Already winning hearts and mind with her daytime TV talk show, Degeneres is now winning over a whole new Middle America audience on ‘American Idol’
"American Idol" is a show everyone watches — young, old, from Red States and Blue. It is a throwback, almost, to the days of television when families would gather around a television set and watch enriching programming together.
And one of its big draws these days is a lesbian.
The New York Times pointed out last weekend that Ellen DeGeneres "finds a way to remind audiences of her sexual status on almost every episode of ‘American Idol.’"
It continues: "More than in any other of her ventures, Ms. DeGeneres’ performance on America’s favorite television show suggests how hard she works to seem effortlessly funny and how determined she is to be openly but unthreateningly gay."
She brings it up gently, making jokes and bright-eyed allusions, mentioning her wife Portia, talking about her suits and short, tousled hair.
And America loves it.
Ellen is America’s sweetheart of the moment — funny, down to earth, a pretty, sparkly woman whom everyone can relate to. And the extraordinary thing is that her gayness doesn’t get in the way of that or hide it — instead, she makes being gay seem to be the absolutely normal thing that it is.
And an icon of Gay Normal is important. All too often — still — anti-gay conservatives point to people on the edges of our community as being representative of all gays and lesbians.
They take images from Pride parades and television and gay circuit parties and try to paint us as social outliers who are strange and frightening (or inappropriate and silly) and thus, a danger to mainstream marriage, work and family.
Those who lie on our edges — Adam Lambert, say, or Johnny Weir, or any of the Dykes on Bikes — are important to us and are part of our community. They help us define our LGBT culture as one that celebrates fiercely individual personalities who nonetheless come together for common causes and celebrations.
We need them and we love them and we celebrate their outrageousness.
But we need our Ellen DeGenereses and Dan Chois (and now Ricky Martins and someday Anderson Coopers), too. We need public figures who seem like the best friend that you wish lived next door, people who are safely sexy, people you can trust to watch your dog, people who you’d welcome to meet your kids and your folks and your elderly Aunt Martha.
Ellen works hard for us. As the Times says, her private life is "served up as an affirmation of gay marriage set in a Harlequin romance frame." And she brings her life "with her on America’s most conventional reality show."
She makes gay marriage and gay rights seem easy to take — and not just easy, but almost as if they are a fait accompli.
Ellen had a beautiful wedding and the many pictures and videos of a beloved Gay Normal icon getting hitched surely made marriage equality easier for Middle America to imagine.
They can picture being at a wedding of a gay couple now, which means that they are slowly being won over to our side.
America loves Ellen. Her daytime talk show may collect the gigantic Oprah Winfrey audience once Oprah moves on at some point next year.
(The Times says she is the best bet to inherit "Oprah’s mantle as talk show queen.")
Her gentle jokes and self-deprecating bits have made her the most amusing judge to watch on "American Idol."
Ellen has hosted the Emmys and Oscars, won 12 Emmys herself, and convinced then-candidate Barack Obama to dance on her talk show.
She is happy and successful and famous and — normal. She is what middle America wants to be.
The contest for best singer might still be going on over at Fox, but America has already crowned it’s next American Idol — and it’s Ellen DeGeneres.
Jennifer Vanasco is an award-winning writer and columnist. E-mail her at Jennifer.Vanasco@gmail.com; follow her at Twitter.com/JenniferVanasco.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 9=, 2010.