By Alistair McCartney
These days when it comes to things gay it's hard to reach a consensus. We're a partial and persnickety bunch. Lurking beneath that rainbow flag there's a wealth of violently different opinion. What's fabulously faggy to one man is straight as George Bush to the next. What's delightfully dykey to one woman comes across as hetero as mom's apple pie to her ex. The definition of gay in the 21st century is broad, and getting broader by the minute. Just like beauty, gayness is in the eye of the beholder.
But at this point in time there does seem to be a collective agreement on at least one aspect of gay culture: that Sean Hayes' character Jack McFarland on NBC's Will and Grace is not only funny and adorable, but as gay as gay can be. And that it's exactly this last quality that makes him SO funny and SO adorable.
As Tom O'Neill recently wrote in The Advocate: "No actor is more defiantly campy than Hayes"
And as William Keck stated in a LA Times feature: "Jack's take on life? So honest. So tell-it-as-it-is. So completely gay! Jack's not just openly gay-he's open-24 hours-a day-gay."
It's not only the media who's all agog over Jack's gloriously gay factor. I've had more than one gay friend tell me half-seriously that he wants to be Jack McFarland when he grows up.
And on learning that I'm gay, more than one straight acquaintance, in a misguided effort to show that they don't have "a problem" with it, has told me that they think Jack is HILARIOUS.
Whether it's in the press or on the street, whether it's coming from the mouths of gay babes or the mouths of straight babes, Jack is being set up as the uber-gay, the ur-gay. He's been built up as a kind of gay equivalent of the metric system of measurement: a universal standard against which all us other gay men--us strange ones who live out our sexual identity not just in a TV studio, but 24 hours a day--can judge the authenticity of our gay selves.
He's our cheerleader. He's our mascot. No one on the team seems to particularly want to fuck him, but everybody would love to be his friend and hang with him and cuddle him. We love him just like six-year-olds love Pikachu, and kids, watch out for that Jack McFarland plush doll at a gay-mart near you.
Speaking of six year olds: is it just me, or has anyone else who watches "Will and Grace" noticed that lately Jack's been behaving less like a flamboyant gay man, and more like a snotty child?
My attention was first drawn to this on an episode from the current season; one where Jack first develops an infatuation with a cute guy who works at Starbucks, then subsequently develops a caffeine addiction. He spends the rest of the episode trying to kick coffee, running around and babbling in the monosyllabic, hysterical fashion of a child with an extreme case of attention deficit disorder.
A following episode of the show had Jack riding around on one of those scooters currently popular with the kids, and haggling online with a little girl over a pair of Britney Spear's heels.
Watching re-runs I realized this infantilization of Jack's character wasn't a particularly new development. It's always been there, but lately it seems to be emerging more and more as his defining element.
Will constantly treats him like his child, and a number of his jokes often set Jack up as exactly that. At the end of one episode where they're driving back from Fire Island, Jack turns to Will and says, "I love you daddy."
And if Will is his daddy Karen is definitely his busty mommy. Whenever Jack has one of his frequent temper tantrums she takes his hand--just as a mother would take the hand of her small child--and takes him out shopping.
In the LA Times feature Hayes referred to his character as having a "twinkie appeal", but from the way he's been playing Jack lately I'd define it more as a toddler appeal. It's less boy band, more Macaulay Culkin in his early early period.
Now I hate to shatter the one area of consensus left in gay life. I too look forward to my weekly dose of "Will and Grace." Or used to look forward to it, before my irritation set in.
And considering the size and fanaticism of Jack's fan club I could be placing my life at stake. Is there a gay version of the police protection program?
But honestly, this feels more pressing. When I watch "Will and Grace" these days, I'm sorry, but Jack simply doesn't seem that gay to me. Once upon a time we could rely on Hayes for a good dose of old fashioned queeniness, but lately he's less queen and more clown. His slutty asides and sexual innuendoes that always helped the program from becoming too squeaky clean have become few and far between; they've been replaced by far too many goofy gestures and silly faces.
I'm concerned for him. I feel like I'm watching a more petite Jim Carey or a lavender shade of Eddie Murphy. His acting style is drawing less from Quentin Crisp and more from Jerry Lewis.
Apart from making me cranky, watching this diluted version of Jack makes me a little fearful, reminiscent as it is of the cartoonish caricatures African Americans had to deal with in Hollywood cinema for a good part of the 20th century. Up on the screen they were depicted as likable in a highly hysterical sort of way, and were straitjacketed with ways and gestures that had nothing whatsoever to do with their real lives.
Now I know that Will and Grace is consciously over the top, not social drama. But just because it isn't realism doesn't mean a hefty proportion of its viewers (many of whom perhaps don't know any gay people personally) think that Jack is the be-all and end-all of what it is to be gay.
More importantly-there are many queer teens out there for whom the only mirror available is the one on TV. At least if they got to see the first episode of "Queer As Folk" they learned that rimming is one of the most refined pleasures, and good enough reason for being gay. They won't learn a thing from this watered down version of Jack McFarland.
They might learn something from Will, that is when he's not quipping and being dashing like a downgraded Cary Grant. At least Will is often shown to contain those two great gay traits: he's neurotic and insecure.
They might even have learned a thing or two from the old Jack. Though queer characters on TV being represented as queens does have its problems; I don't have a problem with it. Though it runs the risk of being a big fat cliché of how the straight world perceives gays, it's not only a stereotype, but also an archetype. It's a real identity; one adopted and lived daily by a vast number of gay men. Hell, I could even stomach Jack's dressing like Tony Randall in "The Odd Couple": at least that has some cultural context and a nice retro factor.
What I can't stomach is what I see (before my very eyes) as Jack's slow descent from cutting edge queen to baby and worse yet, basic buffoon. Gay culture is already stuck enough in a Peter Pan syndrome; it doesn't help any if our most visible gay character acts like a child.
I similarly can't stand is the media still unquestioningly equating this character with someone who is OUT in every way. Honestly: what's an actor who lately seems to swipe all his moves off Jerry Lewis got to do with gayness? I bet it's close to impossible to rent old Jerry Lewis movies from whatever video store Hayes frequents.
It also strikes me as slightly ironic that gay culture's fawning over this actor who in real life sits on the fence and refuses to disclose his own sexuality, whatever it may be.
Recently there's been a hell of a lot of fawning over Hayes: our golden boy was up for a Golden Globe. He didn't win.
Someone who did win, though not much attention was given to it, either before or after, was Vanessa Redgrave; she won best supporting actress for HBO' s wonderful "If These Walls could talk 11." In it, Redgrave played an elderly lesbian in 1950's small-town America whose long-time partner dies. Faced with the USA' s deeply biased laws of familial inheritance (still in place today), she is kicked out of the house she and her lover shared a life in. She is flung out of her life, and given no space to grieve. She's erased. Her performance was stunning, historically authentic and heartbreakingly real. It was everything (and more than) we could ask for.
It offered everything that Sean Hayes and his not so gay as he seems to be TV persona in its current new manifestation does not: most of all an accurate mirror and a clear reflection.
Oddly enough I related more to Redgrave's performance of an elderly woman living in the fifties than to Hayes' rendering of a gay man roughly my own age living in this present moment.
With Bush in the White House, and fat chance of much helpful attention being paid to gays over the next four years, it's more important than ever that those gay characters on TV offer us some measure of truth. It's still slim pickings out there. If Jack is to maintain his status as the gayest boy on TV, Hayes and the writers and the studio should think about cutting out the slapstick, which has no gay connection, and increasing the camp quota. It's time to bring back the bitch. If our queen of queens wants to maintain his title they better send OUT that clown ASAP.