The Heteronormativity of Will and Grace

            Gay activism has been highly visible in the United States since the early 1970s. Many groups have enthusiastically fought for equality and recognition as first-class citizens, often times while under scrutiny and public debate. Even with immense involvement from both gay rights advocates and prominent world leaders, there is an overlying social stigma in regards to “normal” and accepted sexualities. When popular culture began to feature gay men and women on screen and on television, there was discussion that America had finally learned to accept people from all lifestyles, even those that had been deemed bad and immoral for much of our history. One of the most popular of examples of this is the television show Will and Grace. Many agree that audiences’ approval of a “gay-themed sitcom” represents acceptance of the gay lifestyle in America after decades of gay rights advocating. However, the existence of heteronormative ideologies, including the dependence on hetero-social relationships, perpetuated romantic hetero relations but few homo relations, and stereotypical portrayals of homosexuality and female sexuality, prove society’s inability to accept representations that differ from social norms.

Will and Grace is an NBC sitcom/situational comedy that chronicles the lives of four upper middle class friends living in New York City in the late 1990s and 2000s (time of filming).  The show focuses on Will Truman, a successful lawyer, and his best friend Grace Adler, a self-employed Jewish woman who runs her own interior design firm. Alongside the two title characters are their friends Karen Walker, a rich socialite who moonlights as Grace’s assistant, and Jack McFarland, a struggling, self-defined actor/singer/dancer. The show revolves around the antics of the characters, mainly through following day-to-day social interactions between each other and potential love interests. Although very reminiscent of multiple cable sitcoms, Will and Grace has drawn both acclaim and criticism for one major component of the show. The two male leads, Will and Jack, are living openly gay lives. This detail makes Will and Grace the first show on cable television to feature a gay male main/title character.

Initially, the show was met by critics with shock and uncertainty. American television had just witnessed the coming out of Ellen DeGeneres both as her character on the show Ellen and in real life in 1997. Although initially supported by fans in ratings, the network ABC abruptly cancelled Ellen when acclaim began to wear off.  Following so closely to another failed “queer” series initiated debate over whether or not Will and Grace would be able to portray mainstream homosexuality for the masses. Despite the odds, it made its debut to television in 1998. Will and Grace was commissioned by NBC in a Monday 9:00 timeslot; it was rivaling football and the popular Ally McBeal. Because of the combination of the storyline and its competitive timeslot, the success of Will and Grace did not seem promising. However, after steadily gaining popularity from viewers, the show was moved to Thursday night as part of NBC’s “Must See TV line-up.” The show ultimately became one of the highest-rating shows in television at the time. [1]

In order to analyze how the gay culture comes across in a specific episode of Will and Grace, I viewed “Das Boob,” one of the beginning episodes in the series’ sophomore season. Overall, the episode promoted overwhelming representations of sexuality and its intersection with gender norms. The episode itself revolved around two separate conflicts—one involving Grace and the other involving Jack—with Will caught somewhere in between the two. The first conflict was about a deceiving (but flattering) newspaper photo that makes Grace appear more endowed than she really is. This photo gains her the attention of a former high school heartthrob who had not given Grace any attention prior to this. When meeting this man whom she figured would be the new steady fling, Grace has to figure out a way to continue her ruse and make him think she is naturally large-chested. Additionally, Will accidentally opens up to Jack that sometime a few years prior, he had a short fling with Walter, one of Jack’s ex-boyfriends and the supposed “love of his life.” The news did not settle well with Jack and Will is left to pick up the pieces of his friendship by reuniting the two lovers.[2]

In American popular culture, it is usually the heterosexual romantic relationships that motivate viewers to tune in to their favorite television shows week after week. This is reinforced by popular opinion about heterosexual-only marriage and the presence of minority sexualities in general. In order to account for popular opinion (or what is considered popular opinion), the scripted interactions between the two gay men are careful to include minimal to no sexual tension. The only type of relationship that is left for these two (Jack and Will) would be that of close male friends, but the intense differences in personalities renders this another unsuccessful option.  The secret of this comedy show’s success, then, became the chemistry between the lead characters: Eric McCormack (Will) and Debra Messing (Grace), and Sean Hayes (Jack) and Megan Mullally (Karen). “In terms of sitcom and popular cultural romantic conventions… [Will and Grace] continually privileges heterosociality, while homosociality (relationships between same-sexed individuals) constantly fails or is safeguarded.”[3]Will and Grace seemed to find a way to offset the lack of intimacy between characters by initiating intense heterosocial and sometimes semi-romantic relationships.

The relationship between Karen and Jack is one example of a hetero-friendship that evolved. These “partners in crime” gradually developed a unique and highly humorous rapport, to viewers’ immense enjoyment. Their scenes are sassy and risqué, and they are considered the most highly comedic aspects of the show. By placing these two characters repeatedly in comic situations, they more easily become comic characters themselves. Furthermore, in focusing on Sean Hayes’s portrayal of Jack, a caricature of a gay man, we see how distinct but stereotypical traits are emphasized, allowing for the unapologetic discharge of comic pleasure by audiences. This is important because without the dependence on external events (like Jack’s failed attempt at finding his true love which turned out to be all his fault) and the exaggeration of the characters engaged in those events, Karen and Jack may seem more realistic and the comedy of the show would in fact be no more. The degradation of the sublime then comes about when we question and poke fun at a higher figurative power—homosexual love and relations[4] which happens frequently throughout Jack’s search for love.

The one-dimensional but humorous relationship of Jack and Karen contrasts with that of Will and Grace who act as the substance that allows for an interesting and unique plotline. While they may disagree and at times even argue, Will and Grace have a certain bond that is hard to find among individuals. Their connection is exemplified through their quests for love. Although both try to look for the perfect man (Will’s search featured much less than Grace’s), they always end up back in each others’ arms when their romantic relationships do not work out. This is seen in “Das Boob” when, upon revealing that she was not as well endowed as she led him to believe, John dumps Grace leaving her hurt and self-conscious. However, in the end, it was Will who was there to pick her up and make her realize her self-worth. Many would say that they are the perfect couple, the one problem being, obviously, the distinct differences in sexual identities. By making Will and Grace’s almost-romantic relationship the major facet of attention, it seems unnecessary to deal with long-term same-sex attraction and behaviors. When heterosocial pairings are successful, homosocial relationships do not have to receive as much care or attention, and they are often marked by bad communication and a lack of intimacy.

In the episode of “das Boob,” the bad communication is present in Will and Jack’s relationship when Will accidentally tells Jack that he had sexual relations with Walter (an ex-boyfriend of Jack’s) a few years previous. Not telling him when the encounter happened was the first error in communication. The second is when Will then tries to alleviate his mistake by hunting down Walter and informing him that Jack still has feelings for him, only for Jack to realize that he was mistaking Walter with another man.  In “Das Boob,” the only opportunity to exemplify gay affection was when Walter and Jack were reunited thanks to Will. However, their get-together never actually turned out the way viewers were expecting. (Jack ran out before Walter got the chance to say hi.) A lack of intimacy is especially apparent between Jack and Will, who are the only recurring gay characters on the program. These two men rarely spend meaningful time together because of the perceived differences that keep them from engaging in any type of relationship, whether that be romantic or not.

On the one hand, this can be read as a positive representation because it demonstrates that gay men can form bonds that are not based solely on sexual intimacy. On the other hand, the manner in which any possible attraction between the characters is dealt with marks even the hint of same-sex intimacy as a perversion. Moreover, when considered in comparison to the romantic tension in Will and Grace’s relationship, the lack of a similar tension between Jack and Will could be understood as a significant absence.[5]

Since Jack and Will are meant in no way to be romantically involved, it is easy to juxtapose the characters to compare the two. In the episode of “Das Boob,” it is easy to see the differences in personality traits and mannerisms. From the beginning, Jack was more likely to engage in stereotypically “gay” activities with Grace. For example, the first five minutes of the show was spent comparing each others’ breast sizes. Although Will was in the room and engaged in conversation, he was hesitant to join in on the fun. Additionally, the recurring image of the hyperactive gay who is both outrageously obnoxious and sexually loose is present in Jack’s character. Not only are mannerisms exaggerated in order to differentiate Jack from Will and Jack from the rest of the male population, they are amplified in the way to make them seem much more effeminate than Will. In addition, Jack’s sexuality is stereotypically feminized to match that of the female “whore.” Portrayed in a way that makes him seem forgetful and promiscuous, writers are able to systematically make a situation funny and proliferative of social notions of gay men. In the latter part of the episode, Jack’s ex Walter met Jack at an art exhibit (after Will’s repeated pleading) to show that he still cared for him. Unfortunately, Jack’s short fling with Walter was not as memorable as the audience was led to believe. Upon seeing Walter, Jack realized that he had remembered the wrong man and promptly ran out of the exhibit, leaving Walter confused and alone. Instances like this, where gay sexual involvement is neglected or used as comic device demean the efforts to integrate gay sexual relations into American television and degrade the gay community itself.

In addition to sexual stereotypes, gender norms of both gay and straight men and women are reinforced throughout “Das Boob.” In the initial scenes, when we are faced with the comedic picture of comparing breast sizes, we are subliminally told that the female body has a firm ideal much more attractive and desirable than the body of most American women. However, by including the gay characters of Will and Jack in the breast-size comparison, we are also faced with the idea that gay men are not only comparable but equal to women and the female identity, which we know is not true. Furthermore, when we are met with the character of John who seems to be only interested in Grace for her increased bust-size since high school, the male fascination with the female body (the correct female body, that is) is exemplified and then enforced when he leaves her upon the realization that she was wearing a water-bra. Thus, feminine characters (Grace, Jack, Karen) are either shamed for embracing feelings of desire or used as comic devices to poke fun at female sexuality. Apparently, this leaves the deviant masculine character (Will) to be desexualized and treated as the voice of sexual reason in both the case of Jack and Grace.

Although there are problematic representations in the show, Will and Grace was still wildly popular. With its major success, it would seem that the nation had become increasingly supportive of the gay lifestyle and emersion of queers into American society. Keeping in mind that the timeline of Will and Grace was late 1990s, it is especially important to understand that this date is late in the trajectory of gay interest groups and rights advocates. Following the Stonewell riots in 1969, America was in a constant state of advocating for gay rights. Known mainly as the Gay Liberation Movement, gay advocate groups in America were, for the first time, affirming their social identities as “good” while simultaneously criticizing the intolerance of America in the 1970s. They chose to build their own cultures in part to develop these new, positive lifestyles, but also to wage a battle with the hostile environment around them. It was during this time that “homosexuals” in America adopted the word gay to recognize their social identities and to make known that the real problem in America was homophobia, not homosexuality.[6] In the words of Steven Seidman:

Though short lived, the new radical lesbian and gay movements of the early 1970s proved immensely important in shaping gay life and politics. Gay rights bills were passed in some cities and subcultures developed that provided a sense of self worth and social belonging…Politics in America would be changed forever.[7]

Emerging gay politics were seen throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. In the 1970s, an issue-specific interest group arose as a branch of the Gay Liberation Movement. The more singular “Gay Rights Movement” portrayed gays and lesbians as a minority group and used the language of civil rights. As a result of their efforts and the interest of several big-name psychiatrists, members of the American Psychiatric Association began to realize that homophobia was, in fact, the real social problem. In 1973, APA announced that they would be removing homosexuality from the next printing of the DSM-II, and spoke out in favor of antidiscrimination laws that would protect lesbian and gay Americans.[8] Throughout the 1980s, individual states fought for decriminalization of homosexuality and eventually, consensual same-sex sexual behaviors were decriminalized throughout America.[9]

The demedicalization and decriminalization of homosexuality were big steps forward for the acceptance of gays in America. No longer was homosexuality considered a disease or a crime; it was a lifestyle. Inevitably, this led to large groups of gay men and women assimilating themselves into normative American societies. San Francisco, California and Chelsea, New York became two well-known gay communities. Additionally, many LBGTQ organizations such as GLAAD (gay and lesbian alliance against defamation) and GLF (gay liberation front) developed and made themselves known as prominent crusaders of gay rights.

Following the advances in gay rights, it seems natural that television would follow suit and begin to portray gay and lesbian individuals in their everyday lives. Although there had been activism since the 1970s, Will and Grace—which I have noted as the first gay sitcom—did not air until 1998. It is already evident through this gap in political “acceptance” and social visibility that cultural values of love and sexuality did not yet include the homosexual. Although some would argue otherwise, I have concluded that as exemplified through stereotypical representations of sexuality and characters in Will and Grace, Americans may not have been ready to experience the lives of gay Americans on their favorite sitcoms.

It cannot be denied that the show had a devoted following. Both ratings and audiences’ reviews of the show exemplify this. It goes without saying that audience support is not likely if viewers are unhappy with the show’s storyline or characters, again reinforcing the notion that at the time it aired, America was ready for its first real queer television show. After reading many reviews of Will and Grace, the common themes brought to my attention were both eye-opening and problematic. Most importantly, it was explained by viewers that the show is, first and foremost, a comedy with a great script and great actors. The audience and bloggers focused on the comedic aspects of the show; they did not dwell on the political aspects of “normalized” homosexuality, as if to say that popular culture is not meant to be a gay rights platform. If, by chance, the political aspects of gay acceptance were recognized, many touched upon the same idea that the show Will and Grace “keeps the sexuality quietly placed in the background while focusing on the quartet’s dysfunctional and often crazy antics.”[10]

Critics, on the other hand, had more to say about Will and Grace. Specifically, there was discontent over the lack of exposure to the overwhelming social concerns of gay men in America. Many critics also found stereotypical, yet highly comedic portrayals of the characters and the relationships that blossomed throughout the series.  The opinion seemed unanimous that although there were gay characters on a successful Thursday night sitcom, gay rights and issues did not make their way onto the box. It seemed that Will and Grace took place on the “Planet Sitcom,” where homophobia barely existed, where coming out was not an issue, and of where there was no AIDS to speak of. “The gay issue? Well, in some ways there was no ‘issue because Will and Grace is not a typical “gay show.”’[11]

The distinct depictions of each character can be seen as both a success and a tragedy. These representations are exaggerated (Jack) and selective (Will). Through the comedic and campy portrayal of Jack, it is noted that he is the only potential challenge to hegemonic masculinity and thus, heterosexuality. In Episode 3 of season 2 of Will and Grace, Jack becomes the “typical” gay man in New York City, overreacting about trivial matters, acting loud and flamboyant even in public, and forgetting the name of his “beloved” former fling—promoting the notion that gay men are just a more masculine version of a female slut. He is feminized and stereotyped.  In Will and Grace, the predictable gay humor and stereotype comes from Jack. Alternatively, gay stereotypes seem to be abandoned through the straight character to the comics: Will, whose sexuality is made to be a more subtle part of the show. In fact, the character of Will could be thought to have been a cultural breakthrough—at least for network television comedy. “He’s an attractive male, without the stereotypical style and mannerisms so many viewers associate with homosexual men.”[12] He is America’s idea of an ideal hegemonic male at the time; he is a successful white lawyer, he has many friends (both gay and straight) and he seems to be a voice of reason. His life seems very picturesque. However, by not recognizing the aspects that have made gay life socially undesirable (discrimination, homophobia, the AIDS crisis), the character is watered down to depict type of homosexuality that has never been seen as a social, medical, or moral problem. Without the complexities of social acceptance, gay culture and dominant American culture are treated as one in the same.

The presence of gay characters on a big-budget cable comedy like Will and Grace has led many to assume cultural acceptance of alternative lifestyles and sexual orientations. However, I have concluded that complete acceptance may not have been achieved. Will and Grace made the gay culture more palpable to a mainstream audience but in a comedic way. Depending on comedy to bring up important but stigmatized topics in American society is an important yet problematic flaw in the development of the show. Humor is one of the methods most commonly used by the entertainment industry to portray people and situations that would, if taken seriously, offend people or make them uncomfortable. Because of this, the show’s original goal to represent the LBGTQ lifestyle in a “normal” manner is undermined in a society that condemns anyone with a sexual identity or preference that differs from the norm. The real truth is that “Will & Grace” is an opposite sex platonic love story masquerading as a gay-themed sitcom. Although we have come a long way in gay politics, I believe that representations on American television during the 1990s were not yet holistic depictions of queer life at the time.

Works Cited

Battles, Kathleen and Wendy Hilton-Morrow. “Gay Characters in Conventional Spaces: Will and Grace and the Situation Comedy Genre.” Critical Studies in Media Communication. 19. (2002).

Barry Garron.  (2004, September). WILL & GRACE. Hollywood Reporter: TV MILESTONES385, 90.

Conrad, Peter. Deviance and Medicalization: From Badness to Sickness. St. Lousis: Mosbey: 1980. Print.

Daas Boob. IMBD. Web. 4/1/2011.

Freud, Sigmund. “Jokes and the Comic.” The Psychology of Comedy. 253-262.

Reviews: Will & Grace (NBC-TV). Web. 4/4/2011.

Seidman, Steven. The Social Constuction of Sexuality. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company: 2010. Print.

Will & Grace. IMBD. Web. 4/4/2011.

Will & Grace. Wikipedia. Web. 3/29/2011.