It's OK to dump on Ellen DeGeneres now. This became clear last Wednesday when David Letterman's monologue contained several jokes about all the lesbian story lines on "Ellen" this season now that the star has come out. None of them was particularly funny. But it was a healthy thing for Letterman to do.
After all, DeGeneres wants to be treated like everyone else. Making fun of her lesbianism is just another sign of progress, right?
On the same night of Letterman's jokes, ABC added a parental discretion label on a TV-14 "Ellen" episode that featured a playful, joking kiss between DeGeneres' character and that of Paige (Joely Fisher), who hasn't been all that comfortable about her friend's sexuality.
DeGeneres told TV Guide that the only reason the episode received a warning is "because I'm gay."
"Where will it stop?" she asked. "If you say, 'Don't watch a show that has gay people on it,' who's to say they won't one day say, 'Don't watch a show that has black people on it, or Jews.' "
Oh, pleasssseee. That isn't going to happen. Blacks and Jews do have something in common with gays -- they have experienced prejudice and they will continue to experience prejudice.
(An aside here: If a network ran a parental advisory because blacks and Jews are on a show, there would be outrage. There also would be an advisory on every show. The same might be true if a network ran an advisory on every show with a gay character on it.)
DeGeneres' analogy is extremely strained. ABC didn't say people shouldn't watch "Ellen," just that they should be aware of its adult content.
The star is correct when she says labeling her show TV-14 and putting on parental discretion advisories when other sitcoms shows with suggestive dialogue are rated TV-PG illustrates a double standard. TV has always had a double standard and never has been comfortable with homosexual story lines. That's what made Disney's decision to proceed last season seem almost courageous.
DeGeneres' frustration may be understandable, but her aim is misguided. I don't blame Ellen for exerting pressure on ABC anymore than I blame ABC for trying to deflect Congressional pressure with a simple warning.
Despite continuous protests from religious groups, ABC didn't blink when DeGeneres wanted to make television history by playing the first lead character on a series who is gay and also acknowledging that she was gay.
To her credit, DeGeneres and her writing staff pulled off last season's finale with aplomb and won a writing Emmy for it. On Emmy night, DeGeneres told a national television audience that she hoped the show especially made gay teens realize there is nothing wrong with them.
She brought up the same theme again last week during her diatribe against ABC, saying: "This advisory is telling kids something's wrong with being gay. The point of the show is to let kids know there's nothing wrong with being gay. And now they're saying children shouldn't watch it."
That's not what ABC is saying. It is saying that parents might believe their children under 14 might not understand the subject matter. It makes perfect sense when you consider that DeGeneres says she didn't conclude that she was gay until she was a young adult.
If DeGeneres thinks the Emmy indicates that she has won over the entire nation, she is wrong. ABC realizes that. As a business that is being harassed by religious groups and Congress over program content, ABC is understandably sensitive to its critics.
If "All in the Family" premiered in 1997, it surely would have been given a parental advisory warning because the satire behind Archie Bunker's racism might have been gone over the heads of youngsters.
DeGeneres should be proud of the message "Ellen" is giving gay teens but she also has to realize that there are parents out there who don't want their kids seeing people of the same sex kissing each other, even jokingly. These same parents might disagree with DeGeneres' "point" and worry the series would plant an idea in the heads of young kids who aren't gay. It isn't a particularly enlightened crowd, but it isn't an insignificant crowd, either.
ABC was just alerting those people who might be offended, something that Congress seems to be demanding these days.
DeGeneres might take some solace in the fact that it wasn't that long ago that people didn't want to see people of different races kissing each other on television. It took some time, but relationships between the races is pretty well accepted on television these days. Charlie (Matthew Fox), one of the leads on "Party of Five," had a season-long interracial romance last season and race wasn't an issue.
DeGeneres undoubtedly wishes that lesbian romances involving series leads would be as routinely accepted on TV today. That isn't yet true, but shows like "Ellen" will make it possible in a decade or so.
As many blacks and Jews could tell her, progress in overcoming prejudice can be extremely slow. But it isn't smart to pick on one of your supporters. That's exactly what DeGeneres and friends are doing by labeling ABC hypocritical and cowardly.
You almost wonder if DeGeneres has another agenda here. She has acknowledged the accuracy of reports this summer that she didn't want to continue the show this season.
Let's hope she isn't trying to provoke ABC into ending the series because of those dreaded advisories. It would be a pretty silly reason to stop talking to those gay teens she is so concerned about. After all, DeGeneres has to realize that few people pay attention to those advisories anyway. If she hadn't mentioned them, most parents probably wouldn't even have noticed they existed.
Some industry-watchers are wondering if ABC's decision to postpone the airing of an "Ellen" episode on Oct. 22 is a result of the flap over the advisory issue and an indication that she might go through with a threat to quit.
A spokesperson for DeGeneres says she has no plans to quit. That's good news. Quitting would an ill-advised and counterproductive move by DeGeneres since the show's cancellation is exactly what critics of it want.