The hoopla may have died down somewhat – at least for the time being – but the ramifications of Ellen DeGeneres’s “coming out” as television’s first openly homosexual prime-time lead character continue.
The fact that television and other entertainment media are once again being used as a vehicle to promote certain moral stances should come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the history of the entertainment industry in any depth. On numerous occasions, particularly during this century, entertainment has slyly been used to advance points of view while its consumers’ critical mental guards are down.
The use of entertainment for these purposes is probably as old as communication itself. However, the tactic may have been taken to a new level by George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950), the famous Irish playwright, critic and novelist who throughout his career gave voice in one way or another to social theories strongly influenced by Marxist and socialist ideology. Shaw, it should be noted, was a charter member of the Fabian Society, a strong speaker and excellent writer of political tracts, and his plays always had a personal message he wanted to convey to the public.
In these respects, Shaw’s leftist-liberal leanings match the political tendencies of those dominating Hollywood, and the entertainment industry in general, these days.
In prefaces to his plays, Shaw frequently expressed his ideas on such subjects as marriage, the medical profession, vivisection, politics, censorship, religion, vegetarianism, alcohol and social evils (as he saw them) of all kinds. In other writings, novels, pamphlets and newspaper articles, he expressed his views on war, international affairs and the Irish question.
With technological advances in radio, television and cinematography in subsequent decades, the importance of entertainment media in ideological, social and moral proselytizing became more pronounced. This process reached yet another level with the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. Suddenly, with the advent of rebellious rock and roll, pornography, racy television programming and other developments, radical new lifestyles and modes of thinking were thrust upon an unacclimatized public and, for the first time, had a realistic chance at being generally accepted, rather than derided as the perversions they were.
To put in perspective how things had changed, consider how television programmers altered their treatments of sensitive topics over the span of just a few years: in 1953, CBS censors decreed that Lucille Ball’s pregnancy could only be referred to on air by the fact that she was “expecting;” in 1956, Elvis “the Pelvis” Presley was only depicted from the waist up during his appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show; in 1961, Rob and Laura Petrie slept in separate beds on the Dick Van Dyke Show.
In 1971, however, All in the Family broke many so-called taboos by mentioning such issues as racial tension, menopause and gay liberation on air. In 1972, the first television movie about a gay character (That Certain Summer) appeared. In 1972 (not coincidentally in tandem with the pivotal Roe vs. Wade court case), Maude’s daughter had an abortion. By 1989, a Thirty something episode depicted two men lying together in bed, and in 1993, NYPD Blue’s Dennis Franz bared his rear end on an episode.
Which brings us to the hullabaloo surrounding Ellen DeGeneres. The publicity regarding her character Ellen Morgan’s coming out, which began many weeks before the actual episode, seems to have been nothing less than a calculated attempt to create as much of an impact as possible in support of the militant homosexual cause.
The campaign began last September, when DeGeneres sang, “I feel pretty and witty and . . .” (in the song I Feel Pretty, the next word is “gay”) on her show. Then she appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America, touting that her show was about to introduce a new character: “Les Bian.” Still later, on David Letterman, she said that Ellen Morgan was “Lebanese.”
By the time the April 29 coming out episode rolled along, the masses had pretty well been conditioned into believing that watching the show was an event not to be missed — somewhat akin to the birth of your first child. For maximum impact, well-known personalities including Oprah Winfrey and Laura Dern were recruited to appear, and the audience was stacked with a rabidly homosexual crowd which went ballistic when the time came for Ellen to announce she was gay.
The scene was set up so that DeGeneres met an old male college friend who was in town with a co-worker (played by Dern). DeGeneres wound up sleeping with the man before discovering in the morning that it was really Dern she wanted sexually.
Author Robert Thompson, author of the book Television’s Second Golden Age, observed afterwards that the show was not, as some asserted, intended simply as a grab for ratings. “Mixing politics with business is how Hollywood works,” he said. “This is about more than ratings.”
Patrick Bristow, who plays Ellen’s gay friend on the show, agreed. “This is huge!” he enthused. “Even if people are tired of the hype and the teasing, it doesn’t negate how historic this is.”
Evangelist Jerry Falwell had called for a sponsor withdrawal prior to the episode, and Chrysler, J.C. Penney and six Canadian advertisers (which CTV declined to name) followed suit. Meanwhile, an ABC affiliate in Alabama refused to air the program.
“If Ellen attracts monster (ratings) numbers, everybody on TV will be having an affair with someone of their own sex,” predicted author Earle Marsh.
With the preceding hype, it was inevitable that the episode would be a ratings smash. “Ellen Outstanding!” crowed TV Guide in its follow up to the episode. Forty-two million viewers watched the show in the U.S. (a 35 per cent share), which was more than double the normal audience. This show was number one and helped propel ABC to a first-place finish in the week’s overall ratings.
In Canada, the episode attracted 900,000 viewers, or a 39 per cent share (compared to the show’s average of 17 per cent).
Meanwhile, tributes poured in to everyone connected with the episode. “It’s good for society to have a gay lead on TV,” said Chastity Bono. “You like a star, she becomes a friend who drops into your house every week. People like Ellen. She’s the girl next door . . . Ellen could do so much to enlighten America . . . Ellen knows that. That’s why she’s fought so hard for this day to come true.”
But there was more to come. DeGeneres announced that she was actually a lesbian in real life and was carrying on an affair with another actress. subsequent weeks have seen DeGeneres and the actress remain in the public eye as media constantly speculate about the state of the pair’s relationship.
Respected film critic and media analyst Michael Medved produced a perceptive analysis of Hollywood and its antithetical stance toward Judeo-Christian and conservative values in his 1992 boo, Hollywood vs. America.
Medved, who spoke at last year’s second Pan-American Conference on Life and the Family in Toronto, noted that the entertainment industry consistently attacks religion, glorifies brutality, undermines the traditional family and derides patriotism. It does so, he argued, out of its own dark obsessions, rather than giving the public what it wants.
“Tens of millions of Americans now see the entertainment industry as an all-powerful enemy, an alien force that assaults our most cherished values and corrupts our children,” he wrote. “The dream factory has become a poison factory.”
Anyone who dissents from the Hollywood point of view and questions the impact of entertainment on the collective psyche is labelled a right-wing extremist or religious fanatic, said Medved. That’s a far cry from the environment that existed years ago when Frank Capra was producing uplifting films, churchgoers would stand up at worship services one Sunday a year and take a pledge against supporting bad movies and plays, or when the Legion of Decency kept a check on Hollywood.
The decline in standards has not gone unnoticed by Pope John Paul II. “It is not easy to remain optimistic about the positive influence of the mass media when they appear to ignore the vital role of religion in people’s lives, or when the treatment of that religious belief seems consistently negative and unsympathetic.”
The Pope has requested co-operation among all Christians in order to increase the amount of spiritual and religious programming.
Of course, the leftist liberalism that runs rampant among the entertainment elite is also found to overwhelmingly dominate among leaders in news media. S. Robert Licheter’s and Stanley Rothman’s famous 1981 study into the question found that 86 per cent of the news media elite favoured protection of homosexual rights, while 80 per cent believed homosexuality to be morally acceptable. A startling 97 per cent favored abortion on demand and 51 per cent thought adultery is morally acceptable.
It is doubtful that the intervening years have brought any improvement in these figures, in light of the increasing licentiousness apparent in entertainment and news media programming.
The situation is not any better in Canada. Peter Desbarats, former head of the journalism program at the University of Western Ontario and a respected Canadian media analyst, says it is “relatively easy to show that journalists in Canada have a left-liberal bias.”
So what is to be done? Medved discounts the temptation to resort to censorship in an attempt to ameliorate the situation and argues that such a move is always counterproductive. With Larry Flynt perhaps firmly in mind, Medved observes that, “As soon as the government attempts to crack down on some purveyor of slime, he is quickly transformed into a defender of the First Amendment.”
Similarly, Medved feels that a new production code would never work in today’s Hollywood. “Changes in the fundamental structure of the movie business now make it altogether impossible for a handful of executives to impose a self-policing scheme on the entire industry,” he says.
Medved instead favors the use and strengthening of “watchdog” organizations to ensure accountability in the entertainment industry, as well as the utilization of the feared boycott weapon.
“The very term ‘boycott’ has become a dirty word in Hollywood — one of the few dirty words the industry is actually reluctant to pronounce. The tactic arouses fear and fury precisely because it carries such obvious force and logic when it is applied to the world of commercial television.”
Finally, Medved advocates the use of personal approaches among Hollywood moguls, in order to try to change the popular culture by changing the values of the people who shape it.