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?