When I heard that Ellen DeGeneres was going to host the Oscars, I thought, They're sure playing it safe. In 2005 and 2006 the Academy went edgy--well, Oscar edgy--with hosts Chris Rock and Jon Stewart. This year they got likable Ellen, Finding Nemo Ellen, good-natured, dancing Ellen ...
And--oh, right--lesbian Ellen. Ya-a-a-wn.
It's remarkable how unremarkable it is that a gay person is hosting the Oscars. True, it's not as if we lack for gay people watching the Oscars, and DeGeneres did host the Emmys in 2001. But the Academy Awards is something else; with the Super Bowl and American Idol, it's one of our last three true mass-media rituals. Its host is the de facto M.C. of mainstream America. And it's not as if homosexuality has faded as an issue. When gay people unite a mass of straight people, it's usually for defense-of-marriage ballot issues, not for passing the chips and wondering what Angelina's going to wear on the red carpet.
Yet DeGeneres is not the only lesbian host who's having a great year. Last fall Rosie O'Donnell took over The View like the loudest third-grader at a school recital and made it a must-see--building buzz, tweaking Donald Trump and waving her sexuality like a semaphore flag. This doesn't mean America is about to elect Barney Frank President. But it means that in the intimate genre of TV hosting, there's an open seat for gay people at the national coffee table.
Or, specifically, for lesbians. One reason DeGeneres will be onstage Feb. 25 is that lesbians are women, and women increasingly define the pop-culture mainstream. Men, especially young men, have been seceding from mass media to cable, video games and the Internet. The last two Oscars hired Rock and Stewart, with their young-male followings, but the audience still declined. It's women who make TV hits today--Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, even CSI--and women who will keep Oscar alive.
That's not to say a gay man couldn't host the Oscars (an out gay man--Rock Hudson co-hosted in 1973), but it's hard to think offhand of one who could. Lesbians simply don't inspire the kind of social-sexual unease that gay men do. Two chicks kissing is a male fantasy, a sweeps stunt. Two dudes kissing is gross-out humor. It's Sacha Baron Cohen open-mouthing Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights. It's a million Brokeback Mountain jokes. It's the Snickers Super Bowl ad, in which two mechanics locked lips while sharing a candy bar. (Or, as Freud might have said, a "candy bar.") Even in post-- Queer Eye pop culture, lesbians can choose lovers; gay men can choose drapes.
If anything, DeGeneres' sexual orientation may help her as a host. To straight women--who are socialized to be more intimate with one another anyway--she's a kindred spirit and funny pal, without the complicating factor of sexual competition. To straight men--if they think about her--she's a sharp comic with a hot girlfriend (actress Portia de Rossi). What guy has a problem with that scenario?
It may help that DeGeneres is not exactly a confessional comic--despite having come out on the cover of this magazine--and mentions her love life only occasionally on her show. O'Donnell, on the other hand, has become the hot-medium lesbian to DeGeneres' cool. Does everyone like her? No. It's fitting that she should feud with Trump, who, with his thing for younger ladies and erecting tall, ostentatious, er, buildings, is a caricature of male heterosexuality.
But was coming out show-biz suicide for O'Donnell? Every celebrity should destroy her career so well. She has shown Middle America that lesbians can love women without hating men. And she has used her sexuality--the lesbian is Switzerland in the battle of the sexes--as entrée to discuss such concepts as the idea that sexual preference is a continuum, not an either/or.
Ironically, O'Donnell made those points most controversially when she suggested that überhost Oprah Winfrey "might be a little bit gay" for her intense friendship with Gayle King. Earlier, Winfrey said in her magazine that she was straight, in response to rumors. Maybe the best reason to believe her is that it's hard to imagine being gay harming her career. For anyone wanting to be the next Oprah, a little bit of gayness might not hurt.