Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are:
An Analysis of Pop Icon Ellen DeGeneres
by Lindsay Dick (c) 2008
Come out, come out, wherever you are! A statement that once was merely an innocent command in a child’s game of hide and seek, “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” holds a hefty amount of insinuation in today’s society. It would be difficult to pinpoint exactly when the connotations became a part of the metaphor for a homosexual coming out of the closet, though it would seem that the media and popular culture helped to deliver the now overt message. Ellen DeGeneres is one celebrity who decided to take a stand and come out publically, thus reinventing herself as America’s favourite lesbian. In today’s society, Ellen, as she is commonly referred to, has become a role model and advocate for same sex partnerships and equality. She’s gained iconic status. Through careful and in depth discussion using a semiotic approach, the theories of Marshall McLuhan, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and consumerism analysis, this status will be clearly demonstrated.
Ellen Lee DeGeneres was born on January 26, 1958 in the state of Louisiana (Wikipedia, 2008). Certainly not famous over night, Ellen worked diligently to become the mega star that she is today. Though she is most commonly known for her openly discussed sexual orientation, Ellen has worked in just about every medium pop culture has available. From stand up comedy, to television sitcoms, to talk shows, commercials, movies, award shows and books, Ellen has made a very well rounded career for herself. Since 2001, she has been on the receiving end of 15 Daytime Emmys alone (Stockwell, 2007). Of course, this fame and good fortune did not come without sacrifice and perseverance. It was not until she admitted her sexual orientation publically that people began to take notice and a real, if not sometimes confused, interest in Ellen developed. Even still, she says “When I came out, I did it for personal reasons. I don’t care if people don’t like me anymore” (Kohen, 1999). Ellen’s coming out was certainly a topic of controversy, but controversy aside, she ultimately gained huge publicity and was sent into the limelight as America’s most famous lesbian. According to Anne Stockwell, a journalist for The Advocate, Ellen has “long ago transcended gay fame, [and] is closing in on Oprah fame” (Stockwell, 2007).
(Photo courtesy of http://www.thehollywoodgossip.com)
Level one – Signifier: From a semiotic viewpoint, an image of Ellen DeGeneres could be described fairly simply. It is a woman, or less specifically a person, with yellow hair, and blue eyes. Most likely, the figure is smiling, lips curling in an upwards fashion, bearing white teeth. The skin shade is beige. Cloth is covering the body, the top a blue colour, the bottom grey.
Level two – Signified: Of course, we know that the signifier description is describing pop culture icon Ellen DeGeneres. Though Ellen may not be everyone’s favourite person, she is certainly someone that is easily recognized, given her fame.
Level three – Signified: On a third level, it is widely known that Ellen is in fact openly gay. She is also known for her comedic talents, her talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show, several books that she has published, her American Express commercials, and the voice of “Dory” in Disney’s Finding Nemo, among other movies and television shows she has starred in. The list of Ellen’s accomplishments is vast.
Level four – Signified: On a political level, there are several areas in which Ellen DeGeneres has taken a stand. Most recently, she has shown her political side with the passing of Proposition 8, an amendment to California’s state constitution, stating that she believes it step is a step backwards (Halterman, 2008). Ellen, who married long time sweetheart Porti De Rossi this year, is now fighting again for the gay rights and human rights that have been lost with the passing of Proposition 8 (Wikipedia, 2008).
To plenty, Ellen DeGeneres is a symbol of freedom in Western popular culture. She is an icon for gay and human rights. A member of two large minority groups, women and homosexuals, it is difficult to be so famous and to not be known and idolized for these reasons. She is a symbol of strength and hope for countless amounts of people struggling with their sexual orientation. She’s relatable. When Ellen decided that she would finally open up about her sexuality, she was afraid of rejection, a fear that so many gay and lesbian individuals are plagued with (Handy, Bland, Tynan & Ressner, 1997). Being able to comfortable and free as a lesbian or a gay man in today’s society is something that is more often than not a struggle. Ellen symbolizes the overcoming of this giant obstacle. She is a symbol of courage.
With the tables turned however, to some people Ellen DeGeneres is a symbol of immorality. According to the Bible “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination” (Leviticus, 18:22 King James Version). For those who follow the teachings of the bible strictly, Ellen’s life and lifestyle, if you will, are less than pleasing. Reverend Jerry Falwell decided to begin using the name “Ellen DeGenerate” instead of “Ellen DeGeneres” when referring to Ellen after news of her coming out (Tracy, 1999, p. 204). In addition to being a symbol of immorality to some, it is true that Ellen has a face sometimes associated with irresponsibility for others. In a recent scandal, Ellen adopted a Brussels Griffon Terrier cross puppy that ultimately was unable to coexist happily with her cats. The dog was given away to a friend of Ellen’s, which in turn was a breach of the adoption contract she had signed upon receiving the dog (Schmidt, 2007). The scandal grew exponentially, and many people were outraged at Ellen’s lack of responsibility. In reality, Ellen can be seen as a symbol for controversy.
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
It can be argued that Ellen DeGeneres, as an icon, satisfies all levels of Abraham Maslow’s theory of the Hierarchy of Needs. Reaching the top two levels is arguably more difficult, but is accomplished even still. At an esteem level, the icon that is Ellen satisfies in many ways. She is a spokesperson for CoverGirl, having recently been signed onto a campaign for the company. An article published in the Cape Cod Times this past September implies that Ellen is less than beautiful, thus making her all the more appealing to regular people (La Ferla, 2008). As well, Ellen is a face that has been long associated with American Express credit cards. She has graced many of their television ads with her presence. Both CoverGirl and American Express help Ellen to appeal to the Esteem level of Maslow’s pyramid, in that people want the respect of others. They want to feel self-confident. These products symbolize prestige and therefore appeal to the Esteem level of the pyramid.
The top level in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid is Self-Actualization. As shown on the above photograph, this level is concerned with a lack of prejudice, and an acceptance of facts. Ellen DeGeneres, as discussed previously, is a symbol of freedom, strength and courage for those of us who identify orientation wise as something other than heterosexual. According to Betty DeGeneres, Ellen’s mother, heterosexual is a word that we as people don’t always feel the need to use. It is a natural assumption or implication (DeGeneres, 1999). For individuals who are not heterosexual, admission of this fact is difficult. Ellen being a prominent woman in Western popular culture and being open about her life as a lesbian helps to satisfy the needs of the Self-Actualization level of the pyramid. She is not defeated by prejudice and she has accepted and embraced the fact that she is a lesbian. Her courage inspires and appeals to others at this level.
The phrase “the medium is the message” and the theory behind it, made famous by Marshall McLuhan, can be applied to Ellen DeGeneres as an icon. Again, Ellen has access to many media, although the most influential would have to be television. Though she has toured around doing stand-up comedy, written books, and appeared in film roles, her presence on television is, in my opinion, most captivating. Ellen presents a message of human equality. She is vocal about human rights. She speaks out against homophobia and stereotypes stating that “[homosexuals] don’t have a lifestyle, we have a life” and also believes that her fame has a purpose, that is, to “try to reshape social ideas”(Kohen, 1999). Ellen uses the television medium to spread her message of equality.
With regards to McLuhan’s extensions of humanity theory, several things come to mind with Ellen. The fine clothing and pant suits that she frequently wears could be considered an extension of the body. The CoverGirl makeup line, for which she is a spokesperson, could be considered an extension of the skin or face. These are merely a few examples.
Is Ellen DeGeneres a brand? That is a difficult question. Arguably, and most notably, her image is used to promote and sell makeup for CoverGirl, and credit cards for American Express. A visit to her talk show’s website offers many pieces of merchandise from mugs to underwear, all of which visibly bearing her name, Ellen, somewhere on the product. A skim through search results on eBay shows books, CDs, DVDs, postcards, sweatshirts, magnets and calendars all available in multiple quantities. If not a brand, Ellen DeGeneres is certainly capable of merchandising.
“Be nice to everyone, even though you don’t want and you may not like certain people. Be kind, friendly, and respectful even if people are not nice to you. That way, you’re not dragged down to their level. Also, there’s nothing that annoys arrogant jerks more than people being nice to them” (DeGeneres, 2003, p. 3).
Growing up, I lumped myself into the heterosexual category almost subconsciously, I would imagine, as I knew nothing else and no other option. Up until I was in the eighth grade, I hadn’t even heard the word “lesbian” let alone considered the fact that it might have some bearing on my life. Once I started hearing the word more and more frequently, I became interested, no doubt because I was coming to terms with myself whether I had made the realization or not. Ultimately, seeing prominent figures like Ellen in the media helped make the transition easier when I did come out. Knowing that Ellen was capable of broadcasting such controversial subject matter to the entire planet empowered me to be able to share my thoughts with those around me. She’s been a source of empowerment for me. She appeals to my sense of humour as well, and if I’m totally honest, she is quite easy on the eyes.
Ellen DeGeneres is an icon in Western popular culture. She symbolizes freedom, strength and courage in many. She inspires plenty. Though Ellen is, on occasion, scrutinized for some aspects of her life, she holds nothing back. She speaks freely and truthfully about the things that matter most to her, and that quality alone is something difficult not to admire.
“We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” – Johnathan Swift (DeGeneres, 2000, p. 153
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