A comparison of radical 70s ideas on sexuality and feminism to Ellen DeGeneres' coming out in 1998.
Lesbianism has taken on different meanings throughout time. As the LGBTQIA+ community progresses the meaning of certain identifiers changes with the movement. An LGBTQIA+ identity not only constitutes a description of one’s sexuality but an important part of an identity and sense of self-expression. The identity of lesbianism over time has shifted, demonstrating itself as an important category of sexual expression and its intersection in feminism and identity. As this identity intersects with feminism and expression, the media has had an important role in demonstrating these ideas. From early lesbian identity to the cultural milestone of Ellen’s coming out as a lesbian on national TV the expression of lesbianism demonstrates a celebration of identity and rejection of cultural norms surrounding women.
To begin with, as the idea of lesbian identity as a sexual orientation emerged in society, activists used the term not only as an identity, but pairing the identity with feminism to celebrate the subversion of cultural norms. In a 1970 primary document “The Woman-Identified Woman” the author, the Radicalesbians, explain the intersection of lesbianism and feminism. This document originates from the Second Congress to Unite Women, and additionally creates a shared identity between feminism and lesbianism.1
The document describes lesbianism as a term created by men to categorize women who do not fit into their preconceived norms and would not organize their lives and values around men. The author writes
“Lesbian is a label invented by the man to throw any women who dares to be his equal, who dares to challenge his prerogatives (including that of all women as a part of the exchange medium among men), who dares to assert the primacy of her own needs.”2
In reclaiming this identifier lesbian becomes a celebration of centering one’s life around women rather than men. This document not only celebrates the validity of sexual love from women towards women but is a celebration of the departure of a male-centered identity. By celebrating a separation from men, the identity of a lesbian becomes that of feminism, demonstrating the positive aspects of expressing one’s sexuality. By expressing identity lesbianism celebrates a separation from a patriarchal society. “The Woman-Identified Woman” demonstrates a growing sentiment of not only an acceptance of differing sexual identities but of the connection to feminism. Media has played an incredibly important role in the expression of female identity and sexuality as a form of feminism. As LGBTQ stories increased in the media the expression of feminism in lesbian stories continued
Two decades after the publication of “The Woman Identified Woman,” “The Puppy Episode” in Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom Ellen aired on national TV on April 30, 1997. The episode was a cultural landmark of lesbian representation as it followed the titular character’s journey in coming to terms with her own identity as a gay woman. Ellen struggles to be with men and finds herself attracted to a visiting friend.3 The sitcom culminates in Ellen accidentally announcing to an entire airport terminal that she is gay, a moment met by cheers from the audience. This groundbreaking moment in television history is pivotal in understanding the increasing representation of lesbian identity.
An article in “Off our Backs: a Woman’s News Journal” describes this moment as “the first major television superstar to come out.”4 DeGeneres’ coming out on national television demonstrates a huge step in progress for LGBTQ people, seeing their stories on TV as she shortly came out in real life, celebrating her own identity as a lesbian woman. The aforementioned article additionally details the business behind the discussion, as sponsors pulled from the show. Describing the decision behind this pivotal coming-out scene the article states that
“to DeGeneres, coming out isn’t a ‘political statement.’ ‘I did it selfishly for myself and because I thought it was a great thing for the show which desperately needed a point of view.”5
DeGeneres’ decision to come out both in real life and her sitcom was not motivated by politics, but by her TV show and own identity. The plot point becomes sexual expression in an LGBTQ identity.
Despite DeGeneres’ intentions, the sitcom’s expression of identity was seen by many as political, as the expression of Lesbianism appeared to push an agenda. Describing the coming out as a “media-created event.”6 DeGeneres intended to create representation and the expression of women’s sexuality in media that typically demonstrates women as male-centered. To those who would not think of sexual identity as a valid and important aspect of oneself, DeGeneres’ declaration on national TV would appear to push a political agenda, seeking representation and normalization. Historically discussion of Women’s sexuality has been taboo; even within view of DeGeneres’ coming out as a political move discourse on expression can be created. Even if the event becomes simply a political event, “The puppy episode” demonstrates the opening of viewing lesbianism not only as an expression of identity but as feminism.
Connecting the Radicalesbian document to “The puppy episode” demonstrates how a celebration of lesbian identity not only establishes diversity but also celebrates feminism. Ellen was canceled shortly after “The puppy episode” however DeGeneres’s brave choices created a new avenue for LGBTQ people to celebrate their own identity, moving away from the male-centered world. Though her show was canceled, DeGeneres’ actions were monumental for female expression of sexuality and lesbian rights. Her sacrifice demonstrates how far lesbian representation has come. On a positive note, after a short stall in her career, DeGeneres’ success was not completely hindered by coming out. Despite setbacks, DeGeneres has become one of the most famous comedians of her generation, hosting multiple TV shows and starring in movies.7 By choosing to address sexuality Ellen moves away from the male-centered identity of women, creating her own path forward.
B., Laura. “Ellen Is Gay.” Off Our Backs 27, no. 5, 1997
Hubert, Susan J. “What’s Wrong with This Picture? The Politics of Ellen’s Coming out Party.” Journal of Popular Culture 33, no. 2,1999.
Lawrence, Andrew. “Ellen DeGeneres Walks Away from Her Talkshow Empire and Leaves behind a Mixed Legacy.” The Guardian, May 27, 2022, sec. Television & radio. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2022/may/27/ellen-degeneres-final-talk-show.
Samek, Alyssa. “Pivoting Between Identity Politics and Coalitional Relationships: Lesbian-Feminist Resistance to the Woman-Identified Woman.” Women’s Studies in Communication 38, no. 4 (December 2015): 393–420. https://doi.org/10.1080/07491409.2015.1085938.
Radicalesbians. “The Woman-Identified Woman.” Duke Digital Collections, 1970. https://repository.duke.edu/dc/wlmpc/wlmms01011.
Junger, Gill. “The Puppy Episode.” Ellen, Season 4 Episode 23. ABC, April 30, 1997.