March 8, 2012
In April 1997, Ellen DeGeneres made television history when she came out as a lesbian on an episode of her sitcom. From her iconic Time Magazine cover to her recent marriage, DeGeneres has become one of the most visible openly gay people in the United States. Her phenomenally popular television show hosts everyone from Daniel Radcliffe to Barack Obama, and her sexuality is not secret—DeGeneres has interviewed young gay activists and has produced her own “It Gets Better” video à la Dan Savage.
DeGeneres’s actions are generally relatively uncontroversial. Recently, though, controversy erupted over her involvement with JC Penney. The company, which has been working to change its image and revitalize business, announced that it had chosen Ellen DeGeneres as its new spokesperson. DeGeneres has sponsored products before, appearing in Covergirl and (hilariously) American Express commercials.
The association with JC Penney, however, sparked new controversy. The Christian organization One Million Moms mobilized against DeGeneres’s new position, calling for JC Penney to revoke their support. The group claimed that the appointment of an “open homosexual” was an offense to “traditional families” who shop at the chain. The group stated that “the majority” of JC Penney customers would stop shopping there after the company jumped on “the gay bandwagon.”
Immediately, gay rights groups took action in favor of DeGeneres. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) began a Twitter campaign using the tag #StandUpForEllen and launched a Change.org petition that gathered over 42,000 signatures. Even very conservative media outlets, such as Fox News’s Bill O’Reilley, spoke in favor of DeGeneres. O’Reilley’s stated that, while he disagrees with DeGeneres’s pro-gay politics, he feels that she has a right to be employed without persecution on the basis of her political views. He viewed her appointment as a matter of freedom of speech and private business. In a column, he compared dismissing DeGeneres to McCarthyism. GLAAD, too, framed the issue as one of employment discrimination, pointing out that 29 states do not have laws against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
JC Penney ultimately decided that they would keep DeGeneres as their spokesperson. In an interview with CBS, Ron Johnson, the CEO of JC Penney stated that the firm would keep DeGeneres as “…Ellen represents the values of [the] company.” Ms. DeGeneres, he said, “captures what America’s about.”
DeGeneres personally responded to the controversy on her television show. She said that though she does not usually discuss “this kind of thing” on television, she felt that it was important to thank JC Penney and other activists for their support. She also listed values for which she stands: “honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you want to be treated, and helping those in need.” She finished with a direct rebuttal to One Million Moms, stating, that her values “…are traditional values.”
Gay rights groups around the country celebrated. The Huffington Post’s “Gay Voices” published an article entitled “How About a Hand for J.C. Penney C.E.O. Ron Johnson?” JC Penney’s refusal to fire DeGeneres has been lauded as a victory against employment discrimination and other forms of homophobic prejudice. This case, however, serves to illustrate many of the problems with today’s gay politics.
DeGeneres and her proponents have made no comments on JC Penney’s blatantly sexist history. A commercial for menswear explicitly made a deal with male viewers: if they watched the “boring” clothing advertisement, they could also watch a clip from the famous swimsuit scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. While the commercialization of women’s bodies to sell men’s products is nothing new, most firms do not openly discuss that this is what they are doing. The objectifying ad shamelessly reduced women to sexual objects whose bodies sell goods.
Additionally, this fall JC Penney faced feminist criticism for selling shirts for young girls reading “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” The chain eventually pulled the sweaters, but not before many had been sold to potentially damaging effect.
JC Penney has also received a D+ rating for its treatment of people of color. The website Green America asserts that the firm uses sweatshop labor around the world. DeGeneres failed to address these issues, and only spoke about the value of their support of her as a gay person.
This illustrates one major problem of the single-issue gay politics movement. As activist and advocacy groups ignore the role that sexism—as well as racism, classism, transphobia, and many other forms of subjection—plays in homophobia, they end up supporting certain causes at the risk of abandoning others. By blindly supporting JC Penney, gay activists are implicitly encouraging sexism, racism, and classism—and therefore only increasing the marginalization they purport to oppose.
Gay rights activists are too often buying into a capitalist-centered model of gay progress. With rampant homelessness, sexual violence, poor health, criminalization, and poverty, the right to be a spokesperson for a large corporation seems like a misplaced priority for the queer rights movement. By funneling money into the fight to keep DeGeneres at JC Penney, queer activists took resources from groups in much more immediate danger. The queer rights movement still remains one based in privilege. The right, in this case, of the rich to earn more money was preserved—leaving those without money at all out of the discussion.
Activists should be careful not to conflate the acceptance of Ellen DeGeneres with equality for queer people. As a column The Washington Post’s “She the People” stated, she does not take “a confrontational approach.” DeGeneres has been held up as the model gay American: nonthreatening, white, married, thin, documented, and patriotic. DeGeneres is not radically political. While the acceptance of certain gay people may seem like progress for all queer people, it may be seen as the further marginalization of queer people who do not carry such privileges.
The framing of DeGeneres’s appointment as a victory for gay rights has been a financial masterstroke on the part of JC Penney. On her television show, DeGeneres quoted Facebook posts on the One Million Moms page, including, “Love Ellen and everything she stands for. I’m going to shop there more now!” What has been won, then, is not a right to live without violence and policing but rather to buy things. JC Penney has, like other companies before it, used facades of support for gay people to sell products. While DeGeneres and JC Penney have won a victory, the most marginalized queer people, as well as women, people of color, and the global poor, are left with little change and little progress.
Chamonix Adams Porter is a freshman in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition