Comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres is considered one of the leading lights of American entertainment, widely beloved for her warm positivity, humanitarian acts and goofy relatability. Her highly successful daytime talk show, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” currently in its 15th season, has been renewed through 2020 and won more top Daytime Emmy nods than Oprah in its category. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded DeGeneres with the highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom.
But, before placing the medal around her neck, the President gave remarks alluding to a time in the late 1990s when it looked like DeGeneres’ career had crashed and burned because she had come out as a lesbian—both in real life and on her sitcom, “Ellen.” “It’s easy to forget now, when we’ve come so far, where now marriage is equal under the law—just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost 20 years ago,” he said.
Her decision would have a profound impact on Hollywood—and beyond. According to a 2015 poll, DeGeneres did more to influence Americans’ attitudes about gay rights than any other celebrity or public figure. No well-known primetime TV character had ever come out before that, right in people’s living rooms.
In 1997—nearly a decade before Massachusetts became the first US State to perform same-sex marriages in 2004, and nearly two decades before same-sex marriage became the law of the land in 2015 through the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court Decision—DeGeneres came out personally, in a Time magazine cover story interview titled, “Yep, I’m Gay.” When asked why she had chosen that moment, DeGeneres said, “I don’t think people would have accepted it as readily as they do now.” And that was in a year when a major poll revealed that 68 percent of Americans still opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Two weeks later, in a fourth-season episode of “Ellen” titled “The Puppy Episode,” DeGeneres’ character Ellen Morgan came out to her love interest, played by Laura Dern. The star-studded episode—which also featured Oprah, Billy Bob Thornton and Demi Moore—was estimated to have been watched by 42 million people. In it, DeGeneres played the coming-out as a laugh line, accidentally announcing it over the P.A. system in an airport waiting room—and by doing so, defused the pressure of the moment.
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In many ways, the episode was celebrated. It won an Emmy and DeGeneres won a Peabody Award, and “Ellen” went on to a fifth season.
But the backlash was immediate, as well: hate mail, death threats, a bomb scare. A popular televangelist, Rev. Jerry Falwell, called DeGeneres “Ellen DeGenerate,” while conservative groups like the Family Research Council called for advertisers to stop advertising during “Ellen.” (Some, like Chrysler and J.C. Penney, did—although the latter has since made her a spokesperson.) In addition, ABC started putting “adult content” warnings at the start of each episode after “The Puppy Episode,” which DeGeneres alleged she wasn’t consulted about.
When Season 5 started, the show’s ratings began dropping, and about a year after “The Puppy Episode” aired, ABC yanked “Ellen.” DeGeneres struggled to find work for the next three years.
Yet she not only recovered—she thrived. And “The Puppy Episode” is often credited with cracking open the door and helping to usher in successful and long-running shows with leading LGBTQ characters and LGBTQ storylines, like “Will & Grace” (1998), “Queer as Folk” (2000), “The L Word” (2004), and “Modern Family” (2009). Overall, LGBTQ representation on broadcast prime-time scripted TV has more than tripled, to 6.4%, between the 2005-06 and 2016-17 seasons, according to an annual survey conducted by advocacy group GLAAD.
In his 2016 speech, Obama underscored the significance of DeGeneres’ 1997 moments, in themselves, but also their ripple effect on entertainment and society as a whole: “Just how important it was not just to the LGBT community, but for all of us to see somebody so full of kindness and light, somebody we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbor or our colleague or our sister challenge our own assumptions, remind us that we have more in common than we realize, push our country in the direction of justice.”