Pop culture has already shown us The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and now we’re witnessing the politicization of Ellen DeGeneres. Since her “Yep” heard around the world 11 years ago, the popular talk show host has edged her way out of the closet of political activism. And this election cycle we’ve seen the most outspoken Ellen ever. It’s proof that politics, when done right, is always deeply personal.
Yesterday, Ellen kicked off her show by addressing Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin‘s support of the Federal Marriage Amendment that would create a constitutional ban on gay marriage in the United States. It was as direct a political statement as you can make. And, might I add, a quite effective one.
Ellen combined her signature good humor (“I dabbled in high school, who didn’t? Everyone dabbled.”) with a clear political message to both refute Palin’s stance and support gay rights. She said:
Maybe it’s because I’m gay that I think we should all be equal. But I feel that we’re all equal…. People are gonna be who they’re gonna be. And we need to learn to love them for who they are and let them love who they want to love.
Ellen’s progression from comedian to out comedian to out political comedian has been a long and organic one. Back in 1997, when she famously made the cover of Time with a “Yep, I’m gay,” she told Diane Sawyer that she wasn’t interested in becoming a political activist. Now, more than a decade later, she has filmed a spot for the “No on Prop. 8” campaign to fight the California ballot initiative to ban gay marriage.
Since the announcement of her engagement and subsequent marriage to Portia de Rossi this year, Ellen has become more vocal about both her relationship and her politics. In May she had Republican presidential nominee John McCain on the show and pressed him on his stance against gay marriage. The exchange made for some uncomfortable moments for McCain as Ellen, politely, asked him to explain why she wasn’t equal to her face.
While Ellen has spoken out before on other gay rights issues, she has often couched her remarks like in February when she addressed the slaying of gay 15-year-old student Lawrence King. Talking about the hate crime, she said:
I don’t want to be political, this is not political, I’m not a political person, but this is personal to me…. When the message out there is so horrible that to be gay, you can get killed for it, we need to change the message. Larry was not a second-class citizen. I am not a second-class citizen. It is OK if you’re gay… We must change our country and we can do it, we can do it with our behavior, we can do it with the messages we send our children, and we can do it with our vote.
For a non-political statement, that sounded pretty darn political. Since her marriage to Portia, Ellen has been a vocal opponent of Prop. 8, first blogging about it, then filming a campaign commercial, next talking about it on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and, earlier this week, asking Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden how he would vote (if he could) on the issue. His answer? A resounding no.
What makes Ellen’s move from famously nonpolitical to outspoken advocate so extraordinary is that she has been able to do it without becoming polarizing. No one brings up Ellen’s name when mentioning activist celebrities, nor does she get the derision sometimes heaped on stars like Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and even fellow out comedian Rosie O’Donnell. And I think the reason for this is simple: Ellen has spent all these years on her show being disarmingly likable. And now, quite simply, people trust her.
So, what do you think of Ellen’s foray into the political arena? Do you think we’ll see more of it after Nov. 4? And if she can get the potential next president of the United States to dance on her show not once, not twice, but three times, is there no limit to her political power?