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Composition Studies, Heteronormativity, and Popular Culture

Introduction | Cultural Studies | Friends One | Friends Two | Will and Grace | Conclusion | Works Cited

The television show Will and Grace is similar to Friends in that its frequent representations of homosexuality serve mainly to reinforce negative, cultural stereotypes about gay men. Like Joey and Ross, Will Truman, the male lead of this show, limits his expressions of same-sex sexual desire almost exclusively to the level of connotation. He is, after all, a true man. On the show, Will is an actual gay man, but one of the main plot lines in the show is that Will never has sex. For some reason known only to television writers, Will, a very attractive, thirty-something, successful lawyer, who lives in a West End Avenue high-rise, finds it nearly impossible to get a date, even a date for casual sex. Will is a gay man who never has sex, and as such is a safe commodity for the American public. Jack, the other gay man on the show, however, is more closely aligned with the overtly gay characters on Friends. Jack is not the object of loathing, as is Chandlerís father or Melissa Warburton, but he is exclusively used as comic relief. Jack is often mean-spirited, cruel, vain, selfish, and promiscuous. Will is a gay man who has no sex, while Jack is a gay man who has no brain. Thus, while Jack is entertaining, he is like Chandlerís father and Melissa Warburton positioned well beyond the realm of the respectable and serves mainly as a figure to which everyone can feel superior.

In the “Coffee and Commitment” episode of Will and Grace, homosexuality is again replaced by a sexless form of heterosexuality when commitment vows between Will and Grace actually replace the vows being made in a same-sex civil union. Once again, emotional commitment and sexual desire between men is replaced by the commitment between a man and a woman. Homosexuality, in other words, is erased from the picture even in an episode whose subject is two men making a commitment to one another.

Like many of the episodes, this one relies on the image of Will as the great provider and opens with him dragging not only his but also Grace’s dry-cleaning home. Grace, however, refuses to pay for her share of the dry-cleaning, telling Will she’ll pay next time. Later, at dinner with the gay couple who are about to have a commitment ceremony, Grace insists the she and Will be allowed to pay the bill. After Joe and Larry agree, she hands the bill to Will and tells him to put it on his visa, reminding him that they need the frequent flier miles. When Will reluctantly opens his wallet to pay, Grace snatches some bills from his wallet for the coat check. She also tells him to leave the waiter a big tip, because he was only man who noticed her chest. Grace, in other words, takes advantage of Will all the time in a way that anyone would find annoying at the very least. Thus, the two main characters have not formed two independent relationships with particular points of intersection, but rather a partnership that looks very much like a heterosexual relationship without the sex. And, in the medium of TV, the lack of sex is hardly a difference. In other words, no TV show displays the main romantic couple actually having sex. The main difference between this show and its heterosexual counterparts is that in this show each character makes reference to other partners, and the partners to which Will refers are men. These relationships, however, are clearly secondary to the main relationship between Will and Grace, who are intertwined not only emotionally but also financially.

The problem of Grace’s expectation that Will take care of her, however, is never addressed. In the second half of the show, Will reveals that he is really upset that Joe and Larry are making a commitment to each other while he feels that he is stuck in a heterosexual marriage with Grace. That Will is, in fact, stuck in a heterosexual marriage with Grace, and that she exploits him, is oddly never addressed. Instead of Will freeing himself from this commitment, as he had begun to do in the beginning of the show, Will instead exchanges vows of commitment with Grace. Thus, Will’s resistance to the hegemonic regime of the normal ends with him submitting completely to the expectation that he enter a heterosexual partnership. Furthermore, since Will and Grace exchange vows during the Joe and Larry’s commitment ceremony, Will and Grace effectively replace the homosexual commitment ceremony with a heterosexual version of the same thing.

In order to demonstrate how unhappy he is with Grace’s behavior, Will refuses to let her sign the card that he attaches to the commitment gift to Joe and Larry, which provokes a fight between Will and Grace. Karen, in an excellent assessment of the real tension between them, says, “Just climb on top of each other and get it over with already.” When Grace pushes Will on why he won’t let her sign the gift card, Will says, “Because I don’t want a wife.” Grace replies, “What are you talking about? Wife? And don’t you walk away from me while I’m talking to you!” It is during the actual commitment ceremony between Joe and Larry that their argument is resolved. Grace merely denies that her relationship with Will is a marriage, all evidence to the contrary. Then, it is their turn to read a passage for the commitment couple. They discover, however, that the words in the passage they read are really more about them than they are about Joe and Larry. The passage they read tells them that they are complete within themselves, in complete contradiction to everything that has come before. After their reading, Will and Grace continue to interrupt the gay commitment ceremony. Will says, “I love you, you know that, don’t you?” to Grace. She replies, “You know I love you, right?” And Will says, “I do,” and they kiss on the lips and hug. The audience claps, and Grace thanks them for coming. In effect, Will and Grace have married, and all of Will’s previous claims remain unresolved. At no point is the commitment between Joe and Larry central to the action, or even given any approval. Jack, for example, doesn’t read what Joe and Larry have asked him to read, but instead reads the words to Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to do With it?” until the minister cuts him off. Joe’s sister, who has also been asked to do a reading, is so self-pitying—because she hasn’t found a man, but her brother has, that she can’t finish the reading. In other words, there is no celebration of the men’s love, but rather a reiteration of heterosexual values.