Debra Goldman’s Postscript: A Sitcom of One’s Own

Am I the only one who feels that I’ve already seen the coming-out episode of Ellen–even in reruns?

Though it isn’t due to air for another week, by now everybody who reads the tabloids knows the script by heart. Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang and Demi Moore sprinkle stardust on the proceedings. And Oprah, America’s mother confessor, plays a therapist who blesses the event with the healing words, ‘It’s OK to be gay.’ The show’s wistful conclusion finds Ellen testing the waters at a lesbian coffeehouse.

Stop, you’re killing me! Ellen’s coming out may well be as ‘poignant’ and ‘sensitive’ as advertised, but it doesn’t sound very funny. Then again, ‘The Episode,’ as the ABC promos call it, long ago transcended sitcom-dom. It has been adopted as a gay identity holiday–by gays and their opponents. Both sides of the debate agree that nothing is so affirming as having a sitcom of one’s own.

I hope those fiercely identifying viewers who plan on coming out with the help of Ellen’s celebrity support group enjoy themselves. But as one who, thanks to my demos, profession and sexual orientation, cannot turn on TV without seeing some reflection of myself, I think the experience will ultimately disappoint. Seeing yourself in the media mirror isn’t all its cracked up to be.

I know this is heresy. We live in an age in which faith in images moves mountains. We are supposed to believe the credo ‘I am on TV, therefore I am.’ Thus, when Tiger Woods wins the PGA Masters with an 18-under-par, his victory is not merely an amazing sporting feat. It is the blow that will break down the barriers of racial prejudice forever, as legions of little boys of color crying ‘I am Tiger Woods’ claim their place in the sun.

The trouble is that it’s not true. He’s Tiger Woods and they’re not. Encouraging identification with the swoosh-embossed golfer may sell Nike, but it won’t set anyone free. After 25 years of watching chummy blacks and whites rub shoulders on the tube, the sight of real-life adult Americans socializing with other races is so rare that when one sees it, one is tempted to stare. Bill Cosby not only dominated prime time in the ’80s but he is an icon of the American family. Oprah is such a pillar of the community that she can even make lesbians ‘OK.’ But after O.J., can we say black celebrity has had any softening influence on racism? My guess is that Mark Fuhrman spent a few evenings chuckling in front of The Cosby Show. So what?

The media wasn’t always dominated by the hunger for self-affirmation that has Ellen fans in a swoon. Think back to the mass-market 1950s, when sitcom housewives wore pearls and fathers knew best. Whatever attracted audiences to these idylls of the American family, it wasn’t the thrill of self-recognition. Minorities couldn’t identify, since ’50s TV did not acknowledge their existence, but neither could middle-class whites, the people these shows supposedly represented. The whole point of Leave It to Beaver or The Donna Reed Show was that nobody could identify with them. They were generalizations about the good life to which the masses might aspire.

Today, we have neither mass generalizations nor mass aspirations, just fractured constituencies elbowing each other for a spot in front of the looking glass. So why shouldn’t gays get their turn before the mirror? But there’s far less at stake in the lesbian Ellen than the fuss over ‘The Episode’ would suggest.

The success of the show doesn’t rest on anything so weighty as the social acceptance of gays. It depends on whether it’s funny. Viewers looking for self-validation and true social affirmation aren’t going to get it from a TV sitcom. So they might as well enjoy a few laughs.

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