Media Circus

Published April 30, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the coming out of Ellen DeGeneres is a Big Deal in the well-oiled, carefully spun manner of engineered media events. The coming out of her lover, movie actress Anne Heche ("Walking and Talking," "Volcano"), who appeared hand-in-hand with DeGeneres at a White House Corespondents Dinner in Washington on Saturday, is another matter entirely. From "Oprah" appearances to news magazine covers to the trumpeted episode itself, the fact of DeGeneres' lesbianism has been fed to us, spoonful by spoonful, like baby food processed to a consistency judged digestible by the public's finicky stomach. Heche's announcement of her own homosexuality, from the unsettled tone of the coverage so far, arrives like a lump in the pabulum, as if the press and the industry wonder if we're ready for that much solid food.

Why the difference? It's partly that DeGeneres' coming out feels like a national project, exhaustively discussed until almost everyone seems to have agreed on its meaning and message (tolerance, honesty, courage, etc.). Heche's looks impetuous by comparison, a passionate, personal act, and the New York Times' Bernard Weinraub reports that it "has struck Hollywood hard." The industry leaders Weinraub contacted were "perplexed and dismayed," despite the widely supportive response to DeGeneres' coming out. Their uncertainty has to do with the difference between TV stars and movie stars -- and the strange, primitive ways we fantasize about both.

My college roommate had a huge crush on one of those overly refined British actors usually cast as aristocratic characters in second-rate films. As we acquired gay male friends (the way young women intent on becoming cosmopolitan inevitably do), they teased her mercilessly for her infatuation: "He's gay!" they'd crow. My roommate looked crestfallen and not quite convinced, but we figured our gay friends ought to know. Rock Hudson may have been closeted to the general public before his death, but the announcement of his homosexuality came as no surprise to anyone plugged into the gay grapevine in California.

Nowadays, everyone thinks they've got the inside scoop on the private lives of celebrities and the backstage machinations of the entertainment business. (Is there even an "outside" anymore? Perhaps there's a designated family somewhere, an old married couple -- Republican fundamentalists, of course -- living in a tract home in Kansas and completely oblivious of Clinton's poll ratings, Mike Ovitz's latest career move and how far over budget the new Geena Davis movie went. God bless them; if they weren't outside, how could we, the readers of Entertainment Weekly and viewers of "E!" be in?) We relish being clued in to the secrets of Hollywood's closeted homosexuals, and no disclaimers or candid interviews, no comely spouse or bouncing baby, can persuade us to stop smirking knowingly about Tom Cruise or Whitney Houston.

Aren't we sophisticated? And yet, we still haven't sorted out the fantasy world of the movies from the often lackluster realities of actual life. Try, if you're heterosexual, expressing lust, or even dewy-eyed romantic longings, for certain screen icons, and some smart aleck will surely chirp, "But, s/he's gay." We're supposed to be discouraged. The star's homosexuality is supposed be an insurmountable obstacle to the erotic reveries that movies have exploited from their birth. It's as if we have to believe that there's a chance of consummation, however remote, or the whole fantasy disintegrates.

When the New York Times quotes an "important Hollywood agent" speculating on Heche's ability to convince audiences to "accept (her) as a female romantic lead," the issue isn't her skill as a performer. Gay actors have been playing heterosexuals convincingly for years. It's Heche's ability to become a movie star that's at stake. Stardom isn't about acting, it's about transforming oneself into a totem or fetish -- a heady mix of Greek god, parent as seen through the eyes of a small child and the most popular kid in high school. Should someone ask us if we thought stars were the same people in real life that they play on screen, we'd reply with a commonsensical "no." It's just a movie, right? But deep down, we're not so rational -- some part of us can't quite make the separation, and doesn't really want to.

A movie star must appear glittering and blessed enough to invite worship, but never rub his or her complete inaccessibility in our faces. Would-be Cinderellas every one of us, we lavish adoration and riches on princes because we each secretly, idiotically, hope there's a fairy godmother and a glass slipper in our future. If we're frank with ourselves, we realize that, whatever their sexual orientations, neither Winona Ryder nor Mel Gibson is going to wind up on our arms or in our beds. But we don't go to the darkened room of a movie theater looking for honesty. We go to delude ourselves.

As a TV situation comedy star, DeGeneres is part of our fantasy lives too, but she's a lovable, goofy sister or best friend, not an icon. Her coming out happens in our living rooms, along with the usual mess of everyday existence. She's practically a member of the family, and if she turns out not to be quite what we expected, well, we'll cope, the way families should. Besides, she's not interfering with our need to believe that Ellen the character is indivisible from Ellen the performer, since both character and comedian are coming out simultaneously.

But Heche, auditioning for the role of dream girl -- a mythical creature, when you get right down to it -- gets cut a lot less slack. Each time she presents herself as a "leading lady," she'll force us to remain conscious of the fact that she's only acting, that the whole glamorous palace of movie romanticism is just a mirage. Of course, we know that already. We'd just rather not be reminded.

Fuzzy logic

Since Tiger Woods is a "Cablinaisan," is he free to insult every race?

By David Futrelle

in last week's Seinfeld, Jerry's dentist announced that he had converted to Judaism -- and followed up this announcement with several jokes of the "two rabbis walk into a bar" variety. (Sample punchline: "Those aren't matzo balls!") Jerry was furious: He was convinced the dentist, a former Catholic, had converted just for the jokes.

The Seinfeld show was an illustration of what we might call the "Zero Degrees of Separation" theory of ethnic humor. That is, it's OK for Woody Allen (and his Jewish dentist, if he has one) to make jokes about rabbis; it's not OK for Louis Farrakhan to do the same; it's OK for Eddie Murphy to make jokes about black men's penises; it's not OK for Mark Furhman.

Infractions of this rule are severely punished -- particularly if the joke in question isn't that funny. So when Fuzzy Zoeller let fly a couple of grossly stupid remarks about Tiger Woods, fried chicken and collard greens, he was doomed from the get-go.

After all, Americans of all shades had, in the immediate aftermath of Woods' victory in the Masters, anointed the quiet young man a virtual saint (albeit the first one with a cushy endorsement deal with Nike). Blacks celebrated the victory of one of their own; so, for that matter, did Thais. "As he is a Thai, I'm proud to be a Thai also," exclaimed Naris Ruabrat, the manager of an exclusive Bangkok golf club, talking to the Associated Press. "The Western press rarely mentions that he's Asian," another golfer at the club told the AP. "Americans like to say he's American. Blacks like to say he is black. But Thais are proud of him as an Asian."

Of course, no one was quite so excited about it all than us white folk. And though Woods is one-eighth Caucasian, they weren't celebrating the victory of one of their own, they were celebrating the fact that none of their own had viciously attacked the young golfer of many colors. Imagine! A young black man (well, a more or less black man) strode confidently onto the greens of America's top golf courses -- and no one even called security, or asked him to bring them a drink! "On a windy Sunday in the Georgia hills that seemed to blow away sports and society forevermore, the clenched fist of Tiger Woods was a vision of triumph and, let's hope, a bridge to a colorblind world," gushed Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times. In the Washington Post, meanwhile, Michael Wilbon celebrated the happy fact that "a kid of African and Asian descent can be mobbed adoringly by a predominantly white audience in Georgia on land that used to be a slave plantation, and when the uniformed sons of the Confederate are offering a handshake instead of a billy club."

Granted, the Augusta National golf club hosting the Masters reportedly has only two black members, and that most of the clenched black fists on the grounds are clutching mops, cleaning tables or carrying golf clubs other than their own. But still, white Americans didn't let that spoil the fun. After all, they had a dream. A dream that one day on the greens of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners would be able to sit down together on the golf cart of brotherhood.

And then, of course, Fuzzy Zoeller opened his big fat uncontrollable mouth. Sportswriters around the country piled on Zoeller, who promptly and tearfully apologized; Kmart dropped him as a spokesman; NAACP President Kweisi Mfume denounced his remarks as "vicious and demeaning"; Woods himself, though accepting Zoeller's apology, declared Zoeller's "attempt at humor" to be"out of bounds."

Lost in the media outrage over Zoeller was the simple fact that only a short time ago Woods himself had made a few, well, demeaning remarks of his own. In a briefly notorious interview with GQ, Woods told reporter Charles Pierce a bunch of dumb jokes, most of them dealing with the subject of black male penises, including one memorable anecdote referring to interracial oral sodomy and the Little Rascals. He also told a joke involving lesbians -- who, he says, get places quickly because "they're always going sixty-nine." (My highly unscientific survey of one, er, representative of the lesbian community suggests the joke doesn't exactly rank up there in offensiveness with Jerry Falwell's recent remarks about "Ellen Degenerate.")

Still, at least one journalist, Dave Anderson of the New York Times, made the connection between Zoeller's unbridled tongue and Woods' foray into humor -- and he demanded an apology from Woods. Not for the lesbian joke, which clearly violates the "zero degrees of separation" rule, but for his remarks about African-American men. I am trying to imagine how that might go:

To: All African-America Males

From: Tiger Woods

Dear Black Men:

I would like to humbly apologize for suggesting that your penises are extremely large. No man, black or white or any shade in between, wishes others to think that his schlong is comparable in size to that of Long Dong Silver. I recognize the shame and humiliation that you must have felt when, without thinking, I suggested that your whangers dangled down to your toes.

By the way, I would like to add that some of my best friends are black. My dad, for example.

Thank you,

Tiger Woods

P.S. Did you hear the one about Ellen DeGeneres and the lady golfer?

Still, perhaps Anderson has a point. After all, it's not altogether clear that the "zero degree" rule applies to Woods, who doesn't think of himself as "black." Woods, a virtual Rainbow Coalition all by himself, labels himself a "Cablinasian": one-eighth caucasian, one-fourth black, one-eighth American Indian, and one-half Asian (a mixture of Thai and Chinese). Does this sort of multicultural blending so water down his various ethnic heritages that he's effectively prohibited from making any ethnic jokes at all? Or is he, rather, the only known person in the world (besides Don Rickles) who can make black jokes, Oriental jokes, Indian jokes and even honky jokes without getting punched in the nose?

I don't know. All these percentages confuse me; I had no idea identity politics could get so complicated! But Woods should be able to figure out the math. After all, he's one-half Asian, and we all know how good they are at that sort of thing.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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