Twenty Years After Ellen‘s ‘Puppy Episode,’ It Still Feels Ahead of Its Time

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“The Puppy Episode,” the two-part Ellen episode in which Ellen DeGeneres’s character comes out of the closet, aired April 30, 1997—twenty years ago. And it feels startlingly ahead of its time, if only because DeGeneres, for whom the fictional coming-out was accompanied by a real one, has remained relentlessly on-message in the decades since. The episode insists that Ellen, star and character, remain normal after coming out. And in the intervening years, as a comic and talk-show host, she’s become perhaps the single most potent stand-in for the concept of American normalcy.

It’s a striking result, and not the one that might have been expected from one of the biggest media moments of the late 20th century. DeGeneres’s high-profile real-life declaration was featured on the cover of TIME, as the culmination of months of speculation the show itself lampoons. To wit: The episode begins with Ellen spending too much time getting ready for a dinner date, as her friends urge her to “come out already.” When she finally does, they all settle up, having placed bets on her sexuality.

There’s a self-awareness puncturing the spectacle, but the degree of attention still feels unfamiliar. Today, celebrities matter-of-factly mention same-sex lovers in interviews, and fictional gay characters exist, with minimal hubbub relative to the Ellen incident, in all manner of TV shows. As taboos against discussing closeted celebrities’ private lives have fallen away, a coming-out can seem like an anticlimax, the moment at which we get confirmation of what we already knew as opposed to a moment in which a celebrity is utterly redefined. The outsized drama of DeGeneres’s declaration, which came with the potential to change or destroy her image, feels like a remnant from a less enlightened era.

Ellen DeGeneres: Yep, I'm Gay
Firooz Zahedi

DeGeneres’s coming out, in fact, seemed to have been a change agent. Her language and message in telling the world who she was made subsequent celebrity comings-out feel less fraught. While there are many people, still, for whom coming out is not a risk-free endeavor, the DeGeneres coming-out set a now-familiar tone: Low-drama and almost abnegating. At the center of a much-discussed and widely-watched incident is a woman who told TIME she came out “selfishly for myself and because I thought it was a great thing for the show, which desperately needed a point of view. If other people come out, that’s fine.” (Her further comment that she didn’t want “dykes on bikes or these men dressed as women… representing the entire gay community” is eyebrow-raising, to say the least, and indicates just how important the perception of everyday-ness is to DeGeneres.)

On her show, Ellen inadvertently comes out while speaking into a microphone at an airport, broadcasting her deepest secret to the world. The only hint of sex in her sexuality—aside from her repulsion at the idea of coupling with an old male friend who takes her out to dinner with romance in mind—are loopy fantasies about a lesbian supermarket where she’s offered giant melons (wink, wink). Ellen falls in chaste puppy love with an unavailable woman (played by Laura Dern). Her first love affair is unconsummated; all the better to ensure that, while point-of-view is expressed, everyone’s able to stay in the tent.

It’s not that this is apolitical—its politics, that gay people are just like everyone else in society, were radical for their time. Like many once-radical propositions, they seem almost quaint now. Gay people have rights, like marriage, that seemed unthinkable when “The Puppy Episode” aired; when presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Obama credited DeGeneres with moving forward the conversation on gay rights, as Americans saw in her “somebody we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbor, or our colleague, or our sister.” That’s the key to DeGeneres’s appeal—smooth, danceable amiability. In incisively written conversations with her therapist (Oprah Winfrey), the Ellen character has a hard time coming to terms with being different from everyone else; she has a harder time yet figuring out how she’ll talk about it with her friends. She doesn’t want to put anybody out, and when she finally does talk to them, she puts it off and puts it off, and then finally tries to brush past the topic.

It’s a moment that’s relatable to many for whom coming out was a painful and awkward endeavor. The desire to push past the moment and focus on other things, rather than dwelling in the discomfort, is real. It’s also very Ellen—humane, awkward, and above all, focused on keeping everyone in the room comfortable. Subsequent episodes depict an Ellen who’s somewhat trapped in the coming-out process, forced to manage relationship after relationship (parents, boss). Through it all, she maintains that she hasn’t changed, even as the world suddenly reacts to her her differently. It’s akin to what happened to DeGeneres’s career for several years after Ellen‘s ratings fell post-“Puppy Episode”: She was, a bit, in the wilderness, even as the component parts of her act stayed the same. She’d lost the ability to relate to an audience, even though nothing about her had changed.

Her talk show now is so amiable, operating at a safe distance from any of life’s uncomfortable moments. It can feel like a reaction to the fact that DeGeneres’s coming out made things easier for many people after her, but harder for herself. There wasn’t an alternative: Leaving aside whatever was its impact on her personal life, DeGeneres’s having come out allowed the public, eventually, to know her well enough to accept her as a daytime-talk host. But watching “The Puppy Episode” in 2017 provides a glimpse of a person hashing out her internal struggles in a frank manner, searching for the right words in a manner that’s vastly more human than most TV allows itself to be. It’d be nice to see more characters like her on TV, or a bit more of her on daytime talk.

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