As a lesbian woman, Ellen DeGeneres is being held to higher standards than if she were a man
While the allegations of bullying sound inexcusable, we hold women to higher standards in terms of kindness – and when you’re part of a minority, the burden of representation is toxic
Watching Ellen as a child in the late 90s, I knew that the titular character and I were somehow alike. In her sitcom, Ellen DeGeneres played a woman who was goofy, neurotic, and – most importantly – not typically feminine. I was all of those things too, but – even aged seven or eight – I knew I was like her in a more profound way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on yet.
For a lot of queer women who grew up in the 90s, DeGeneres was our first ever glimpse of TV visibility, although her sexuality was only hinted at until the penultimate season of Ellen in which her character comes out as a lesbian. Concurrent with this groundbreaking LGBTQ moment in American sitcom history, DeGeneres herself came out on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
From this point onwards, Ellen was The Main Lesbian. She wore pant suits, dated other high-profile women, and – in general – was a Sapphic oasis in a parched hetero celebrity desert.
She was the one gay woman your mum had probably heard of. After 20 years of being the friendly, relatable face of lesbian respectability, a number of claims from staffers on her talk show have lifted the mask to reveal someone unrecognisably different.
The woman whose entire shtick is being likeable stands accused of – behind the scenes – behaving more like Miranda Priestly than Barney the Dinosaur.
Katy Perry has spoken out in support of talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, saying she has only ever had “positive takeaways” from her time on the show (Photo: David Jensen/PA Wire)
But this isn’t the first time DeGeneres has been “cancelled”. As a direct result of her coming out in 1997, her career tanked as, apparently, America wasn’t ready for lesbians. It wasn’t until 2003 and the beginning of the Ellen DeGeneres Show that she made a comeback.
And it should probably be noted that, as a woman demoted to obscurity for being gay, you don’t climb back to the top by being nice. Which presents a conundrum when a kind and nurturing nature is something deeply rooted in society’s expectations of women. As hardnosed and driven as DeGeneres clearly is, it’s hardly surprising that she had to cultivate a public façade of delightfulness to reclaim airtime.
Although allegations of off-air behaviour would be inexcusable, it’s hard to believe a man in her position would face the same backlash, purely for being unkind.
And this couldn’t have been demonstrated any more clearly than by the fact that James Corden – of all the people in the known universe – has been billed to replace her. James Corden. The man who, at a 2017 charity gala, riffed on the Harvey Weinstein scandal, as if the serial rapist was “a bit of a lad”.
The beige citadel of mediocrity, who made the film Lesbian Vampire Killers. The man who – if a viral tweet from 2017 is anything to go by – went an entire flight without helping his wife with their newborn baby. A man who – some might say – is not particularly kind himself.
But if the furore has taught us anything, it should be that, when you’re part of a minority, the burden of representation is toxic.
I have no doubt that bigots will make a link between Ellen’s callousness and her sexuality and nod knowingly. Because they can’t name a single other lesbian.
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