Gay Iconography | Sean Hayes | Television

Gay Iconography: Did 'Just Jack' Do More Harm Than Good?

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The phrase "gay icon" gets tossed around a lot, but what does that really mean? Welcome to Gay Iconography, a new feature where we present a proposed iconic figure or character and then ask you to weigh in with your thoughts. This week we look at an iconic (though divisive) television performance on which even the Vice President has an opinion.

For many, Sean Hayes' Emmy-winning portrayal of Jack McFarland on Will & Grace is one of the most important gay television characters of all time. Some argue that he helped introduce gay men to a huge portion of the population, while others believe "Just Jack" reduced gay men to the usual stereotypes.

Will & Grace premiered in 1998 on NBC and immediately grabbed headlines for featuring openly-gay lead characters. The show lasted for eight seasons, with Sean Hayes' Jack (along with Megan Mullally's Karen) at the center of the show's most memorable moments. The show was nominated for 83 Primetime Emmy Awards and won 16. 

While Jack's antics may have endeared him to mainstream audiences, some in the gay community were less amused. Hayes' portrayal of Jack has been criticized for reinforcing stereotypes, particularly the image of the theater-loving, campy gay man.

Since Will & Grace, Hayes has continued to have an impact in television, on- and off-camera. Relive moments from Hayes' work on Will & Grace, as well as his recent work,
AFTER THE JUMP

 

People would not still be talking about Hayes' work as Jack if he weren't a gifted comedian. From physical comedy to the oft-quoted one-liners, Hayes stole every scene he was in. In the clip above, he turns an energetic entrance into a hyper monologue about the cute barista he's been seeing.

 

 

There's a great TED Talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche about "The Danger of A Single Story." In it, she says, "The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete." So, yes, there are men who could out-cheer Jack in the clip above, but, as the predominant story of gay men on television at the time, the swishy Jack versus buttoned-up Will dichotomy did little to introduce America to gay men that identified as neither (or both).

 

 

On Will & Grace, it seemed like everyone knew Jack was gay but his mother. See his character's coming out in the clip above. Hayes came out publicly in 2010 via an interview in The Advocate in which he said “I feel like I’ve contributed monumentally to the success of the gay movement in America, and if anyone wants to argue that, I’m open to it. You’re welcome, Advocate.” Three years later he went on to tell the L.A. Times he owed the gay community an apology for not coming out sooner.

 

 

For anyone who doubts the significance of popular culture in our society, this clip of Vice President Joe Biden on Meet the Press is a must-see. Before President Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage, Vice President Biden issued his support and attributed shifting cultural attitudes to the impact of Will & Grace.

 

 

Today, Hayes stars as the divorced gay father of a teenage girl in Sean Saves the World on NBC. In addition to his series, his production company, Hazy Mills Productions, is also behind Hot In Cleveland and The Soul Man on TV Land, as well as Hollywood Game Night and Grimm on NBC.

What do you think? Was it enough for Sean Hayes' work to increase visibility of gay men on television, or did his over-the-top character make it harder for gay men to defy stereotypical perceptions? Let us know in the comments.

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Comments

  1. I loved the Jack character (and Karen). Will and Grace, the title characters, were so damned boring.

    I didn't see Adiche's TED Talk. Maybe Adiche didn't see Will & Grace. There were two different main gay characters on the show: Will, and Jack. Will was the "straight" man, but he did show a truth, which is that gay men don't come from a single mold. Jack fit some common stereotypes, but unlike being THE joke as he might have been on other shows, he MADE the jokes on this show. We must not shy away from stereotypes, but embrace them, exactly because this is what some people hate about some of us.

    Posted by: Randy | Dec 13, 2013 6:30:35 PM


  2. I've recently caught a few episodes of W&G in re-runs. I was kind of shocked by how way-flamboyant, unsophisticated, base, & slap-sticky the show is... which is not to say, I don't sometimes laugh anyway.

    Jack, was one character in an ensemble. You can't look at only one part of the whole. Yes, he was over the top; they all were. It's a sit-com.

    Sometimes it's the exaggeration that allows people to make room for the every-day. No one is judging rich people based on Karen, or Jewesses based on Grace. But there's a little truth in all of them and the same is true of Jack MacFarland.

    And, I love that Sean Hayes is such a creative, successful, powerhouse. Put that in your gay-pipe and smoke it!

    Posted by: pete n sfo | Dec 13, 2013 6:34:56 PM


  3. Cue Rick and his usual anti-effeminacy rant in 3...2...1

    This article is troll bait.

    Posted by: Tyler | Dec 13, 2013 6:36:07 PM


  4. @Randy, I did see Adiche's talk and she wasn't talking about Will and Grace specifically though her general concept would apply.

    The problem with Will and Grace is that it was the only story out there for a lot of people. That isn't the fault of the show nor is it that fault of its characters but of popular media. In a world with a variety of gay representation on screen, no one would have a problem with Jack as a character.

    BTW I'm watching Will and Grace as I write this.

    Posted by: Charles | Dec 13, 2013 6:40:21 PM


  5. The show had all of the standard gay types with the volume turned up on all of them. Fem, butch and everything in-between. It wasn't reality, it was reality on steroids because, after all, it was a sitcom.

    TV (Theater) is still playing to the back row.

    Posted by: johnny | Dec 13, 2013 6:44:33 PM


  6. I don't think Jack was any gayer than Will. They both loved musicals/singing/dancing and hated sports. They both had their hags and thought they knew what was best for them. Jack to me was never effeminate, he was just LOUD and irresponsible whereas Will was quieter and took life more seriously. When I first started watching this show at 17, I was always the Will and my best friend was the Jack (even though my name is Jack). As for icon or stereotype - I think both. The trouble is, stereotypes are funny because they're true. Around that time, the gay community was a lot more insulated. They would only go to gay bars and live their gay lives in a bubble (I did anyway) so I think a lot of gay people acted the same way and thought the same way. Jack probably did represent that community and did us a favour by making it visible. At the same time obviously, we're only talking about big city gays and relatively young & attractive gay men (being overweight was a cardinal sin). The show was rife with insults to lesbians at the beginning, there was biphobia and queens and "trannie" were ridiculed too.

    Posted by: Jack Ford | Dec 13, 2013 6:44:39 PM


  7. I thought the character of Jack was very loveable. He can be my next door neighbour anytime. No harm done!

    Posted by: David From Canada | Dec 13, 2013 6:47:30 PM


  8. The gay men who hate Jack are the ones who see a little bit of themselves in his swish, and that terrifies them.

    It's just so much simpler to be self-confident.

    Posted by: crispy | Dec 13, 2013 6:48:14 PM


  9. I don't wear harnesses, decorate for a living, participate bitchy diatribes about musical theater, or live in a gym. Where is the write-up about the movie Jeffrey? Oh that's right. I'm not offended for no legitimate reason...

    Posted by: Joey Y | Dec 13, 2013 6:51:45 PM


  10. Wow, anyone disagreeing with the 'femmy' Jack character as being an ugly stereotype is right off the bat labeled a troll.
    Maybe Jack should have had SOME redeeming qualities as a sissy. Instead they made him into this vapid, narcissistic, money-and-looks centered, age insulting, boyfriend stealing, user dingbat.

    Posted by: FM | Dec 13, 2013 6:52:10 PM


  11. When the show first came on TV, I was still closeted, but loved the show immediately - each character with his/her exaggerated faults. Jack coming out to his naive mother makes me laugh to this day.

    I know people like to hate on the shows faults and "datedness," but for me, it provided a sense that it was in fact going to be all right.

    Posted by: KJ | Dec 13, 2013 6:54:11 PM


  12. I actually didn't think Jack was that swishy. If the character was anything he was manic. I've dated guys who were nelly-er queens.

    Posted by: Brandon H | Dec 13, 2013 6:55:38 PM


  13. @FM - did you watch the show? Jack may have liked everyone to think he was all of the things you describe but in fact he was intensely loyal, kind and a little insecure. He knew what people thought when they looked at him so he put on a front. Don't forget he was secretly in love with Will for almost the show's entire run. He basically just wanted to be loved (like everyone) but he just couldn't get it right (like many people).

    Posted by: Jack Ford | Dec 13, 2013 7:00:29 PM


  14. We probably all know someone like Jack. Some people are just naturally more flamboyant. Some choose to accentuate that further while others try to tamp it down a bit. Had Jack been the only gay on the show, it would have perpetuated stereotypes by implying that all gay people act that way. But there were other gay characters on the show, like Will, who acted differently. It's okay to show that SOME gay people act like Jack as long as you aren't trying to suggest that ALL gay people do.

    Posted by: Kevin_BGFH | Dec 13, 2013 7:06:20 PM


  15. Yes, Jack was over-the-top gay and outrageous and that's part of what made the show (in this case). Jack and Karen were gloriously outre. It worked for THIS show. We must judge on a case by case basis.

    Posted by: will | Dec 13, 2013 7:08:46 PM


  16. The character I had the most problem with was Will. He was always depressed and could never handle a relationship. That to me was the "stereotypcial" gay male role, because how many times have we heard from the religious nuts that gays are never happy with their lives?

    Jack was who Jack was. He was the gay man living proud and telling the Ricks of the world to "f**k off". He, along with Karen, were the best parts of the show and not be honest, I would have prefered the "Jack & Karen" over "Will & Grace".

    Posted by: Phoenix Justice | Dec 13, 2013 7:20:22 PM


  17. Jack and Karen are what gave the show its manic highs. Without them, it would've been a more typical-style sitcom. Will & Grace were the basis for the show's theme (exploring the intense, intimate friendship that a gay man can have with a straight woman), but Jack and Karen exploded the bottle. There was nothing as flamboyant and out-there on television as their brio & left-field gags.

    Posted by: will | Dec 13, 2013 7:23:12 PM


  18. Jack was a character. I think this article is somewhat saying, "do you, gay man who isn't like Jack, agree or disagree that promoting sterotypes is a good thing?" Why are we assuming that all gay towleroad readers are not like jack.

    There are some people who act JUST LIKE JACK and they deserve representation on TV. I agree that in 1998, the number of gay characters was basically just Will and Jack and they represented our community to millions of ignorant Americans. But, still, the "Jacks" of our community deserve representation just as much. And asking the question, "is it bad that Jack promoted stereotypes and reduced gay men to the usual stereotypes" implicitly implies that there is something wrong with stereotypes. Some people live their lives by stereotypes. He's a character from a sitcom. I expected more from this site - I've actually been thinking that a lot lately...

    To all the theater-loving, campy gay men reading this - be who you are and don't let our own community make you feel inferior.

    Posted by: NYCguy | Dec 13, 2013 7:23:30 PM


  19. I guess you're all too young to remember a cable TV show from the mid-80's called "Brothers". The flamboyant gay character "Donald Maltby" was probably the first openly gay (and very flamboyant) character I recall seeing, winning the actor a CableACE Awards in 1985. And as time went on, storylines seem to shift from one of the (rather boring gay) brothers more to Donald as being a primary character.

    Posted by: NoCaDrummer | Dec 13, 2013 7:23:56 PM


  20. Will is a far more detrimental stereotype than Jack. Will has more masculine behavioral attributes, but is FAR less self-empowered than Jack. Will's character is painful to watch. Self-loathing, hypocritical, humorless and cowardly, Will is a very poor excuse for a man, gay or straight. Jack, on the other hand, is a power pansy. A level of strength and integrity Will could not even approximate.

    Posted by: rascal | Dec 13, 2013 7:45:25 PM


  21. I couldn't care less if he or his character were femme or masculine. Sean is unpleasant in person. I also agree that Will and Grace were sad characters, yet remind me of people I've known. Everyone is different, thank god.

    Posted by: Paul R | Dec 13, 2013 7:48:06 PM


  22. I have mentioned this before... Sometimes I feel it was very Amos and Andy. I think some of the show was accurate but then none of my friends and I discussed being gay every 5 minutes either.

    Here is my personal experience. I had clients who would ask me if I was a "Will" or a "Jack". I was really offend but had to just grin and bear it. They decided that I was a "Jack"

    Posted by: Homo Genius | Dec 13, 2013 7:54:19 PM


  23. Well the sitcom format/formula requires certain archetypes. Jack & Karen's rolls were to be the polar opposites of Will & Grace. That's what made the show work: the clash of opposites.

    Entertainment uses all kinds of stereotypes all the time. Take a look at I Love Lucy.

    I didn't find Jack offensive, partly because Will was there to balance. The show also had Bobby Canavalle as a gay cop at one point too.

    Posted by: Scott_D | Dec 13, 2013 7:55:55 PM


  24. I don't like musicals myself. I guess I'm a bad gay.

    Posted by: Mam | Dec 13, 2013 8:10:45 PM


  25. I think the Jack character was just fine. Some gay men are theater-loving and campy; and not only is there nothing wrong with it, it's fine.

    If all the gay characters on the show were campy, then it would be a problem, but it wasn't the case on that show.

    I think the show served its purpose for its time. It may not meet today's standards, but it was good then. It definitely seemed to help normalize gays to my straight peers growing up.

    I think the show really helped straights to start elevating their consciousness. I can't remember how many times I was told by someone "You're more of a Will than a Jack; not that there's anything wrong with being a Jack..." Then when the show progressed, people were telling me I reminded them more of other characters rather than Will.

    At the very least, I think the show helped people understand that different gay people are different! We're not all the same!

    Posted by: Benzoin | Dec 13, 2013 8:37:18 PM


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