Writing@CSU Home Page | Writing Gallery | Talking Back | Issue 1

logoGays in the Media

Rachel Brandsma


            Bisexual.  Gay.  Lesbian.  These are all words that in today’s society are becoming more and more common to hear.  Although just a few years ago hearing these words might have shocked some and angered many, they are becoming a part of today’s norm.  People are broadening their views on sexuality and the possibilities open to them.  Being bisexual, gay, or lesbian is slowly becoming accepted.  On television a few years ago, a comedic sitcom Ellen attempted to make gays even more accepted by casting the main character as a gay woman.  Sadly, Ellen failed because viewers weren’t ready for gays to be seen in a comfortable TV setting.  The idea was too new and the show was before its time.  However, three seasons ago, another sitcom called Will and Grace succeeded in Ellen’s footsteps and is still on the air.

            Will and Grace is a comedic sitcom about a group of friends who live and/or work together.  Will Truman and Grace Adler live together. They are best friends who may seem perfect for each other, but will never find romance because Will is gay and Grace is straight.  The two face everyday problems together along with their friends, Jack McFarland and Karen Walker.  Jack is also a gay character; he has a son and is a lot more stereotypical of what many view as gay.  Karen Walker is a rich, snobby socialite with an interesting sense of humor. 

            Although the sitcom Ellen attempted to make gays a part of society’s norm, Will and Grace successfully accomplished it.  But with a catch.  Depending on the viewer and his or her perception of the show’s message, one might find Will and Grace to be appealing because it challenges the old cultural belief that being gay is not accepted.  Others may find the show problematic in that it reinforces this same belief, or weakens the challenge of it through the show’s use of humor and its stereotypical depiction of the gay characters. 

            Will and Grace may be appealing to the viewer if he/she finds the messages  of the show to be challenging the old cultural belief that being gay is not accepted by most in America’s society.  It is the first show to have main characters that are gay that is  widely watched and accepted.  Will is portrayed as the opposite of what society may find to be stereotypical of a gay man.  Will does not speak with a lisp, he does not use flashy hand gestures, nor does he even appear to be gay.  Rather, he seems to be an average character on a sitcom.  Will also is shown to be a fairly successful lawyer, a respected job title.  Throughout the show, Will is never made fun of for being gay, nor treated differently because of it. His sexuality is not emphasized and this sends the message to viewers that being gay is normal and that one should not be treated any differently because of it.  This in turn makes gays more accepted overall (surprisingly, since the media is normally considered demanding and unforgiving). Will and Grace strongly challenges the old cultural belief by a putting a respectable gay man on a widely accepted series for the first time.         

            Will and Grace may also have a negative effect on viewers because, although it challenges the cultural belief that gays are not accepted by most in society, it still weakens the challenge by reinforcing the belief through the depiction of another gay character.  Although Will is presented as a fairly modest and everyday gay person, Jack, on the other hand, is an extreme example of the stereotypes that are used to describe gays.  Jack has a lisp and uses a lot of gestures and hand movements as well as exaggerated expressions.  He mainly dresses in pastels and is full of energy.  Jack also uses terminology that many might consider to be characterized as “gay;" this includes words and phrases such as “That little tartlet!” or “I’m a celebrity” and “It’s so festive.”  In one episode, Jack even receives the wrong impression when Will is trying to motion that he should play baseball with his son.  Jack interprets the gesture thinking they should “wave at sailors.”  The writers of this show have decided to portray Jack in an extreme light which could almost be offensive to any gay viewer who may be watching.  By reinforcing the stereotypes that our society has created for gays, the show has taken away a considerable amount of its credibility, much less the purpose for why it is on the air. 

            In addition to contrasting these two gay characters and giving opposing messages to the viewers about what gay people are really like, the show also produces other mixed messages for viewers about gays.  Throughout the episode previously mentioned, there are a great number of instances in which the viewers receive mixed messages and may become uncertain as to what the show is trying to tell them.  For example, after Jack dances the entire ‘Nsync routine at his son’s dance, the son becomes embarrassed and mad at his father.  When a girl he likes comes over and says that Jack’s father is a good dancer, his son sarcastically replies, “maybe it's because he’s gay.”  The girl then responds with, “Oh really?  One of my moms is gay.  But she isn’t a good dancer.  She built our house though.”  In using this dialogue, the writers have made being gay seem bad or wrong because Jack’s gay-ness has embarrassed his son at the dance.  However, it becomes acceptable to be gay when the young girl says that her mom is also because this portrays being gay as a common thing.  These two messages put together confuse the viewer so that he/she isn’t sure whether to think that being gay is wrong or acceptable.

The debate over gays and how they are perceived is a common issue today.  The term “gay” alone gets thrown around a lot within the show creating confusing messages as to if, how, or when it's appropriate to use it.  In one scene, Will describes what he used to do as a child during school dances when he didn’t have a date: “I baked cookies and watched Little House on the Prairie with my mom.”  Then he pauses and adds, annoyed yet seemingly sarcastic, “I was so gay.”  By putting it this way, Will makes it seem as though being gay is a bad thing and implies that in doing these things the actions themselves actually made or helped him become gay.  Because he sounds sarcastic when he says he was "so gay," the term becomes a form of slang.  This may bother a gay person due to the manner in which it was used, even though it was a gay man saying it.  By throwing the term "gay" around as slang and using it in a joking manner, viewers again become confused as to the messages that the show is producing.

            So what do all of these mixed messages mean?  There are a variety of different answers to that question, but I feel that the reason Ellen failed was because people weren’t ready for the reality that there are gay people out there.  Therefore, viewers also weren’t ready to confront a television show in which the gay characters are taken seriously.  The reason that Will and Grace has succeeded where Ellen hasn’t is simply this: Will and Grace provides a balance between what gays are really like in everyday settings and stereotypical portrayals of the characters that the viewers and our society need in order to be able to allow this new strong and influential shift in culture.  Without such balance, viewers would be more uncomfortable with the change.  It is sad that our society needs such poor representations and depictions in order for us to find a common ground in accepting gays.  Hopefully our society will someday overcome this, and I believe that Will and Grace is a first step in that direction.