In 2012, when speaking about same sex marriage and the position held by LGBTQI people in American society, US Vice President Joe Biden said: “I think Will & Grace did more to educate the American public more than almost anything anybody has done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”
It’s difficult to believe a sitcom could be one of the biggest cultural forces in building respect and support for a social group in a country as vast and populous as the US, but Biden’s assertion wasn’t entirely ridiculous. The series had such an extraordinarily broad audience that it was never just preaching to the converted. In fact, it was rarely preaching at all.
Will & Grace was — to claw back and positively repurpose a bizarre term from conservative Australian senator Cory Bernardi — a rainbow trojan horse. It was essentially a social education about the lives of certain gay men, wrapped in a sitcom.
The American sitcom is one of the most rigidly structured forms of entertainment; it’s fundamentally conservative and has told the “acceptable” stories of white-bread American families for seven decades. But there’s a long history of sitcoms that have pushed the envelope in more progressive ways, particularly in the 1990s when certain shows started to wear their politics on their sleeves, smuggling in stories of, and issues pertinent to, people who hadn’t traditionally been seen on TV.
Will & Grace, which premiered in 1998 and focused on the stories of two gay men and their two female friends, was a sensation across the world. In the US, Will & Grace was the highest rating sitcom amongst adults in the 18-49 demographic from 2001 to 2005: the first four years of George W. Bush’s presidency.
Now that another Republican is in the White House — although an altogether different and uniquely disturbing one — Will & Grace is set to return with two full seasons. The revival series will premiere later this month on NBC, its original network in the US, and locally on Australian streaming service Stan.
But what sort of impact might its return have given the US is now more politically divided than at the time of its initial run?
The comedy in Will & Grace was frequently razor-sharp, and its four lead performers had an uncanny knack for the sitcom style and timing. Last year’s reunion mini-episode, filmed to encourage voters to not elect Donald Trump as President, suggested that the dynamic has remained the same and retained its ability to shake and loosen up its audience around fraught and divisive conversations.
“The series had such an extraordinarily broad audience that it was never just preaching to the converted. In fact, it was rarely preaching at all.”
But Will & Grace was very much a product of its time, and the dialogue and representation of LGBTQI people has progressed enormously since the show finished in 2006. Gay leading characters on sitcoms are now not unusual (although bisexuality remains fairly unseen), and trans people are starting to have their stories told in shows such as Transparent.
Despite ongoing struggles, middle class, white gay men like Will and Jack have come a long way since Will & Grace premiered in 1998. But less than a year into the Trump’s Presidency, there are other minorities coming under significant attack and seeing their rights eroded.
The team behind Will & Grace have given some indication that they may look to cover issues relating to transgender people in the upcoming series.
The show’s creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan have expressed a desire to be up-to-date and respond to what’s happening in America. But Kohan noted that the sitcom can’t be made entirely about “issues”.
In another interview, actor Debra Messing said: “I think that there’s an opportunity to now celebrate all the other initials of LGBTQ … It will be great to come out of this next round and feel like we’re normalising an even larger segment of underrepresented people on prime-time television.”
Exactly how much LGBTQI people need normalisation and the “understanding” of the broader population is a matter for some debate — making heterosexual, cisgender people “comfortable” with difference is not really the most significant battle — but we also obviously need the population to refuse to support political parties intending to pass blatantly discriminatory laws.
That requires the general population to think of queer people as human, and if Will & Grace could do that for gay white men, then its return might be able to have some kind of modest impact for others under the LGBTQI umbrella.
Transgender people in the US are facing a particularly difficult time, following Trump’s ban on trans service-people in the military, and his repeal of protections to trans students using toilets for people of their gender.
Even without that legal denial of trans people’s dignity and employment, they already face extraordinary discrimination and abuse across the US. A 2015 survey showed trans people are already three times more likely than the general population to be unemployed, and almost one-third had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Trans people were nine times more likely to have attempted suicide, and faced alarmingly high rates of violent abuse.
Will & Grace won’t change blatantly discriminatory legislation nor get dismissed military personnel their jobs back, but if there’s any group of people that might be helped by the humanising effect of a sitcom, it’s trans people.
Unfortunately, Will & Grace doesn’t have the best record where trans people are concerned: there were recurring and belittling jokes about Jack’s femininity, which used suggestions that he might be trans as a punchline. The second season episode An Affair to Forget features a trans woman working as a stripper. Jack finds himself aroused by a lap-dance from her and is thrown into self-doubt about his sexuality. The revelation that she’s trans is that story arc’s punchline.
There are a few clear reasons why sitcoms are such effective vehicles for creating empathy and understanding, and quietly driving social change. The strictly drilled rhythms, laugh track and predictable structure allow, and even encourage, the viewer to switch off their critical faculties.
Sitcoms are disarming, and when we’ve been disarmed by humour and a familiar structure, we’re more open to hearing the stories of people we may have an aversion to, or simply have very little knowledge of.
But more than that, it’s a sustained and continuous form of entertainment that allows a viewer to check in with a character for an extended period of time. The relationships that you can form with characters over eight years of weekly TV appointments are arguably the closest thing to real-life relationships that any media can give you.
We know that some of the most successful campaigns for the rights of queer people have gained their greatest support from people who know queer people, whether as colleagues, friends, or part of their family. There are many people in the US, and Australia, who have very little association with LGBTQI people (at least that they’re aware of), and forming a pseudo-relationship with a sitcom character may be the next best thing.
Will & Grace, a show that focuses on four, middle class, white, cisgender characters, won’t be able to do for trans people what it did for gay white men. It won’t be a great trans sitcom, or even a great sitcom about queer people of colour, but it will hopefully retain its comedic strengths and ability to disarm its viewers.
These characters — who have audiences spanning most demographic groups — have the eyes and ears of so many people in America and across the world. If we’re lucky, they may find a way to use their rainbow trojan horse to bring the stories of other neglected people into the lounge-rooms of families of everywhere.
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