The meaning of Ellen (on American Idol)

She combines the best elements of Woody Allen and Oprah

american idolHerein, the fifth in a semi-regular series chronicling the ninth season of American Idol. You can read the first installment here, the second installment here, the third installment here and the fourth installment here.

America in 2010 is a confused place. Americans are of deeply held, but divergent and often contradictory, opinions. On some disagreements they are even unsure as to what they’re disagreeing about. In a recent poll, prompted by renewed debate over the so-called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, 1,084 Americans adults were asked whether they favoured or opposed “homosexuals” being allowed to serve openly in the armed forces. Forty-four per cent of respondents were in favour, 42% were opposed. When the same 1,084 American adults were asked whether they favoured or opposed “gay men and lesbians” being allowed to serve openly in the armed forces, 58% were in favour, 28% opposed.

And now here, at this particularly peculiar moment in American history, is Ellen DeGeneres, an openly gay woman taking her seat to the left of Simon Cowell, appearing in prime time television on the Fox network to judge a wildly popular, nation-defining talent show.

What to make of this?

It is tempting to make something of the fact that, while openly gay men and women cannot yet officially fight to protect and preserve the American Dream, they can sit in judgment of those who pursue it. But that would be glib. And it would probably exaggerate the significance of Ellen’s arrival on American Idol. It is probably more accurate to conclude that however confusing America can be, it is also easily underestimated.

Ellen is at once the most subversive and the least objectionable person in American public life and maybe the best current demonstration of the American Dream. Thirteen years ago, she announced she was gay in big red letters on the cover of Time magazine. Two sitcoms of hers subsequently flopped, but she has since hosted the Oscars, the Grammys and the Emmys, become the star of a popular daytime talk show, been paid to represent American Express and Cover Girl, and married a beautiful TV actress with an exotic-sounding name. Last year, Forbes deemed her the 40th most powerful celebrity in America, slightly less powerful than Tom Hanks, but slightly more powerful than Eddie Murphy, Jay Leno and Barack Obama. Out magazine currently ranks her the second most powerful homosexual, behind only Senator Barney Frank.

She combines the best elements of Woody Allen and Oprah, somehow cerebral and heartfelt, self-effacing and generous. She’s uncompromising, but never more than she needs to be. The defining three minutes of her career to date might be her shrugging dismissal in May 2008 of John McCain’s position on same-sex marriage—possibly the nicest, but most efficient, deconstruction of a politician and a political position in the history of television.

She debuted last week as a judge on Idol, kissing Ryan Seacrest as she arrived and quickly settling into the role with relative ease. Without dominating the proceedings, she has already established herself as the über-judge: empathetic, but mischievous; blunt and biting, but also encouraging. She watches with deep concern in her eyes and beams when contestants succeed, but will quickly scold the off-key. She prizes confidence. She arrived in time for the final round of auditions—dubbed Hollywood Week, it is essentially a televised social experiment meant to see how many desperate young singers can be made to cry on camera—and seemed determined to impose some degree of humanity on the affair.

On paper, it might not make sense that a populist, explicitly Middle-American television show pitched to a nation openly grappling with the perceived ramifications of homosexuality could, with reasonable success, put a quirky, openly gay woman in a position of prominence. But she fits. If there is anything remarkable about her inclusion on Idol, it’s how relatively unremarkable it seems.

On paper, America is a confusing and messy place. But it is almost always better than it seems.