You know one of the reasons I love Screened so much is because this is one of the few entertainment websites that actually takes television and movies seriously. Sure we have fun with it, heck it even says right there on the front page that we're a website that doesn't take itself too seriously. But we are one of the only places on the net that still gives these media the respect they deserve, we realize that there are some TV shows and movies that have impacts not just on the entertainment industry, but on society as a whole. So that is why I'm starting up this new series of blogs, in order to salute those bits of media that have completely left a mark for good.
Today something happened that will be remembered for a long time to come, today the President of the United States came out in favor of gay marriage. Now a lot of people are asking if this was in response to North Carolina banning same sex marriage, or if it was in response to his Vice President coming out in favor of gay marriage just a few days earlier. I don't know what exactly caused him to make his decision, probably a combination of the two aforementioned events hitting at the same time, but what I do know is that today all over the internet I have been seeing a huge outpour of support and excitement over this. Now what does this all have to do with Screened, a site about movies and television? Simple, when Vice-President Biden came out in favor of gay marriage, he said that he felt that Will and Grace had done more to help change people's minds on the issue than almost anything else out there. And Biden is known for making gaffs, for making verbal blunders that cause people to point and laugh at how ridiculous he is, and there's good reason for that, because it's true, he does put his foot in his mouth constantly. However, after he said that Will and Grace was largely to thank for the general population changing their mind on the issue of homosexuality, once again the media jumped on him, saying things like "Oh, our Vice President makes his decision based on sitcoms." "Really? Will and Grace helped to change America, are you insane?" "This is just another huge blunder, giving credit to a sitcom."
Listen, I'm not here to get political, I'm not here to say what I think of Biden or of any other politician, however when I heard all these attacks I had to step in. You see, in college I majored in two things, film/television and politics. I've even worked in both fields, having worked for media research companies and even having been a staff member for the current governor of a certain state that will go unnamed (however let's just say I mentioned it fairly recently), so I know a thing or two about how television and politics work and influence the American public. So I am here to respond to these criticisms being lobbed against the Vice-President by saying.... YES! Yes Will and Grace did have a huge impact on the American public, and yes it did do far more to change people's minds on the issue of gay marriage than pretty much anything else in recent history. For the past few days I've been seeing one pundit after another getting on television and talking about how Biden doesn't know what he's talking about, and the entire time I kept thinking "Shouldn't you guys get someone who actually studied media to comment on all this?" Well here I am, telling you that if you don't think TV has the power to shape an entire generation's perspective on an issue, then you don't know the first thing about the medium.
TV has always had a larger impact on the history of American culture than most people would think, and the reason why is because television is the most intimate form of media the world has ever known. Think about what television is, it's a form of media that is there to educate and entertain, unlike the internet which is also there for work purposes. And unlike movies, television comes right into your home, you don't have to spend lots of money just to view one show and you don't have to leave the house, heck you don't even have to get dressed to watch it. And how many of you have a TV in your bedroom? How many of you go to bed each night by setting the sleep timer on your TV and let the sound of it put you to rest? How many of you have turned the TV on in the background before, just so you can have the sound of it on, even if you're not watching it? Just think about that, we let the images and voices of other people, people we've never met yet still feel like we know, into our homes and into our bedrooms, something you would never do with a stranger. Now I'm not saying that television has the power to subliminally brainwash you, I mean sure there's an argument to be made for that, but that's not the argument I'm making here today. No, what I'm saying is that we trust television, even if we know it's nothing more than a box full of wires and cables, we grow attached to characters and shows in a way that makes us want to have them around even if they're not real. And it is because of that, that when a group that the population had previously tried to avoid or discriminate against, are suddenly being brought into our homes every week, and we are given characters who are part of this group that we end up caring about and following for years, then guess what, suddenly we as a population don't have nearly as much of a problem with them anymore and begin to realize that they are just like every one else.
I'll give you an example of what I mean. I grew up in the South, and I'm not going to say that racism down there is as bad as everyone thinks it is, but it definitely is more prominent there than anywhere else I've ever lived. However, once you go past a certain age, there is a massive drop off in this behavior. People of my age in the South weren't nearly as prejudiced as the older generation, and there was a reason for that. We grew up with The Cosby Show, with Family Matters, and with so many other television shows that cast African American's in the lead. Because of this my generation was raised seeing African American families not as a different group, we saw them just the same as everyone else. When we tuned in on Friday night to watch Family Matters, we didn't think "oh it's that show about that black family," no we just thought it was a fun show about a cop with a wacky neighbor, race never even entered our minds. I'm not saying there weren't racist kids at my school, there were, but whenever we asked those kids what shows they watched, I swear to you almost every single one of them said "I don't own a TV." And today, shows like Will and Grace have done exactly the same for the gay community. I've been able to see it happen even within my own life. When Will and Grace was still in it's second season, my mother and grandmother were severely homophobic. And one night I remember hearing them say something very insulting to the gay community that just filled me with shame, and then a half an hour later they said, and I quote, "Oh, turn the TV on, Will and Grace is on." It blew my mind that two people who hated gay people loved watching them on a sitcom. And my mother followed that show for years, loved the characters, got involved in their lives, and today she has gay friends and supports gay rights and is a totally different person, and I know it's because this show spent years showing her each week that gay people were just like her.
Now there have been other gay characters in the history of television before Will and Grace, in fact many people have said that if any show helped to progress gay rights then it was Ellen, a show where for many years Ellen Degeneres had to play a straight character, but then finally came out and spent the remaining run of the series being an open lesbian. And there is certainly an argument to be made for that because Ellen did open the door, but Ellen was the first show out there to really come into people's living rooms to show them what gay people have to deal with. And because of that it had to do exactly that, it had to open people's eyes and show them "this is what we have to put up with." Because once Ellen came out of the closet the show quickly changed from being a purely wacky sitcom, to almost every other episode being "on a very special episode of Ellen," where it showed how hard it was for her to come out to her friends, to her parents, what it was like accepting this, etc. And yes, America needed that, they needed someone to say "this is what we have to go through." However, earlier I drew a comparison between how television has advanced equal right for African American and how it has now done the same for homosexuals, and when television first started focusing on black families they did the same thing. The first African American families we saw on television were in shows like Good Times, which showed white America "Hey, this is how things are for us. Society forces us to live in low income housing, we get turned down for jobs just because of who we are, we face problems that you don't even know exist."
When television starts introducing the rest of the world to a part of society that it has ignored, the first step is always to educate, to show the rest of society that these people are discriminated against and have problems that you don't. And that was the roll that Ellen played. However, after you have educated society, the next step for television is to teach acceptance, and that is where these second generation shows come in, like the Cosby Show or like Will and Grace. These are the shows that present these characters simply as people, and write the show the same way that any other sitcom would be written. Because when a show becomes comfortable, when it becomes something that we have already accepted, that's when the general audience starts tuning in each week in order to relax, rather than to learn something. When you can get a bigot to start laughing with people of different races or sexualities, that's what will really make him start to realize that he might have been wrong.
It's because of that that I can honestly say that Will and Grace did indeed help to advance American culture and make our nation more accepting of others. In the interest of full disclosure I'll admit, I was not a fan of the show, mostly because I found the character of Grace to be completely annoying, but I was still proud of it for what it was doing. However, I will say that the show was still full of several stereotypical characters which tells us that television has a long way to go to really show the gay community in an equal light. But when Biden said that this show helped to make the American public more educated on gay issues, it was not a gaffe, hell it was probably the most non gaffey thing he'd ever said. Because Television is more than just a form of entertainment, it helps an entire population, heck even an entire planet, experience and know issues and subjects they would never see otherwise.