On February 26, 2004, Rosie O’Donnell and her longtime partner Kelli Carpenter O’Donnell joined the ranks of some 4,000 gay and lesbian couples who were married at San Francisco’s City Hall that month. Speaking to a throng of reporters and fans after the ceremony, O’Donnell said, “One thought ran through my mind on the plane out here — with liberty and justice for all.”
O’Donnell’s marriage last month firmly cemented her new status as a lesbian activist, initiated in 2002 when she began to speak out in support of gay parents’ rights to adoption. Although the gay and lesbian community certainly needs more high-profile celebrities to publicly support gay rights, can Rosie O’Donnell be effective in this role in light of her tumultuous and complicated public image?
In the past two years — following the end of her highly successful daytime talk show — O’Donnell has come out publicly as a lesbian, gotten a (temporarily) butch haircut that quickly became tabloid fodder, and engaged in a bitter lawsuit with the publishers of her now-defunct magazine, Rosie. She has also made some public comments about various celebrities that can only be described as, well, bitchy.
In contrast to the earlier media image of Rosie as the “Queen of Nice,” these events assisted the press in portraying Rosie as a caricature of an unbalanced, moody, and pissed-off dyke, which has led some in the gay and lesbian community to fear that Rosie’s visibility may actually hurt our cause. After all, the stereotype of the “angry mannish lesbian” has been a constant thorn in the side of lesbians for decades, and some of Rosie’s behavior over the past couple of years does come uncomfortably close to that stereotype.
But the situation is complicated by the fact that her image as the “Queen of Nice”—and its destruction over the past two years—was largely built by the media, and is not necessarily representative of O’Donnell herself.
Speaking to The Advocate (who named her Person of the Year in 2002), O’Donnell stated:
“I never thought I was the ‘Queen of Nice.’ In fact, when that came out I remember saying “You know what? Next year it’s gonna be the ‘Queen of Lice’ and then the ‘Queen of Fried Rice.’ But at the time that I came on the air, the number 1 show was Jerry Springer. People were beating each other up; guests were killing each other. Compared to that, I was the ‘Queen of Nice.’ But in actuality, watch my HBO special. My art form is not based in kindness; it’s based in rage.”
Although the rage that informed her stand-up routines may have been absent from her daily talk show—which was simply not the right format for expressing it—O’Donnell never distanced herself from her comedy routines, even while she was the reigning Queen of Nice.
If the American public forgot that Rosie has a sharper tongue (or a “dark side,” as partner Kelli has called it) than was immediately apparent on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, it was not necessarily O’Donnell’s fault.