellen Degeneres in American popular culture — and even beyond.
After trying to survive as a stand-up comedian in the Eighties — where the bar was set by the likes of Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, or the brilliant George Carlin — Degeneres made her way into sitcoms under her own name, until she dared to take that leap into the void that comes with coming out of the closet.
That decision would cost her conservative audience and, eventually, her job.
The world had already had a taste of the reality of the LGBTQ community — whether through dramas like Philadelphia or comedies like The Birdcage — but the HIV stigma and urban myths still prevented American families from welcoming a gay person into their living room.
Ellen succeeded in doing precisely that.
The now-iconic “Puppy Episode” in which Ellen confesses to her therapist, played by Oprah Winfrey, that she’s lesbian, imposed antacit punishment of censorship on the comedian, who would return to the set in 2001 with her sitcom The Ellen Show, cancelled after 13 episodes.
Since then, Ellen has become as famous for her good deeds, solidarity, and humor as for her allegedly bad temper when the cameras go off. She has made friends and enemies alike, and has been no stranger to controversy.
But after 15 years without doing stand-up comedy, the actress tried to return to center stage with her special for Netflix Relatable at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, with a monologue that was intended to show her as close to reality as any other flesh and blood person.
Ellen reviewed her best and worst moments in the industry, the stereotypes, and even her veganism. The problem is that the world is not the same, and the LGBTQ community needs voices that go beyond a family show set or stand-up comedy routine.
And then came Nanette, the Netflix special from Australian comedian Hanna Gadsby.
In the same tone of self-fiction, Gadsby hilariously delves into the self-punitive and self-deprecating process of a gay comedian; she goes beyond what makes “a lesbian joke” funny, and plunges her finger into the sore spot of the true story: We have tried so hard to be accepted, that we have humiliated ourselves to the point of no return.
For Ellen it may be easier now — nobody would dare say it was then — but I couldn’t help thinking, as I watched McKinnon hand her the statuette, that we need much more than comedy to stop being just another tool in the entertainment of those who don’t see us as full human beings.
Perhaps the new decade will bring lesbians of all backgrounds and colors who may take comedy to that critical point of no return, in the best George Carlin-style, but with a woman’s voice.