First published by The Pool on 23 November 2016
We all know that these are truly bleak times we’re living in. I spent yesterday full of despair, reading about the Nazi salutes and “Hail Trump!”s being doled out at an alt-right conference in Washington DC, and the President Elect’s complaints that journalists didn’t use flattering photos of him during his campaign. I sent my dad a New Yorker article about Trump’s attack on the press, and he simply replied, as though reading my mind, “I want to be an ostrich in a sandpit.” I went to bed feeling miserable.
So there was really nothing more perfect to see online first thing this morning, my eyes still full of sleep, than the video of Barack Obama presenting Ellen DeGeneres with a Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian award given in the United States.
I’ve been a fan of DeGeneres since the mid-1990s, when I was about 12, and she was the star of her own sitcom, Ellen. It was a gentle show built around the qualities that make her so charming: her sense of humour – a mixture of the absurd and the dry; her lack of ego, and willingness to be foolish; that strong impression she gives of being a really, truly good person. I loved her immediately; I remember also finding her doing stand-up one night on Channel 4 and recording it on VHS, so that I could watch it again and again.
When she came out as a lesbian in 1997, her on-screen character did too. ABC ran “viewer discretion” warnings before that episode and every episode that followed – despite the fact that the show was incredibly tame. It’s hard to imagine now. The event caused an enormous wave of publicity and a religious backlash, and advertisers backed away from the show – there’s a good round-up of the reactions in a 1997 episode of Oprah, in which DeGeneres gave an interview about her sexuality: “I’m not ashamed of who I am,” she said. Her sitcom was cancelled a year later.
I was a child when this unfolded, but I remember the fuss caused by a comedian simply announcing that she was attracted to women. After the show was cancelled, it took a few years before her career took off again; she began The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2003, and today it still runs five days a week. It has turned her into one of America’s biggest names. It’s as cosy and cheerful a show as you can imagine, and yet because DeGeneres presents it, it’s socially important: it’s a piece of mainstream culture helmed by a married lesbian, in an age where many in America want to roll back equal marriage rights. Gay girls growing up now can see a lesbian icon on the chat show favoured by their grandparents.
Within that, DeGeneres continues to straddle the line between being a household favourite and a progressive comedian. Just look at her 2012 skewering of Bic For Her – a line of pink and purple biros marketed specifically at women. “They’re pens just for ladies,” she said, straight-faced. “I know what you’re thinking – it’s about damn time! Where have our pens been? Can you believe this? We’ve been using man pens all these years.” She is a satirist with a soft touch – an entertainer who consistently pushes for more liberal attitudes, but makes those messages accessible to the people who need to hear them most. She has retained both her integrity, and her cuddliness.
Yesterday, while DeGeneres listened with tears in her eyes, President Obama praised her courage in coming out. “How important it was, not just to the LGBT community but to all of us, to see somebody so full of kindness and light, somebody we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbour or our colleague or our sister, challenge our own assumptions, remind us that we have more in common than we realise, push our country in the direction of justice,” he said. “And yet, today, every day, in every way, Ellen counters what too often divides us, with the countless things that bind us together, and inspires us to be better, one joke, one dance at a time.” In a year when there has been so much to despair about, this may be my favourite piece of news yet.