5.14.2005

Why I Hate Will & Grace: One Gay Man's Confession



Listen, there's no television show airing now that I regret as much as Will & Grace.

It angers me. It's frustrating for me to watch. And mostly, it's not even funny.

But generally speaking, it puts gay Americans in a very awkward position. Sure, it has been a hugely popular prime time hit for the generally queer friendly NBC. It's allowed gay men (and their friends) into the homes of Americans who have probably harbored some bias against gay people because they've never actually known one in real life (or so they think).

Harvey Fierstein was notably quoted in the film documentary The Celluloid Closet as saying his philosophy on assimilating queer culture into straight culture is "visibility at any cost." It's an important concept to consider, and I can't necessarily say I agree or disagree with that. Visibility is important, but Harvey, please—let's do consider the cost.

To summarize Will & Grace, queerly, is to note that there are, visibly, two kinds of gay people: Wills and Jacks. The Wills of the world are slightly neurotic, mostly chaste, affluent men who hold white-collar jobs and live in Manhattan. Wills are often mistaken for your average heterosexual because they tend to display few, if any, outward "signs" of stereotypically homosexual behavior. The Jacks of the world are promiscuous, artistic types who walk around with a virtual spotlight on them. Jacks are "sad clowns," humorists whose behavior often crushes those upon whom it is wielded. Jacks aren't necessarily white-collar, although they know people who are, and somehow manage to eke out a living that affords them multiple trips to Banana Republic. If it isn't clear yet, Jacks are your typical, "effeminate" gay men.

Both Jacks and Wills are exceptionally good-looking, have time and money for gym memberships. Jacks are restless; Wills tend to be homebodies.

This is great. Yes. There are Wills in the world who are actually out-and-out Wills, and that's great. There are real Jacks in the world, too. But this show polarizes—actually puts into opposition—these two archetypes, creating a faulty either-or binary. Even the men who guest on the show typically fall into one of these safe categories. There isn't a lot of queer diversity here.

I feel like Will & Grace is a big minstrel show. In the 1800s, minstrel shows involved white actors appearing in blackface to satirize the lives and experiences of African-American slaves on Southern plantations—for laughs, for white audiences. Out of this tradition grew several archetypes, including Jim Crow, the "care-free slave," and Zip Coon, "the uppity" former slave who affects an attitude above his "station" in society.

Straight men playing gay men. For laughs.

What's dangerous about the set-up of Will & Grace surrounds consumerism. If the show were created and packaged to be consumed by gay-only audiences, its political ramifications would change. Gay-produced satire for consumption by gay people is not a form of violence; it's an act of community-building.

But since the show is provided to straight consumers, the humor in the show is not just born from the lives of the characters, their day-to-day trip-ups and foibles—it's not only this, but also the fact that they are gay that provides humor to straight audiences. Gay people don't laugh at Jack for being outlandish and effeminate because we don't think there's anything funny—see also "out of the ordinary or strange"—about that. But since most American humor is based on mocking the opposite of the dominant paradigm (um, say like Beverly Hillbillies), the humor in Will & Grace supports and reinforces limited stereotyping of gay men.

I wouldn't expect an African-American audience to appreciate blackface—so why are gays (other than me) tuning in to Will & Grace? What is Will & Grace doing for the queer community in the long run?


See? Even in publicity shots the gay men can't be next to each other. Can you find an image of Jack and Will being physically affectionate with each other?

11 comments:

  1. A heck (no, hell) of an interesting report on a show I didn't know about. Funny, one of my best friends is in many ways a stereotypical "jack" -- a gay artist/dancer and colourful, original dresser -- who exhibits almost none of the "effeminite" mannerisms. His character would never make it on this show.

    As for the "dominant paradigm" on TV -- well-to-do, whitecollar, with huge, uncluttered digs, etc. -- how accessible is that lifestyle to the vast majority?

    Of course TV drama is largely escapism for a mainstream whose lifestyle is itelf extremely insular, so as a reflection of the realities we live in it's a real fun-house mirror.

    This goes without saying, perhaps -- but it's fun to say it nevertheless.
    (From my cramped, cluttered digs, also rather insular...)

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  2. Well thought and well written, Charles.
    I have to confess I love Will and Grace, though don't watch it as much as when it first came out. I think the Jack character allows people who might have been uncomfortable with gayness, to be able to laugh and tune in, and to accept a Will character, who is more like an everyday person, in my mind.
    My favorite character is Karen. She is so over the top, with her drugging and boozing and putting people down. Most of the characters are outlandish and unreal: it's a comedy and is built upon unreal stereotypes. I'm not sure I take it that seriously (but maybe I should!).
    I think I would tend to side with Fierstein, and that the visibility is worth it. It's becoming more and more common to see gay characters in "serious" TV and movies now, where they are perhaps more realistically and unbiasedly (is that a word?) portrayed.
    Interesting food for thought.

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  3. I loathe Will and Grace. Grace dates and marries. Will never seems to even have the opportunity. The show gets on my last nerve, and it isn't funny. Like Peter, the only character I like is Karen. The rest, whatever.

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  4. I don't watch Will and Grace anymore, but I did notice that Will dated a cop with a nice low, butch voice this season. And I appreciated that one moment when Will grabbed Jack and kissed him in front of Al Roker and, ostensibly, America, because two gay men weren't allowed to kiss in a fictitious scripted program with gay characters...but, no, I will not argue the merits of Will and Grace, because, yes, like other commenters, I think they're pretty much limited to Karen. I will say this, though: Queer As Folk hasn't done as much as it could, either (at least not in regards to the gym), and has far less of an excuse.

    This post reminds me of the first paragraph of an article I wrote for Camp Rehoboth in March:

    "Sometimes it seems all minority groups are forced to plod through the same phases when it comes to American film and television. First, you’re nowhere to be found onscreen; next, you’re still nowhere to be found, except when a rare bit of subtext rears its head. Then, suddenly, you’re there—right onscreen!—but it’s only one of you, and you’re there for comic (often racist or heterosexist) relief. You’re Butterfly McQueen in Gone with the Wind; you’re Apu on The Simpsons; you’re Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; you’re the slight, super-fey gay guy plucking your brows and mincing your way through any number of films and TV shows. To some extent, lesbians have been denied this phase (there’s nothing funny about not sleeping with men). Instead of comic relief, gaygirls get to be token vixens—or token villains, like Agnes Moorhead’s character in Rebecca." The article goes on to discuss/question the merits of The L Word, of visibility on TV, etc.

    There's also, though: who stars in Queer Eye for the Straight Girl? Gay men. Will there be a "Girl Meets Girl" reality dating show, as there was a "Boy Meets Boy" (which was utterly repellent in its own way)? No, there will not. Not saying it's worse for gay women than gay men; we're all in the same different boat. Kind of.

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  5. Em, we're totally on the same page here. There isn't a gay scripted show on TV that does any justice to the gay male community. As for lesbians, I always felt—as you say—that lesbians are currently given the thumbs up on TV as long as they somehow maintain a sense of being the straight male fantasy. I think one reason Ellen's show failed is because Ellen was too boyish for American straight men to imagine in bed with another woman. And straight women seem to also buy in to the lipstick lesbian fantasy—toying with ideas of experimenting, both only with pretty girls.

    I think the representations of queer people on TV are especially damaging to young queer people, who may come to then reaffirm the stereotypes presented to them. And what about gay men who aren't fabulous dressers, or who don't have trend-head hairdos or etc etc etc?

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  6. Re: Ellen--and I thought the success of her daytime show (which IS very good) was in part due to her being "desexualized" somehow, no longer being thought of as sexual...to be honest, I thought the news of her caught in a limo with Portia de Rossi would freak her viewers out, big time. Doesn't seem to have made a dent, from what I've heard, though.

    I'm not sure that some images--at least of queers who aren't self-hating--aren't better than no images, though. I mean, I'll sound like an idiot here, but in high school I didn't know that lesbians had sex. They were PE teachers with ranch haircuts who didn't sleep with men, yes...but with each other? No clue. I wanted to kiss girls and not have a shitty haircut. I didn't know what that made me.

    Sites you might want to check out if you're not familiar with 'em: After Elton: Gay and Bisexual Men in Entertainment and the Media and After Ellen (which came first), etc.

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  7. The thing that kills me about Will & Grace is that, at heart, it is an utterly heterosexual show. I mean, it is Will & Grace, not Will & Jack -- even when Grace got married, for crying out loud, her primary relationship was with Will! And everybody knows Will's never going to have a successful sexual/romantic relationship with a man, because he's committed to Grace.

    I enjoyed the first few seasons, thought it was kinda cute despite its flaws, but I don't even watch it anymore. It's just not particularly funny anymore.

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  8. I've got to share this with all of you:

    http://www.jknirp.com/kaveny.htm

    [Note: the views of Kaveny do not reflect the views or opinions of, um, me.]

    The sad truth: whatever the usefulness of Kaveny's essay, I find it LESS boring than 'Will & Grace'. Perhaps that's part of the show's problem, too.

    Or perhaps not. I'm kind of a dork.

    Regardless, I not only agree that it's a 'heterosexual' show -- I would assert that it's a 'conservative, white heterosexual' show.

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  9. Wow... this is an interesting post for me. As a non-lesbian woman, I've always thought W&G was just dumb, though sometimes funny.

    My problem is just that the premise of Will and Jack's gayness (gaiety?) has always been treated as a joke on its own. Like, it's somehow funny if Jack refers to himself. He'll be holding a banana and say, "I like bananas" and that's supposed to be funny. Or someone will ask him to brunch and he'll say, "I could brunch all day long" in a suggestive way... And that's funny?

    It's like middle school boys snapping bras. Becasue breasts are somehow, by right of exisitng, hilarious....

    It pisses the shit out of me.

    Karen is the same kind of thing. Though funny, the "funny" is just that she's addicted. Ugh.

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  10. Hi. I happened upon your blog quite by accident, and could not help but comment on this really great post. I'd have to say that I completely agree with the conversation you sparked. Will and Jack are the type of homosexuality that feeds completely into this idea of otherness that really upsets me. While at first I thought they would work a little harder to combat stereotypes, they seem to feed into them and use them as the joke rather than using humor to dismantle them. Sadly, shows like this and Queer Eye for the Straight guy have a way of feeding into conservativism and desexualizing homosexuality. Gayness is instantly linked to effeminacy, or the whole gammit of seemingly innocuous stereotypes like this uber self-aware, good dresser, well spoken, runway model vision of a gay man that seems to be the norm for today. These shows, through their desexualization, allow people like my parents to love the programing but still hold the belief that homosexuals will all go to hell. It is also these media portrayls that lead me to think that somehow I'm some sort of gay lepper because I don't fit into this public ideal of what gayness is.

    Okay, I've gone on for long enough. Thanks for starting up this conversation and sparking this little debate.

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  11. Thanks for sharing. I'm entertained by Karen and Jack but it's interesting to get a gay man's prospective and you do make some very good points. Being married to a black man I can certainly attest to the fact that he would not be amused by blackface.

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