Whether we like to admit it or not, we always seem to search for ourselves in the TV that we watch. “Oh my gosh, I’ve done that exact same thing” or “I would never do that to someone I love.” After all, we’re an egotistical culture. Hell, we’ve been one for decades, why should that stop now? For those that are worried that this is gonna head in the direction of esoteric moralizing, you can calm down. I’m not much of a moralist nor am I really any different than the rest of you. That’s right, I’ve taken those “Which FRIENDS characters are you?” quiz. I got Chandler, in case any of you were interested… anyway, this isn’t about the state of moral decay that’s forcing us to look for kindred spirits in our TV shows rather than around us or our isolationist cultures, although both sound surprisingly smart considering I came up with them. No, this is about, what happens when there is no clear identification?
The show that comes to mind is Will & Grace. Now I know that not everybody is a fan, but it’s got some weird nostalgia for me, probably as the first representation of gay people I saw on TV. Granted, that probably set my little coming out story back a few years… but at the heart of the sitcom is a well-intentioned relationship. On the one hand you have Will, the handsome successful, but uptight gay lawyer, compared to Grace the frequently lost, creative, bossy, and messy type. For all intents and purposes, the yin to his yang. Of course, there are the sidekicks Jack and Karen, but in terms of screen time and storylines, most of the weight and emotional depth of characters are fleshed out with Will and/or Grace.
But the question of which one am I supposed to identify with remains. Sure, Will is gay and I guess that’s supposed to be a major sense of identification. Personally, Will was never really that gay, and I’m using that term in regards to his sexuality. There are plenty of jokes at his expense regarding his clothing choice or his taste in music and movies, but nothing terribly substantial. In later seasons, Will finally got around to having love interests and all that, but in the beginning, it was pretty clear that NBC was playing it close to their chest and aiming for a lowest common denominator, non-offensive to absolutely anyone kinduva sitcom.
Grace is a litle bit different. Considering she’s a heterosexual woman, her life primarily revolves around her romantic exploits, or lack of any due to her co-dependent relationship with her gay best friend. She’s the quintessential fag hag of the show, you know, cuz every gay dude has one of those. (Side note, that wasn’t intended as a call for applications. I’m fine without a fag hag, as I have been for years, but thank you to all interested parties.) But Grace’s type of comedy is particularly interesting. She’s played as the anti-woman. She’s loud, messy, crass, and opinionated. She’s pretty much everything mainstream society tells us that heterosexual men shouldn’t want in a woman.
So Will & Grace presents us with two extremes. Will adheres to most stereotypes of the gay culture, without ever seemingly being an active participant in gay culture. Sure, the show gradually fixes this over the course of its eight seasons, but the fact remains that everything about Will’s sexuality defined him, except for his sexuality itself. He never could seem to get laid. On the other hand, Grace played against gender stereotypes in an unusual way. Sure, it was typically for cheap laughs but it served to create a more well-rounded and funny character. In the long run, both could be seen as problematic and piss-poor representations of the groups they supposedly represent, but the first step is visibility and regardless of identity and gender politics, Will & Grace took homosexuality outta the closet and into the mainstream.