How Ellen DeGeneres Changed TV Forever

When Ellen said the words “I’m gay” on national television in 1997, it signaled an era of hopeful change. Up until “The Puppy Episode,” lesbian characters were relegated to small recurring characters or one-episode appearances, and even those were few and far between. It was slow progress then, but 18 years later Ellen DeGeneres is one of the most well-recognized, respected and beloved celebrities, and an out and proud lesbian.

It’s well documented that Ellen took a huge hit for that episode after it aired. Her sitcom was cancelled. She couldn’t get acting parts on other shows and she’s admitted that she went through a period of depression. But when she lent her easily-distinguishable voice to the adorable Dory in 2003’s Finding Nemo, the comic-turned-TV personality saw her career turn around. Her new talk show premiered that same year. The Ellen DeGeneres Show has won 13 Emmys and 14 People’s Choice Awards, and for its entire run has consistently delivered excellent ratings.

Besides her work on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Ellen’s groundbreaking success has been inspiring to others and removed the stigma from lesbian and bi storylines, making them an accepted part of what we see on television today. After Ellen came out both in real life, and as her character Ellen Morgan, we’ve watched women come out on mainstream television series including Friends, E.R., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Once and Again, All My Children, Pretty Little Liars and Glee.

Even though that pivotal Ellen episode was much about her “coming out,” that wasn’t the sole focus of who Ellen Morgan was, or the primary storyline of her character’s journey. The heroine of her own show, Ellen was fun if a little neurotic, a good friend and extremely likable. Her being gay was only part of her character, but an integral part. Before Ellen Morgan came out, she was still funny, a good friend and very likable. Following that landmark episode, some could only see GAY.  The real Ellen endured idiocy and homophobia, but remained strong and became immensely successful. TV networks learned a lesson: lesbian characters can not only survive, but they can thrive on their respective shows.

Most of the more recent LGBT characters have been able to move on from coming out into broader storylines, evolving into more nuanced, three-dimensional people whose gayness is just one facet of who they are, and not their defining characteristic. They have dated, had their hearts broken, gotten married, started families.

Part of what Ellen has done for lesbians must include her newest venture, executive producing the first lesbian character-led sitcom to make it past pilot season since her own sitcom ended close to 20 years ago. NBC’s new show One Big Happy, premiering March 17 at 9:30 p.m., skips that coming out stage for Lizzy (Elisha Cuthbert). Lizzy knows who she is and what she likes, and what she wants is a baby with her best friend, Luke (Nick Zano). She wants a girlfriend eventually, if she can find the right one and get over her last bad break-up. But for right now, she’s ready to have a family.

Where Modern Family has given some viewers a look at the life of a gay male couple going through the adoption process, One Big Happy will tell the story of a lesbian who wants to conceive. It’s not every lesbian’s story, but it’s certainly a true one, based on creator Liz Feldman’s real life best friendship. It’s probably not your story—like how Ellen’s coming out was surely much different than most—unless you accidentally announced you were gay over a loudspeaker at the airport!  This is evolved TV, where gay female characters are also motherly and sexual and jealous, friends with men and friends with women. Just like Ellen Morgan, Lizzy is a leading lady who is laughing with us. She’s in on the awkward; she’s cracking jokes about herself as well as about her friend and his bombastic new British girlfriend. She knows that it’s kind of crazy that she’s pregnant with her best friend’s baby, but that’s life, right? Not yours, maybe, but fodder for a very funny TV show.

The person who has had the most experience in this arena is Ellen DeGeneres, an out and proud hilarious woman who knows that making some people a little uncomfortable is worth it to tell the kinds of stories that others want and need to see. Because Ellen came out, we had a show called The L Word, dedicated to lesbian lives and relationships. Because Ellen came out, we have more than 30 actual lesbian/bi relationships on television today. Because Ellen came out, we finally have a lesbian character leading a show on network TV. Because of Ellen, there will be more to come.

This post was sponsored by NBC.