Will she or won't she?

September 24, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Go figure this one. It's barely a week since Congress voted down same-sex marriage and killed a bill forbidding job discrimination against homosexuals. But the buzz in gay America is whether the sitcom star of ''Ellen'' will come out of the closet.

I can't decide if we treat mass culture too seriously or if we shrink our real concerns down to the size of the boob tube. Either way we end up with every social issue whittled into sitcom shape.

The ''Ellen'' flap is an echo of the moment four years ago when a serious national debate about unwed single mothers came to a head over the sitcom pregnancy of Murphy Brown.

Then Murphy became a whipping girl for Dan Quayle. Now Ellen has become a dart board for religious brigades threatening advertising boycotts over this Minnie Mouse of an event.

No husband in this picture

The show opened its fourth season with the thirtysomething bookstore owner out house-shopping. The dippy real-estate agent set up a little sales slide show of her client's future life under this roof saying, ''And here's your husband coming home from work.''

To which Ellen answered, ''Whoa, I think that puppet's in the wrong show.''

Last year, this might have been just another statement of bemused independence from a woman who is unapologetically single while all around her are intent on mating. This kind of line has endeared her to legions of women who are equally resistant to Mr. Wrong and the fashion police.

But Disney, which owns ABC, has leaked the possibility of Ellen's sexual de-closeting. If this were politics, they would be floating a ''trial balloon'' with a voter call-in number.

The same line is now a hint, a tease in the ''Is she or isn't she, will she or won't she?'' Come Out Sweepstakes. A sweepstakes that is likely to go on for much of the season.

Not so long ago, de-closetation was nearly fatal. In movies and TV, lesbians were serial killers, sociopaths or suicides. One L.A. Lawyer ended up down the elevator shaft.

Now we've had less lethal moments from the lumberjacks of ''Northern Exposure'' to ''The Kiss'' of Roseanne and Mariel Hemingway. But ''Ellen Morgan'' would still be the first to shatter videotape barrier as a gay sitcom star.

What's important

As for Ellen DeGeneres herself? Until now the comedian has been private about her personal life. She said once, ''If it's important to someone what my sexuality is, then I'm sorry.'' When New York magazine reported spotting her at a Manhattan bar kissing a woman, it started a controversy about the difference between ''outing'' and celebrity reporting.

Ms. DeGeneres begins her fey and funny best-selling book with the questions ''Who am I? How did I get to be me?'' But she never answers those questions.

Perhaps she worried that coming out might color everything in her show lavender -- from the puppet to the pants suits. It might loosen her connection to all the straight fans who, like Ellen, were forever caught in the bridesmaid's dress from hell.

But in the political/cultural wars, Ellen Morgan/DeGeneres would make an intriguing ''first.'' If I may usurp the title of her book, ''My Point . . . and I Do Have One'' is that Ellen would remain much the same. In or out.

As Ms. DeGeneres once said, ''And for my character, anyway, I just want to be a human being. I want her to be single in this world struggling to get by without huge goals and ambitions.'' Maybe this is the connection, however stretched, between TV personality and public policy.

In full flap

On Wednesday, while ''Ellen '' was in full flap, a survey of gay Americans was released. It turns out that their biggest concerns mirror those of straight Americans: crime and drugs followed by economics, health care, education. As for gay issues, they were nearly twice as worried about job discrimination as about gay marriage. Even today more than half had not told their employers that they were homosexual.

The more gays are out, the more they become known and accepted as friends, family and co-workers. The more they are accepted, the more they can come out. This cycle of ''out-ness'' is at the root of changed attitudes and policy.

In a world where homosexuals are still demonized, it turns out that the most radical thing a woman can do is to expose herself as a ''human being.'' And to play one on TV.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/24/96

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