In recognition of Pride Week, the following is an exclusive adaptation of an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Future of Men: End of the Age of Dominant Males, an in-depth cultural, societal and genetic exploration of the impact on men of the emergence and growing power of women. In this chapter I explore how television has portrayed gay lifestyles, and the TV series that have been most influential in reversing perceptions and attitudes toward gays and same-sex marriage in America.
Art, in its best form, allows you to experience life and ultimately changes the way you view the world. Will & Grace was one of those rare television shows to do just that. It was entertaining, but it did more than just amuse its viewers.
Will & Grace presented America with a perspective that was completely contrary to popular belief. In September 1998, following the 1997-'98 failure of ABC's Ellen, Will & Grace was launched on NBC-TV as the first program to have an openly gay male character as the lead on primetime television. Defying expectations, the sitcom would run from 1998 through 2006 and be ranked as the highest-rated sitcom in America among viewers aged 18 to 49 from 2001 to 2005. The show undoubtedly opened doors and desensitized America to homosexuality, paving the way for future shows. Contrary to popular belief, though, it isn't about homosexuality. Instead, the show is really about understanding and being able to value and appreciate one of life's greatest gifts: friendship.
While the show's premise is supposed to be about two best friends, Will and Grace, one who happens to be heterosexual and one who is not, the plot really continues a formulaic sitcom standard: Will the odd-couple pairing eventually be consummated romantically? Granted, the setup of having Grace's life revolve around finding the perfect man doesn't exactly flatter women either.
The show focuses on her relationships and sexual encounters and rarely crosses the "comfort line" that people may have had by delving into Will's relationships and sex life. People are OK with a woman having a "gay best friend" as long as they don't have to hear too much about his personal (or sex) life. It is especially palatable if he is upper-class, white, uptight, and not acting in "gay" behavior that makes people uncomfortable. Grace has several lovers on the show, portrayed by actors such as Harry Connick Jr., Edward Burns and Woody Harrelson; Will has an occasional one-episode fling but is never shown in a long-term relationship, though it is mentioned in the first season that he had a seven-year relationship previously.
The center of comic relief is usually Jack, Will's close friend. He's out and proud, but he's so over-the-top that he's also fairly nonthreatening. Everything about his one-dimensional character is designed to set up the laughs. Compare this to the gay character Oscar Martinez on The Office. Both are witty and sarcastic, yet Oscar's character is not a caricature and is not written to be the campy butt of jokes. He is intelligent and a bit of a dork -- and he is a blue-collar Latino.
Jack's campy, flamboyant, theater-loving, loudmouth personality serves another purpose: By contrasting with Will's already "pass-for-straight" demeanor, it makes Will an even safer, easier-to-digest representation of a gay man. This is in line with the new asexual-but-"masculine" image of gays presented in the media, an image that doesn't challenge mainstream society's heteronormativity. Will has restraint and a brain; Jack is promiscuous and flighty. The two choices presented are: Are you a "Will" or a "Jack" type of gay?
That view that Will & Grace taught the uneducated public much of anything about real lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues, or about non-stereotypical thought, is debatable, but one thing can't be challenged: There are more gay characters on television now. No one can deny that Will & Grace has earned a place in cultural history as the vehicle that brought homosexuality out of the television closet.
However, now a question remains: Is the sheer quantity of gay characters on television somehow more important than the quality of those representations?
Joe Biden was quoted on Meet the Press as stating his personal belief that Will & Grace had done more to advance the cause of the gay population of America than anything else.
Critics were initially dismissive of the show, some calling it a "gay Seinfeld" and others doubting that a show devoid of romantic chemistry between the female and male leads could possibly last. Critics were incorrect, however, as the show went on to run a total of eight seasons. It also received 83 Emmy nominations and 16 Emmy Awards. Part of the show's success was the fact that it is, in part, simply a gay Seinfeld. Yet homosexuality is not the central theme of the show. While the two main leads are a gay man and his straight female friend, the show is not simply about being gay. Instead, it happens to have gay characters among its cast. This paved the way for shows that introduced gay issues and gay characters. Essentially, this lack of overall emphasis on being gay made homosexuality less of a loaded issue and pushed it toward the background.
Many of the central conflicts within Will & Grace deal with standard problems such as finding work, romance, fighting with friends and having children. In this way, Will & Grace revealed to audiences that a show does not have to be about the gay community if it includes a gay main character. It also served as a demonstration that the concerns of the gay community -- friends and family -- are the same as the concerns of the straight community.
Before Will & Grace
Prior to Will & Grace there were few popular gay-themed shows. The same year that Will & Grace launched, Ellen DeGeneres had already stirred controversy with an episode of Ellen in which the title character comes out as gay (like the actress who played her). Ellen's coming-out episode garnered a huge amount of positive response from viewers, but the show was cancelled soon thereafter. When Ellen Morgan first came out on the hit show Ellen, criticism was so intense that Ellen reported being followed in her car by strange men, and the show's executives were screening calls from angry viewers. Today it appears that it has become far more acceptable to show gay characters on television and to avoid making homosexuality the emphasis of the show itself. Even when homosexuality is highly featured within the show, the show is still able to move away from it to cover other topics.
Will & Grace is widely believed to have had an influence on the area of gay television. This includes such programs as Six Feet Under, Glee, The New Normal, Modern Family, Warehouse 13 and Orange Is the New Black. In all these programs there are gay main characters, but their homosexuality is rarely explored as a theme. Modern Family is a direct spiritual successor to Will & Grace. The show gets a lot of mileage out of humor that involves the gay couple within the show, but at the same time it has been welcomed by the viewing community and has consistently achieved high ratings. It has been criticized at times for not showing any physical chemistry between the two gay leads, but it has also won many awards, including 17 Emmy nominations. It's similar to Will & Grace in that being gay is not the emphasis of the show but does play a major part as a focus of the show.
Series are now able to have lead characters who are gay without emphasizing it. This sends the message that being gay is as normal as any other random character trait, such as red hair or following a certain religion.
Will & Grace has also been credited with the development of Queer as Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Boy Meets Boy. All three of these shows gained widespread acceptance and achieved commercial success.
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was an excellent example of a show that presented to the straight public a point of view of the gay community that had previously been unexplored by the straight community. On the program gay men do a complete makeover of a straight -- and typically macho -- man. While it is not a perfect representation of the gay community, it still went a long way in communicating the fact that the gay community is not a threat and never will be a threat to the lifestyles of the straight community. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy attracted some criticism due to the fact that it was rooted in stereotypes, but it was nevertheless extremely popular.
Six Feet Under was a unique series in that two of the characters are gay and their relationship is heavily featured despite central themes that deal with other topics. The gay relationship is given no more or less weight than any other relationship within the show, and it is framed in much the same way. Six Feet Under proved to be an extremely popular show, and it was not crippled or held back significantly by the gay content. Overall, it humanized the gay characters and gay relationships in a way that was extremely worthwhile as well as critically acclaimed.
Another series that introduced gay themes was the legendary TV series thirtysomething. In the sixth episode of the third season, Russell, a painter, meets Peter, an ad executive. The two men, with a bit of prodding from mutual friends, are introduced and arrange a business meeting over dinner. Peter gives Russell some excellent professional advice about Russell's upcoming art exhibit and shows his keen ability to read Russell through his artistic expressions. The two hit it off, and Peter ends up spending the night with Russell.
From the very beginning Russell is trying to talk himself out of being attracted to Peter. It's not because he's in the closet; both men are somewhat guarded but openly gay, which was completely terrifying to a lot of viewers at the time. Being gay in the late '80s and early '90s was scary, as it was at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and very little was known about the disease. Not by choice, people in the gay community shared a commonality in that everyone knew someone who either had the HIV virus or had already died from AIDS.
This common thread is brought up very casually in this episode when Russell and his new romantic interest are in bed together for the first time. The casualness of their tone speaks volumes; the epidemic is a very large, very real part of their lives, and checking the obituaries for familiar names is something that only two gay men could speak about in the same context as checking the sports page or the daily crossword puzzle.
Even though Russell's relationship with Peter is a same-sex one, foreign to most heterosexual viewers, their relationship otherwise is very relatable. Russell's hesitance to approach Peter, for example, even with Melissa's encouragement and full support, is applicable to any new relationship. People watching could not only relate to his fear of commitment but see a little more into the gay world because of it. His vulnerability allowed viewers to imagine what it must have been like to avoid attachment for fear of losing yet another close friend.
Peter, in this episode, is even more apprehensive than Russell. He allows Russell to make all the first moves, and even though he accepts each advance, it is with cautious reservation. Even though he admits that he is open with most people about his sexuality, which was particularly brave for that period in time, he shares Russell's fear of attachment. Seeing the two of them attracted to each other but at the same time so afraid adds an element of sadness to the storyline. Both characters are very likeable, attractive and successful people. Viewers automatically want there to be a happy ending, such as seeing two people who should get together actually be together. The opportunity to relate to two gay men was a gift from the writers of the show to viewers. It had never been done before.
Before Will & Grace TV programs approached gay themes extremely cautiously. In Three's Company the main character Jack has to pretend to be gay in front of their landlord in order to be allowed to live with two women. After Will & Grace programs such as thirtysomething brought a completely new mindset; they broke former stereotypes that needed to be obliterated. Being gay was no longer going to be anyone's punch line. It was part of life, a reality that was finally coming to light after being the elephant in the room for so long. The writers of thirtysomething did more than create gay characters for their show: They gave them a voice; they made them visible. It was controversial at the time, yes, but very much appreciated by gays and non-gays alike who could no longer stand for the injustice of gays being seen as unequal.Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay politician (who was assassinated), said:Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.
As acceptance for the gay population grows, it is very likely that shows will begin including gay characters more often, both in supporting roles and in lead roles. Shows may emphasize being gay less often and instead focus on the personalities of the characters themselves. This means that being gay will no longer have to dominate a character's profile, and that characters will be able to become well-rounded, complex individuals who simply happen to be gay.
As gays gain more visibility and prominence in society and media, the cultural image of the "real man" will change with it, and the objectification of women in commercials will become less prominent. It may be political correctness or it may be a reflection of how studios perceive reality, but today gay male characters on TV are portrayed as more sensitive, creative, enlightened, smarter, honest, intimate and emotionally tuned-in.
Young straight men exposed to a role model of gay men who are successful with women both on TV and in life will be more likely to emulate their behavior than the less-respected and less-successful behaviors of the traditional, misogynistic, objectifying he-man. It's ironic and, I'm sure, controversial that the image of the ideal man currently emerging in society and in media is gay, displaying more feminine characteristics, and far from the lead male who has dominated media and society from the beginning of time.