Looking back at the career of Ellen DeGeneres now, it’s all too easy to let the rumors surrounding her long-running talk show overshadow the rest of what she achieved. Before she was the “Queen of Nice”–whom some people allege is not-so-nice behind the scenes–Ellen headlined a semi-autobiographical sitcom on ABC. And in 1997, she put her entire career on the line to come out as gay, both in real life and on her show.
Forget the dancing and the awkward interviews for a sec. Instead, let’s look back at this pivotal pop culture moment that changed the conversation about the LGBTQ+ community forever.
“The Puppy Episode”
On April 30, 1997, “The Puppy Episode” aired on ABC. Ellen had been pushing for her character to come out as gay since the year before, and when she finally got her way, it was ratings gold. The two-part episode featured a star-studded cast–including Oprah Winfrey as Ellen Morgan’s therapist. The real Ellen had come out to Oprah on national television, so it was only fitting.
Several gay entertainers made appearances during the episode, primarily during Ellen’s dream sequence, including: model and actress Jenny Shimizu (who previously dated Angelina Jolie), musician k.d. lang, and musician Melissa Etheridge. Demi Moore, Dwight Yoakam, and Billy Bob Thornton (who, coincidentally, would go on to marry Angelina Jolie) also appeared. Actors Jorja Fox and Gina Gershon, who both played queer characters, also supported Ellen with cameos.
Although Ellen took the biggest risk, the actress cast to play her love interest also ended up facing major career backlash. Laura Dern played Susan, the woman whose instant chemistry made Ellen Morgan finally acknowledge her sexuality. Dern would later tell a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she didn’t work for eighteen months following the episode. Of course, Dern’s career rebounded–she won an Oscar just last year–and Ellen found a successful niche as a dancing daytime talkshow host. But their struggle to work after “The Puppy Episode”
A Brief History of Sapphic Kisses on Network TV
The first televised kiss between two women happened seven years before “The Puppy Episode,” when Holly Robinson Peete’s character experiences a forced kiss by a young woman on 21 Jump Street. However, the shot is framed so that their lips aren’t actually shown onscreen. The first fully visible kiss between two women happened the next year on L.A. Law, when C.J., an openly bisexual lawyer (played by Amanda Donohoe), kissed Abby (Michele Greene). They never kissed again, however, and C.J. was written off the show at the end of the season.
A handful of kisses happened on network TV throughout the 90s, including on Roseanne when guest star Sandra Bernhard smooches an unsuspecting Roseanne, and Picket Fences with a one-off kiss between series regular Holly Marie Combs and a friend during a sleepover. Combs’ character decides that she just wants to be friends, and it is never mentioned again.
In 1995, Deep Space Nine explored the relationship between two women whose bodies are hosts to near-immortal aliens, called Trills. In a past life, their Trills were a married couple, and in a fourth season episode, Jadiza Dax (Terry Farrell) and Lenara Kahn (Susanna Thompson) share a passionate kiss but agree that they should not pursue a relationship.
If you’re sensing a theme here, it’s because there is one. Until Ellen, same-sex kisses between two women were almost always ratings stunts–and, frequently, the kisses are inflicted on a straight series star by a guest star or minor character who is never seen again. Ellen Morgan was the first series lead to come out as gay and continue to pursue same-sex relationships on TV. However, even Ellen wasn’t immune to the stunt kiss, as we’d see in the show’s fifth season when Ellen’s straight best friend (played by Joely Fisher) locks lips with her to save face during an embarrassing encounter with a prospective roommate.
E.R. featured a lesbian character played by Laura Innes who had a multi-season run on the show with two different long-term love interests–and, yes, kissing. In 2001, Buffy the Vampire Slayer featured a long-term relationship between a series lead, Willow (Alyson Hannigan), and her girlfriend Tara (Amanda Benson) that included an on-screen kiss. Of course, Joss Whedon then abruptly disposed of Tara in a move that many critics cite as a prime example of the “bury your gays” trope.
After Ellen, Did Things Get Better?
Ellen’s biggest cultural impact–and the reason she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016–is to make lesbians seem normal. Non-threatening. She risked her career to do that and almost lost everything, too. President Obama’s speech sums up the bravery and importance of what Ellen did in “The Puppy Episode”:
So, did things get better after Ellen came out? On network TV, not really. Her show lost viewers and sponsors in droves, and it was canceled the following year, with both mainstream audiences and critics from the LGBTQ+ community pointing out that the show was no longer funny anymore. While Showtime aired the soapy dramas Queer as Folk and The L Word, network TV traded Ellen for Will & Grace, a show that frequently leaned into campy stereotypes.
Still, representation matters–even if the representation isn’t perfect. in 2012, then-Vice President Joe Biden stated on Meet the Press, “I think Will & Grace did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”
Thanks to the risk Ellen took in 1997, queer representation has made some major gains in the last 24 years. While there’s still a long way to go, “The Puppy Episode” sparked a national conversation and helped normalized queer folks as ordinary people. Ellen walked so that Schitt’s Creek could run.