will & grace is back – is it bringing the ‘wealthy white gay’ stereotype with it?

We take a look at how the sitcom looks and feels in 2017.

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Dec 12 2017, 9:27am

Last week, it was announced that beloved sitcom Will & Grace would return to UK screens just months after a hugely successful comeback season in the US. Despite various allusions to America’s pussy-grabbing POTUS and the political chaos which currently reigns supreme, the show’s formula remains largely unchanged; the politically incorrect jokes, comedic stereotypes and acerbic putdowns which characterised the show’s initial run are all still present, to the relief of long-time fans.

It is, however, worth questioning Will & Grace’s role in LGBTQ media today. When the sitcom first aired in 1998, it was lauded for its inclusion of not just one, but two gay protagonists. Queer visibility was depressingly scarce at the time, which explains why Jack and Will -- two gay characters rooted in oppositional ‘masc’ and ‘femme’ stereotypes -- were deemed relatively progressive. Although they were weirdly sexless and wildly linear, they collectively proved that queer experiences were worth narrating. They also underlined another fact -- inclusivity is profitable.

Perhaps coincidentally, the show’s imperial phase coincided with a definite boom in queer-focused advertising. At the time, marketing companies were increasingly fixated on acquiring the pink pound, whereas Will & Grace paved the way for other shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and The L Word , sparking a rise in LGBTQ visibility which almost resulted in a gay cable channel. In the eyes of marketers, it seemed we were finally coming out of the closet -- and looking to spend more money on meaningless shit to chuck back into it.

This pinkwashing still persists, but we need to examine why. The wealthy, white gay stereotype is undeniably an enormous factor, one that is arguably propagated by Will & Grace. Will is a wealthy, successful lawyer, whereas Jack is an out-of-work actor who jumps between jobs including cage dancer, cabaret dancer and back-up dancer. Although more diverse in its representation of both race and class, The L Word still falters by placing the bulk of its protagonists in a bubble of wealth that is only occasionally popped. Queer Eye just perpetuates the myth that all gay men have great taste in clothing. We don’t.

"LGBTQ people have always been at disproportionate risk of falling into poverty. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t all strut around Manhattan drinking martinis and agonising over Versace; instead, plenty of us are struggling due to homelessness, discrimination and violence."

Although these shows suggest otherwise, LGBTQ people have always been at disproportionate risk of falling into poverty. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t all strut around Manhattan drinking martinis and agonising over Versace; instead, plenty of us are struggling due to homelessness, discrimination and violence. The situation is exponentially worse for queer and trans people of colour, forced to work harder to overcome the obstacles of racism, transphobia and misogyny.

In fact, only white gay men seem to be actually thriving – and even that’s debatable. A recent US study unveiled the surprising statistic that gay men now earn, on average, more than their straight counterparts, yet we must be weary of statistics like these; a combination of ineffective data collection, reluctance to come out and the fact that we’re studied more as consumers than we are as people can all skew data. Still, the truth is that white gay men are increasingly becoming the figureheads of a hugely diverse LGBTQ community. This erasure is damaging, as is the fact that some of these men do more harm than good; a fact recently exemplified by ‘androphiles’ and the gay white nationalists.

To its credit, Will & Grace doesn’t shy away from politics, but it is worth examining why it is so successful. The answer is simple: the sitcom presents a pretty, palatable version of queerness devoid of explicit sex or any kind of radical political statements. It may be anti-Trump, but who isn’t? As the recent rise of branded activism proves, brands are increasingly willing to superficially ‘speak out’ because Trump is the one President we’re actively encouraged to disagree with. His vilification is easily justified, but this doesn’t make Will & Grace progressive.

It’s also worth pointing out that only one of the show’s gay stars is actually gay, (Sean Hayes, who came out in 2010), which was fine in 1998 but more worthy of critique now, especially given Hollywood’s notorious ‘gay for pay’ casting history (yes, Call Me by Your Name, I’m looking at you.) Worse still, Eric McCormack didn’t want to play gay Will (he had just played a very “manly cowboy”) and has since said the role was “a big pink cross to bear.” Poor Eric.

"The new season’s countless cameo roles are largely given to straight actors, which feels bizarre given the show’s contribution to queer visibility and the abundance of talented queer actors out there."

Similarly, aside from the legendary Leslie Jordan, the new season’s countless cameo roles are largely given to straight actors, which feels bizarre given the show’s contribution to queer visibility and the abundance of talented queer actors out there. Contextually, The L Word creators are actively working to make the show’s equally anticipated return more diverse; if the team behind Will & Grace are willing to tackle other present-day problems, why aren’t they trying to represent the huge leaps made over the last two decades?

It’s easy to just let the show off the hook -- it’s sticking to the original formula to keep fans pleased, after all -- but less easy to argue it’s more worthy of your time than, say, Transparent, Orange Is the New Black or Sense8. In 1998, the fact that two middle-class white gay guys were worthy of screen-time seemed progressive; a necessary first step on the road towards queer visibility. Will & Grace did undoubtedly pave the way for other, more diverse shows to emerge, but it’s a shame the show hasn’t stopped to acknowledge its own impact or actually push things further, as it seemed to with its foray into anti-Trump politics.

It’s also still not very sexy. The first episode sees Jack scrolling through Grindr worried he might contract ‘finger herpes’; later, he maybe gets laid by a straight-acting Secret Service agent. “Did you get laid?” Asks Karen. “Shh, it’s a secret!” He replies. It’s hardly surprising – it took two seasons for the show to actually feature a same-sex kiss, and even then it was just a piss-take shared between Jack and Will. This is important – even marketing execs wouldn’t dare to showcase same-sex desire in their bid to secure the pink pound. Queer sex has always been a step too far. That’s why it’s a shame that, with all its tit-grabbing jokes and raunchy innuendo, Will & Grace has always failed to go that one step further – to the extent that one early review described Will as “approaching asexual”.

Sure, the cheeto-skinned Trump gags drag the show into 2017, but it seems hypocritical to be so critical of the President’s conservatism without looking at the sitcom’s own problems. The various cameos – cue the young gay guy mistaking Stonehenge for Stonewall, because millennials, right?! – offer countless (literally – the show’s over-reliance has been noted) opportunities to make things queerer, but the sitcom’s creators still seem keen to stick to the gay Republicans and the straight-acting dudes that made it relatively progressive back in the 1990s.

The thing is, there’s actual competition now. Audiences can either buy into the same tired tropes of the bitchy white gays, or they can look to other shows like Sense8, Orange is the New Black and Please Like Me which do way, way better jobs of representing what queerness means in 2017. It’s easy to take the piss out of Trump – literally, who hasn’t? – but the burns are way less interesting when they come from an all-white cast speaking from positions of privilege. Ironically, the show’s creators are no better than the execs behind the marketing boom it sparked; they’re all making superficial, fairly whitewashed attempts to dilute queerness into neat stereotypes and rake in the cash. Want to criticise Trump’s politics? Do so, but be brave and at least acknowledge the conversations around race, class and gender that a show like Will & Grace could actually spark in 2017.