Will & Grace: The TV Series that Changed America

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"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."

Excerpt from Jack Myers' next book, The Future of Men.

In recognition of Gay Pride Week, the following is an exclusive excerpt from Jack Myers' next book, The Future of Men: End of the Age of Dominant Males, an in-depth cultural, societal and genetic exploration into the impact on men of the emergence and growing power of women. The Future of Men is a sequel to Hooked Up: A New Generation's Surprising Take on Sex, Politics and Saving the World . In this chapter from The Future of Men, 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 and 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 and Grace presented America with a perspective that was completely contrary to popular belief. In September of 1998, following the 1997-1998 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 prime-time television. Defying expectations, the sitcom would run from 1998 through 2006 and be ranked as the highest rated sitcom in America among viewers 18-49 from 2001 - 2005. The show undoubtedly opened doors and desensitized America for future shows based on homosexuality. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't about homosexuality. Instead, the show was 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 Grace having her life revolve around finding the perfect man doesn't exactly flatter women, either.

The show focused on her relationships and sexual encounters, and rarely crossed the 'comfort line' people may have had with delving into Will's relationships and sex life. People are okay 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-classed, white, uptight, and not acting in "gay" behavior that makes people uncomfortable. Grace had several lovers on the show, portrayed by actors such as Harry Connick Jr., Edward Burns and Woody Harrelson; Will had an occasional one-episode fling, but was 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 was usually Jack, Will's close friend. He's out and proud, but he's so over the top that he's also fairly non-threatening. Everything about his one-dimensional character is designed to set up the laughs. Compare this to the gay character 'Oscar Martinez' in 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, 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, Will becomes a safer, easier to digest approximation 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 and 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 argued: there are more gay characters on television now. No one can deny that Will and Grace has earned a place in cultural history, as the vehicle that brought homosexuality out of the television closet.

However, now the 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 was, in part, simply a gay Seinfeld. Yet, being gay was not the central theme of the show. While the two main leads were a gay man and his straight female friend, the show was not simply about being gay. Instead, it happened 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 towards the background.

Many of the central conflicts within Will & Grace dealt with standard problems such as finding work, issues with romance, fighting with friends and having children. In this way, Will & Gracerevealed to audiences that a show did not have to be about the homosexual community if it was to include a main homosexual character. It also served as an example that the concerns of the gay community---friends and family--- were 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 & Gracelaunched, Ellen DeGeneres had already stirred controversy with an episode of Ellen in which the title character, and the actress who played the character, had come out as gay. Ellen's "coming out" episode garnered a huge amount of positive response from viewers, but the show was cancelled soon after. 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 homosexual 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 of these programs, the main characters are gay but this is rarely explored as a theme of the shows. 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 it 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 a character having red hair or being of 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. In the program, gay men did a complete make-over of a straight – and typically macho – man. While it was not a perfect representation, it still went a long way in communicating the fact that the gay community was not a threat, nor ever would be a threat, to the lifestyles of the straight community. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy gathered some criticism due to the fact that it was rooted within stereotypes, but it was nevertheless extremely popular.

Six Feet Under was a unique series in that two of the characters were gay and their relationship was heavily featured despite central themes that dealt with other topics. The gay relationship was given no more or less weight than any other relationship within the show and it was 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 homosexual 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 season three, episode six, Russell, the 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. Not out of being gay; both men are somewhat guarded yet openly homosexual, which at the time was completely terrifying to a lot of viewers. Being gay in the late eighties-early nineties was scary, as it was at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and very little was known about the disease. People in the gay community shared, not by choice, a commonality in that everyone knew someone who either had the AIDS virus or had already died from it. This common thread is brought up very casually in this episode when Russell and his new romantic interest, Peter are in bed together for the first time. The casualness of their tone speaks volumes; the epidemic was a very large, very real part of their lives, and checking the obituaries for familiar names is something 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 had the dynamic of being gay, foreign to most hetero viewers, their relationship otherwise was very relatable. Russell's hesitance to approach Peter, for example, even with Melissa's encouragement and full support, was applicable to any new relationship. People watching could not only relate to his fear of commitment, they could 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 the 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 he is open with most people about his sexuality, which is 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 reveals 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 that 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 Companythe 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 t hirtysomething 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. t hirtysomething writers did more than create gay characters for their show; they gave them a voice. They made them visible. Controversial at the time, yes, but very much appreciated by gays and non-gays alike who could no longer stand for the injustice of being seen as unequal.

As 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 homosexual population grows, it is very likely that shows will begin including gay characters more often, both in supporting roles as well as 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 that simply happen to be gay.

As gays gain more visibility and prominence in society and in 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.

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