Shoes, produced by Linda Semans of the Semans Co. for the Human Rights Campaign.
Ellen DeGeneres just came out as a lesbian on the cover of Time, and she’s doing it on the April 30 episode of her hit network sitcom, Ellen. Her exit from the Hollywood closet is a milestone: No other star has stepped out of it at the height of his or her career. While there are currently about two dozen gay or lesbian regulars in prime-time shows, according to the gay and lesbian magazine the Advocate, none plays the lead. And no series has commanded such advance attention for a nonfarewell episode since Dallas’ revelation of who shot JR.
The Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay and lesbian political organization in the nation, plans 1,400 Ellen house parties, complete with party kits, to celebrate the lead character’s acknowledgment that she is gay. It has also chosen the April 30 show to air Shoes, a spot that attacks job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Produced by Linda Semans of the Semans Co., which specializes in public-service and progressive-issue campaigns, Shoes was rejected by ABC, Ellen’s parent network. Citing a “no controversial-issue advertising” policy, ABC turned down HRC’s request that it make a single nationwide purchase of air time. Sixty-five affiliates have agreed to air the spot, however, and it will be placed in 33 markets around the country.
Shoes chooses a single focus–discrimination in the workplace–and casts it in mainstream terms. Never explicitly seeking approval of a lifestyle, it follows a tested civil-rights-protest strategy: Show the injustice, then appeal to the public’s sense of fairness.
Opening with a female silhouette walking away from a punitive “personnel” sign, it follows her unsteady progress down a flight of stairs and uses a staccato colloquy between her colleagues to dramatize the injustice:
“They fired her? … That isn’t fair.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“It isn’t legal.”
“Yes, it is.”
Our first assumption is that this woman is a victim of gender-based discrimination–but we’re stopped short by the announcement that “it” is legal. Job discrimination against women? Surely not. Building on an already secure national consensus on women’s rights, the dialogue draws on basic, inarguable values while the visuals emphasize the sheer normalcy of it all: the ubiquitous setting, the ubiquitous employee, the ubiquitous iniquity. Nothing weird here–instead, a shot of a plaque that once acknowledged this employee’s “sustained superior performance” and must now be packed away.
It is at the moment of maximum audience susceptibility that we hear, for the first time, that the woman was fired not because of her gender but because of her sexual preference. Confounding our initial assumption, the spot prompts us to question why this kind of discrimination is accepted–even legal in 41 states, a fact the narrator tells us “most Americans don’t know.” Semans says she wrote that line into the narrative after she had told a lot of people, including her parents, about the spot. “They all said there must be a law against that,” she says. There isn’t, even though polling for the HRC (jointly conducted by Democrat Celinda Lake and the conservative Republican Tarrance Group) shows that 80 percent of Americans think homosexuals should have “equal rights in terms of job opportunities.” Sixty-eight percent favor a federal law to “prevent job discrimination against gays and lesbians.”
The bleak black and white of the scene in the woman’s office is relieved by a shot of yellow flowers, visible through the window. “The storyboards had that from the start,” Semans says. “Visually we wanted to create a little bit of hope, a transition to the rest of the spot” and the HRC logo, which picks up and repeats the color.
Its lesbian/bisexual (we’re never told which) female subject allows Shoes to tap wider contexts of discrimination: A male protagonist wouldn’t have had her access to the history of discrimination in the work place; and an infusion of color (read: race) might have narrowed the canvas, making the problem seem less pervasive than it is.
Emphasizing the breadth of such discrimination with its choice of a subject, the spot then personalizes her. She is more than an abstract cause, a dry phrase like “sexual orientation.” She has a name: Betty. And she is liked by her colleagues, who ask if there is anything they can do to help. There is, the narrator answers as the HRC logo (a yellow equal sign, re-emphasizing how mainstream this cause is) appears on-screen: Call the Human Rights Campaign, toll free.
As Betty leaves the office, the narrator echoes one of President Clinton’s best received and most carefully polled calls–for “solutions that bring us together.” The president is supporting the anti-gay-job-discrimination bill, and this spot kicks off a national campaign to pass it. It’s smart politics, because the narrow focus goes with the flow of public opinion.
Is ABC’s rejection of Shoes ironic given that Ellen’s release from the closet is likely to raise the network’s ratings in the crucial May sweeps? Not really. It vacillated for months before going with the show’s proposal; it also recently turned down another ad request by a cruise line that targets lesbians, on the grounds that “discussion about same-sex lifestyles is more appropriate in programming” (where it will probably be sanitized). You’d think that ABC and some of its affiliates would grow up, now that they’ve let Ellen out. Truth in programming is, however, a first step.
Robert Shrum is a leading Democratic consultant.