While being openly gay in Hollywood is still a huge career gamble (especially if you haven’t made it already), when it comes to comedy, lesbians rule. Just look at Ellen, Rosie and Wanda and you’ll see that America openly embraces lesbian comics who openly embrace their sexuality. As we told you earlier this week, Wanda Sykes scored a late night TV deal with Fox. What is it about lesbian comics that makes them so easily accepted by a public that remains squeamish about gay male comics as well as gay and lesbian leads?
The answer is more complicated than you might expect. While Ellen, Rosie and Wanda all came out well into their career, all three haven’t shied away from discussing their sexuality publicly– and horror of horrors– haven’t been afraid to use their TV appearances to talk about gay and lesbian issues. What’s even more shocking is that all three have done it on network TV.
Ellen, for instance, used her talk show to discuss her marriage to Portia DeRossi, running photos of the wedding on the show. When Jon McCain showed up to discuss politics in the 2008 campaign, she talked to him about gay rights. On The View, Rosie frequently brought up her sexuality and when the show’s annoying Republican Elisabeth Hasselback argues against gay rights, the audience would side with Rosie.
Part of the appeal of these leading ladies is their talent, to be sure. All of them handle questions about their sexuality with humor and honesty. They put a human face on gays and lesbians, but they don’t shy away from confrontation. While Rosie takes the loud-mouth approach, Ellen uses her trademark self-deprecating style to diffuse any situation. It’s great these women are unafraid their true colors, but what’s more surprising, considering the way in which anti-gay groups attack anything tinged even the lightest shade of lavender, is how they’ve managed to do so without incurring the wrath of the Christian right.
When Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997 on her sitcom Ellen, the Christian Right labeled her “Ellen Degenerate.” Today, they wouldn’t dare. The reason is basically that Ellen is too popular and beloved a figure to target. She’s won the Daytime Emmy for Best Talk Show Host for four years running. In fact, it’s the talk show format that’s vaulted lesbian comediennes to the big time.
There’s two factors at play here. The first is the talk show format itself. Unlike scripted television, The Ellen DeGeneres Show is a two-way medium. Ellen is more than just a comic by herself; she’s the Ellen Nation. Oprah pioneered the idea that daytime talk-show audiences are more than just passive spectators, both in and out of the studio. Instead, they’re encouraged to read books, take on pet issues and integrate the show into their daily life. The strategy isn’t just good for ratings. It makes audiences feel as if the show isn’t just for them, but a reflection of them.
The second factor plays on that. For the most part, talk shows cater to women and for the most part, remain the only place on TV where strong women not only get to sit center stage, but get to define the agenda. Beyond being a lesbian, Ellen’s appeal is that she comes off as a strong leader and role model.
Without jumping into a big discussion on feminism, women have a certain idea of what a female leader should be– and one of those things is that she must be someone in touch with her sexuality and to be emotionally honest. These are values that carry enormous weight with female audiences and so, far from being a hindrance, Ellen’s ability to talk about her relationships and sexuality– even if not everyone agrees with it– serves as an asset. Put another way, for female audiences, femininity trumps sexuality.
It’s also worth pointing out that none of these women garnered as much fame as they have until they left the world of sitcoms and stand-up (or at least moved away from that being their prime focus) as they did once they embraced the talk show format. Wanda Sykes’ planned show, expected to debut next January, follows that format, though it’s expected to be more political and brash than Ellen’s.
These pioneering leading ladies have done more to put a face on the gay and lesbian movement than any political leader or non-profit group and they’ve done it with very little prodding from the gay community. Partly it’s the demographic and the format they’ve chosen, but mostly, it’s courage, which turns out not only to be a great skill for getting through life, but also, for getting ratings as well.