Yep, They Won: The Ellen Show
and the Loss of Cultural Space
Ellen DeGeneres. The Ellen Show. CBS, 2001-2002.
It is fair to say that Ellen DeGeneres has TVQ. She is funny, she
can act, and she can act funny. She is an appealing TV personality:
attractive, just self-conscious enough to be charming, smart in a quick
but not too cerebral way, and able to perform physical comedy reminiscent
of Lucille Ball.
So, DeGeneres got another chance at a sitcom bearing her name. In the
fall of 2001, The Ellen Show appeared on CBS. Like Ellen, on ABC for
until it was cancelled in 1998, DeGeneres was both star and executive producer
of the show. Ellen made TV history when the character, Ellen Morgan, and the
star, Ellen DeGeneres, both came out as lesbians. The coming out spanned two
seasons: one in which big hints were dropped on the show and rumors about it
swept the press, culminating in the season ending coming out episode, and the
second in which Ellen Morgan lived as a lesbian, dating and developing a relationship
with a woman. Rather like a bad break up, ABC cancelled the show at the end
of that season in a clear and public rejection of the show’s strategies
at creating the first lesbian life on TV. Ratings were down, ABC said. They
blamed it on poor quality. DeGeneres and her supporters blamed it on a lack
of support from ABC.
The first season in the coming out saga was the easier one to make funny, with
winks to the audience, innuendo that is always funny to some (and effective
largely because there is an inside joke happening). That season was the best
of the series. Ellen became her own character that season, finally, as the
show poignantly pointed to her inability to fit in the world around her by
foregrounding heterosexuality in consistently thoughtful and funny ways.
That season made visible what materialist feminist Monique Wittig calls the “heterosexual
contract.”1 For Wittig the social contract itself is the heterosexual
contract. In her words, “For to live in society is to live in heterosexuality.
In fact, in my mind social contract and heterosexuality are two super-imposable
notions” (40). The power of heterosexuality lies in its complete and
mostly unquestioned normativity. Wittig explains, “Because even if they,
if we, do not consent, we cannot think outside the mental categories of heterosexuality.
Heterosexuality is always already there within all mental categories” (43).
It just is. Thus, it is invisible. The season of the hints mostly made heterosexuality
visible as heterosexuality. There still was no lesbian presence, but interestingly,
it was more effective as a critique of the normative power of heterosexuality
than the next season was.
The project for the next season was to create a lesbian presence. It was the
first show to create a life for a lesbian. There was the vexing question of
how to represent lesbian sexuality and culture to a dominant culture at best
uncomfortable with the whole idea. There was an obvious problem of address.
To whom was the show speaking? Was the show trying to win over mildly homophobic
viewers or appeal to a gay audience? It was clearly hard to do both as Ellen
found her way as a lesbian in the world. The coming out narrative itself creates
this dilemma. It automatically “others” the character on her own
show. Jill Dolan, materialist feminist, makes the point that “The only
viable positions for lesbian characters within realism appear to be as heterosexuals-in-transition,
as they are ‘coming out’ stories, or as observers, women who can
see within the limits of the form but who still cannot act” (137). Indeed,
this was precisely Ellen’s position at the beginning of the season. But
then she started to act on her sexuality. She started to date, to desire another
woman, and to act on it. It was bound to be awkward. And at times it was. At
other times it soared. The show was carving out lesbian subjectivity within
the terms of the heterosexual contract and the confines of network television.
Within these terms, the show could not succeed. On the one hand, it took the
coming out narrative too far and exceeded the limits of the heterosexual contract.
On the other hand, by trying to remain within the dictates of realism on network
television, it lost its ability to offer the critique of the heterosexual contract
that was possible in the first season. Caught in this ideological bind, the
show still pushed its limits and worked toward creating lesbian subjectivity
on mainstream TV.
In a real retreat from the cultural work DeGeneres was able to do with her
coming out seasons on Ellen, The Ellen Show backed off from that mission entirely.
In this new incarnation, DeGeneres so desexualized herself, so depoliticized
herself that she evacuated the cultural space she created with Ellen. The Ellen
Show brings the lesbian home and puts her right back in her place. In fact,
the concept of place is a displacement used to move sitcom’s most famous
lesbian back to “where she belongs.”
Ellen DeGeneres’s explicitly stated intent was to abandon any kind of
politicized identity. One can hardly blame her. She took a beating in the press
in the year that her character tried to develop a lesbian identity. As she
did the press for her new show she seems almost on the verge of apology for
her last show when she says to a roomful of TV critics, quoted in the Dallas
I think what happened with the last show is it
got to be too issue-oriented, and I take responsibility for that
. . . . That was something that
I felt I needed to do. I did a show for four years, and then suddenly
I did something that kind of overshadowed everything else. So now I
just want to be funny again. I think people want to sit at home and
turn on their TV and just laugh. That’s all they want to do.
And I understand that now. (F6)
It is not that she is returning to the closet.
She is playing a character who (she actually says to the roomful
of TV critics) “just happens
to be gay.” DeGeneres says repeatedly in interviews that she
just wants to be funny again, presumably in a way that does not challenge
any of the dominant culture’s ideologies. It seems that to be
gay is OK on television at this point, in part because of the work
her earlier show did and others continue to do now, such as Will & Grace.
But she does not want to emulate that show. Indeed it is too gay for
her. In an interview in the New York Times discussing her new show
she says that Will & Grace “is just gay, gay, gay all the
time . . . . I like that show, but in my daily life I very rarely talk
that way. I don’t go to the gas station and say, ‘fill
it up with unleaded, and I’m gay’” (3). She sees
herself more in the tradition of Bob Newhart. At the same press conference
with the TV critics, but reported by the Knoxville News-Sentinel, she
goes on to say that “Now I think life can be funny without talking
about sexuality. On Bob Newhart’s show, he was married, but the
show was not about him being married. It was just observations about
his life. That’s what I want to do” (2). This is a classic
assimilationist move, and it reminds us that indeed the social contract
is the heterosexual contract. Bob Newhart’s marriage was not
an issue because it was simply “life,” and all of his observations
about his life are inextricably intertwined with the very naturalness
of his marriage.
A lesbian cannot be represented as just making observations about her life
without either challenging the heterosexual (and thus social) contract or blending
in, assimilating using the strategy of The Ellen Show.
The premise of the show is that the character, Ellen Richmond this time, is
a big dotcom mogul in Los Angeles. The first show opens with Ellen leading
a meeting, acting the insensitive and self-important boss with her staff. She
then returns “home” to a little town called Clark (in a non-identified
state) to receive the Spread Your Wings award, given to successful Clarkians.
While there, her company folds and she goes bankrupt. She decides then to simplify
her life and move back to Clark. This lays the foundation of the show for the
rest of its short season. It becomes about Ellen fitting into life in the small,
quaint, slow-paced, decidedly uncool town of Clark. The appeal of Clark to
Ellen is that it is all of those things. She is burned out on big city living.
It is too fast-paced, too stressful, too much (too gay?).
Certainly, the trajectory of the show implies just that. She moves in with
her mother and her single, younger, heterosexual sister. She goes back to her
old room, left intact from her teenage years. She gets a job as a guidance
counselor at her old high school. Her life becomes peopled by wacky, simple,
earnest, small town, straight folks. And most of her life in Clark becomes
defined by the tension between its charms and its irritations.
Ellen is introduced immediately as a lesbian on the show. In fact the first
episode does a few funny scenes with her sexuality. In her aforementioned old
bedroom, she walks in with her mother to posters of Wonder Woman and Charlie’s
Angels on the walls and says, “Didn’t have a clue, huh, Ma?” There
is mention of her last girlfriend, and there is a promising scene in which
Ellen meets the high school gym teacher, the other lesbian on the show. Unfortunately,
these scenes only serve to introduce her as a lesbian and then drop it.
DeGeneres is fairly straightforward about replacing sexuality with place—urban
vs. small town—as the marker of difference. As reported in The Record:
Asked whether the character will have a love life,
DeGeneres says, ‘I
don’t think it’s necessary. There are so many stories that
don’t involve dating. Maybe—if it’s going to be funny.
But when you look at the shows I grew up watching—I’m thinking
of Andy Griffith—it’s just the town. (2)
This convenient shift then allows the show to sidestep the challenge
that lesbian subjectivity makes to the heterosexual contract. We get
the lesbian without the lesbian. One more materialist feminist, Kate
Davy, makes the point:
[A]s we describe lesbian resistance, the multiple and heterogeneous
possibilities her narrative spaces, positionalities, and subjectivities
present, it is imperative to inscribe the ways in which these possibilities
are enacted or performed so as to retain the specificity of, if not
lesbian desire, then lesbians desiring; if not lesbian sexuality, then
lesbians as sexual. (63)
In other words, without lesbian desire, there is no lesbian. Under
the all-encompassing force of the heterosexual contract, the lesbian
is lost, devoured into its terms if she does not perform her own desire.
These are the terms that The Ellen Show set up.
The third episode is instructive. The major theme is that a chain called
PJ Knockers is coming to town. It is characterized as a Hooters-like
Most of the people in Ellen’s circle are happy about this. They are starved
for some good chain restaurant food and entertainment. Ellen is horrified on
two levels. At least her horror gestures toward these levels: there is an anti-corporate
thrust to her concern, as well as a feminist concern for the knockers reference.
She gets so incensed that she starts a petition among her co-workers to stop
it from happening. “Don’t let this happen to Clark,” she
says. “Stop PJ Knockers.” No one at work is willing to sign the
petition. And beyond that, no one can even understand her reasons for not wanting
the restaurant in town. Even the other lesbian character is so mystified that
she cannot even seem to follow the logic. The lesbian gym teacher here is reduced
to a pre-verbal moron. This then cuts off any possibility of dialogue about
reasons to oppose something like this. Even if the dialogue could take place
between the two lesbians, and thus be easily bracketed and perhaps then dismissed
by those who need to dismiss it, it would air some ideas. But that is not allowed
to happen. Opportunities for political commentary on two levels are cut off
before they can happen. Since no one can even return a comment, there isn’t
a possibility for even cursory political commentary or the kind of wink-at-the-audience
sort of political recognition that is possible on mainstream sitcoms.
A subplot of this episode is that Ellen’s sister, Katherine, feels exploited
and oppressed in her job at the town pharmacy and has been too afraid to leave
the job or make any demands to make it better. Ellen has tried to encourage
her sister to stand up for herself. When Ellen goes into the newly-opened PJ
Knockers to register her complaint about their existence, she runs into her
sister as a waitress, dressed in shorts and a plunging tank top. Her sister
tells her that she took her advice, stood up for herself and quit the pharmacy.
Ellen immediately disapproves of her sister’s new job, and her sister
is hurt by the disapproval. This is a device that keeps Ellen in the restaurant,
discussing the matter with her sister. She needs to “protect” her
sister in a chivalrous move that could arguably represent her lesbian identity.
But this is where it falls apart completely. In a conversation with her mother,
who disapproves of Ellen’s disapproval of her sister, her mother says, “support
your family no matter what your principles. You want small town values, those
are them.” Alas, this gets to Ellen and she goes to the restaurant again
to apologize to her sister. She gives up her self and her principles in order
to fit in with her family, like so many lesbians before her.
Once Ellen goes into the restaurant this time, she is sucked into the atmosphere.
Trying to steel herself against the place she says to herself, “keep
your anger.” But it doesn’t work. She can’t help but start
singing the song in the background, “Celebration,” by Kool and
the Gang, dances around a bit and ends up doing a table dance with her sister.
This is Ellen’s story. The self she may have once had is safely put away
in support of the apolitical, very comfortable, straight people around her.
The next episode is another that offers an opportunity to play the lesbian
difference, but falls short of actually enacting that difference. Ellen is
going to be photographed and interviewed by the magazine Vanity Fair in a profile
about people who have opted out of the fast lane for the simple life. When
Ellen gets this news, the people in her life all ask her what she is going
to do about her hair. On one level this seems like a funny way to point to
her lesbian style in contrast to the straight aesthetic around her. But the
performance of it does not allow for that reading.
In continuous banter with every character Ellen encounters, her hair is the
subject of concern. Her sister, her mother, her male co-worker, and a student
she is counseling all comment on the fact that her hair needs help. Tina, the
student who is a punk rocker going through an identity crisis, says, “Well,
I wish I could be more like you and not care what people think. It’s
just your hair. I mean, it’s obvious you don’t spend more than
three minutes on it.” There is never one moment, one response from Ellen
that suggests any kind of lesbian sensibility or reaction or consciousness
at all. She looks blankly, acts stunned, a bit insulted, but she has evacuated
After pressure from all the straight women and men around her, she agrees to
go have her hair done. She goes to the town salon, which is a typical small
town beauty shop, with pictures of big hair all over the walls. Not surprisingly,
Ellen gets a big hairdo. When she is unveiled to the audience, it is funny,
not because it is a dyke being straightened out, but because it is so clearly
not her style. It is a big, teased-up, hair-sprayed, middle-aged, straight,
small-town woman’s hairdo. Ellen looks horrified, but cannot really bring
herself to tell the stylist, who asks, “Do you like it?” Ellen
replies in horror, “Do I like it?” The hair stylist gets it, though,
and says in an offended tone, “Not hip enough for you?” This is
the way the show talks about Ellen’s difference from the rest of the
people. It is not that she is a lesbian, it is that she is urban, and thus
The next scene finds Ellen alone in her bathroom with a towel on her head.
She reveals enough of her hair for us to see it is the same style. She seems
powerless to do anything about the hideous hair style. Water would do the trick.
But she cannot seem to make that step, to erase the straightness out of her
hair. There is a knock on the door. She looks out the window and sees the man
who she thinks is from Vanity Fair. Through a typical sitcom’s series
of misunderstandings, she thinks it is the hair stylist from Vanity Fair to
do her hair before her photo shoot, but it is really the animal groomer from
Vanity Fur. So the next scene features Ellen being groomed by a stylish, young,
gay, white man. He treats her like he thinks she is a dog, and gives her a
dog-do. She—being so hip and urban—thinks it must be a good haircut,
even though she does not seem to know how to react to it, because the stylist
from Vanity Fair did it. She spends the rest of the show in that haircut, being
laughed at by the other characters.
The displacement of Ellen’s difference residing in her urban style and
sensibilities, living in a provincial small town among small town people, is
made the most clear in the episode when her stuff finally arrives to her mother’s
house. Two things go on in this episode. One is the actual stuff. It is the
stuff that young urban professionals use. She has a high-tech chair that her
mother cannot even identify as a chair. All the jokes are Ellen’s mother
and sister making fun of the expensive, useless, pretentious stuff that Ellen
seems to need. This concretizes the difference between her and them. And that
difference is urban vs. small town. It is worldly vs. provincial. It is ambitious
professional vs. no-ambition-small-town-job.
This is related to the other plot line in this episode. Ellen feels left out.
Her mom and sister have a comfortable, settled-in kind of relationship in this
episode, and Ellen feels outside of it. They have their routines, their TV
shows, and a shared set of references they understand. Ellen wants to be part
of that. She wants to feel a part of them. She spends this episode trying to
create a family that all three of them can participate in. She tries to join
them, changing the routine a bit, but basically just trying to fit in to what
they have. Ellen is going home again. In Ellen’s case this is particularly
disturbing, since it clearly means becoming one of them. She has to be recuperated
back into the family to be there. For Ellen to be absorbed back into the family
is to give up her real difference, her sexuality. And she does.
At least the show does acknowledge, at times, that Ellen must be lonely. In
the next episode, Ellen starts complaining that there is no nightlife in this
town. She decides that she would like to go to the “fancy French restaurant” in
town. She cannot find anyone to go with her. Everyone she asks says that they
cannot go because it is a place for couples.
Ellen decides that she will just have to go alone. In this episode, there are
a couple of references to sexuality. There is the Lebanese joke. And some reference
to her not being in a relationship. At least it is a reference to her lack.
And then as she is being seated there is a funny bit. The hostess asks where “he” is.
Ellen says, “There is no he. I’m one.” The hostess replies, “I
hear there is a teacher at the high school who is a one too.”
So Ellen finally sits and there are plenty of jokes playing on the fact that
she is alone. But then she sees her sister and her best friend from school,
Rusty, sitting at a table on a date. They have been sneaking around, and have
now been caught. The three of them have a great time together and they all
start going out together all the time. It becomes Ellen dating Rusty and Katherine.
Ellen is very enthusiastic about it. But after a time, Rusty and Katherine
want to end their relationship. Ellen is devastated, as if she were being dumped.
They try to comfort her by saying, “you’ll meet other couples.” Ellen
is again completely de-sexualized here. She occupies no space that allows her
to be a sexual adult. She is existing through their lives.
One more episode does just those moves again. The plot revolves around Ellen’s
difference, this time manifested in the fact that she cannot find a decent
cup of coffee anywhere in Clark. Her mother and sister of course are perfectly
satisfied by the coffee that they have.
Through a nonsensical series of events Ellen ends up at an A.A. meeting, where
she finally finds good coffee. She also sees her mother’s new beau sharing
a completely false story about his drinking past. This too is nonsensical,
but it allows Ellen to hate him. This provides the fodder for the now familiar
move of recuperation back into the family. The story ultimately becomes about
Ellen protecting her mother and sister: her position in the family. There is
no space in this heteronormative family for Ellen’s self except in relation
There are a few promising jokes that gesture towards the enactment of her sexual
difference throughout the season. But they are not enough to create an actual
space for that difference. The very structure of the show absorbs those references
into the dominant form of reference: heterosexuality. The assimilation strategy
here erases the lesbian, and allows the heterosexual contract to remain undisturbed.
It is not enough, it is not effective, to construct her difference as that
of the urban outsider. What that really does is emphasize her outsider status.
We have the price for being a lesbian here, without the lesbian. Lesbian qua
lesbian needs to occupy cultural space for it to exist. The Ellen Show refuses
to allow that space to exist.
1. The “heterosexual contract” is a concept that Wittig
develops in several essays in her book The Straight Mind. Those essays
are “One is Not Born a Woman” (9-20), “The Straight
Mind” (21-32), and “On the Social Contract” (33-45).
Bark, Ed. “Ellen Returns to Humor Home Base.” The
Dallas Morning News 1 Aug. 2001: F6+.
Crain Communications. “Yeah She’s Gay, But So What?” Electronic
Media 13 Aug. 2001: 10.
Davy, Kate. “From Lady Dick to Ladylike: The Work of Holly Hughes.” Acting
Out: Feminist Performances. Ed. Lynda Hart and Peggy Phelan. Ann Arbor:
Michigan University Press, 1993.
Dolan, Jill. Presence & Desire: Essays on Gender, Sexuality, Performance.
Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 1993.
Green, Jesse. “Come Out. Come Down. Come Back. Being Ellen.” New
York Times 19 Aug. 2001: Sec. 6 28+.
Morrow, Terry. “DeGeneres: Yep, I’m More Than Just Gay.” Knoxville
News-Sentinel 16 Sept. 2001: G1+.
Rohan, Virginia. “Her Work, Not Her Love Life.” The Record
10 Sept. 2001: 2.
Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon
Jennifer Reed received her Ph.D. in Comparative
Culture from the University of California Irvine. She currently teaches
for the Program in Women’s
Studies at California State University Long Beach and is working on
a couple of projects that explore the positions of lesbians and straight
women in a “post-feminist” America.
Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 1 (Spring 2002)
Copyright © 2002 by the University of Iowa