In this post, I will take a close look at another TV show fostering gay visibility on prime time television: Will & Grace. According to Streitmatter, Will & Grace was “the most visible gay media product of all time”, with almost 20 million people watching the show every week (115). The show was so popular that even lots of A-list celebreties, such as Madonna or Jennifer Lopez had guest appearances on the show. So what is this show about and what makes it special? – Will & Grace was a NBC sitcom produced in Los Angeles from 1998 to 2006.
“Will & Grace takes place in New York City and focuses on Will Truman, a gay lawyer, and his best friend Grace Adler, a Jewish woman who runs her own interior design firm. Also featured are their friends Karen Walker, a rich socialite, and Jack McFarland, a struggling actor/singer/dancer who also has had brief careers as an acting teacher, back-up dancer, cater-waiter, talk-show host and student nurse” (Wikipedia.com).
Personally, I first heard about this show in 2003, when I got the chance, during a visit in Los Angeles to be part of the live audience during the filming of one episode. In addition, due to the fact that one of the producers of the show was the father of a friend of mine, I also got the chance to meet the lead characters of the show that day. Nevertheless, because I was just visiting from Germany and the show was not available in Germany yet, I had no idea of how popular the show actually was in the United States and what to expect in general.
One aspect that is significant about the show was that the 2 lead characters are very different personalities and the show plays with these differences. “The fact that fulfilled and emotionally stable gay men come in more than one variety – some steady and chaste, others flighty and promiscuous – is just one of the several statements that Will & Grace made during its triumphant time on the air” (Streitmatter, 124). There is Jack who is a more flamboyant and out-going type of gay man and on the other hand there is Will who is a more “straight-acting”, quite and less noticeable type of gay man. People would most probably not expect him to be gay when they first meet him. Hence, one character is acting more according to the stereotypes present in society, while the other character is not fulfilling these stereotypes. Certainly, this shows the audience that there are different types of gay man and especially Will’s character emphasized that it is not always easy to determine who is gay and who is not. More and more people started to realize slowly that being gay is nothing too much out of the ordinary and certainly nothing “bad” or “sick”. People in the audience might even personally know a homosexual individual, they simply might not know about it, because the homosexuals they know don’t fit in the popular stereotypes that exist in society. In addition, another important theme of the show is the great relationships that exist between gay men and straight women. In the show, there is Will’s relationship with his best friend Grace and Jack’s very close relationship to Karen. The fact that Will & Grace is not just focusing on gay characters but a mixture between gay and heterosexual characters is seen by many as one of the shows secrets to success.
Streitmatter also points out that the show was subtly promoting gay rights (Streitmatter, 121). The show sent the message to the audience that gay people are not different than anyone else in society just because of their sexual orientation. Hence, they certainly deserve equal rights and should not be treated as second class citizen. Nevertheless, the show did not address these issues straightforward, but did so with a lot of comedy and a great sense of humor. This might have been one of the reasons for the shows great popularity not only in the gay community. “The most substantive message, one that emerged only after the sitcom had become well-established, was that gay people deserve to be treated fairly, including having the right to legalize their relationships and adopt children” (Streitmatter, 124).
In my opinion, Will & Grace and the popularity of this prime time show certainly helped to increase the visibility of gays in U.S. society and exposed society to this important issue. During that time, it was still not common to see homosexual characters as leading characters in TV shows. Thanks to Will & Grace, now, every week millions and millions of people watched this popular show, welcomed the gay characters to their living room and were exposed to the shows subtle messages promoting equal rights for homosexuals.