The “Will & Grace” Conjecture That Won’t Die

May 13, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“It’s very hard to say are we changing the culture or is the culture changing us.” So said Ezra Klein recently on the podcast “I Think You’re Interesting.” Todd VanDerWerff, the show’s host, had raised the question in connection with “Will & Grace.”
If you look at attitudes about gay people, when 'Will & Grace' comes on the air, attitudes about gay people start to shift towards the more positive."  You can’t prove that “Will & Grace did that. But that correlation  – and obviously correlation is not causation . . .
Klein seemed to agree, but he amplified the causality caution about what’s changing what.
It’s very hard to say when something is a leading or a lagging indicator. . .  You can make the argument that “Will & Grace” only happened because it was in a country that was ready for “Will & Grace” to happen.
Alas, apparently neither VanDerWerff nor Klein had read my blog post of four years ago (here) on this very question. True, causality is hard to prove. But if you have data tracing attitudes over time, you can make a better guess. And in fact, we have the data. The GSS, since almost day one (i.e., 1973), has asked people about homosexuality.

What about sexual relations between two adults of the same Sex?
1 Always Wrong
2 Almost Always Wrong
3 Sometimes Wrong
4 Not Wrong at All

(I have collapsed the first three responses into a single category – “Wrong.”
Besides, “Almost Wrong” and “Sometimes Wrong” combine for only about 10-15% of the total.)

The change in attitudes about gays happens in about 1991. Nothing in the graph supports the idea that “Will & Grace” had a big a-impact on these attitudes – not when it hit the screen in 1998 nor in its highest rated years (2001 - 2005).

VanDerWerff was mistaken about the importance of “Will & Grace” just as Joe Biden was five years ago. Ditto for Dan Quayle in 1992 about the impact “Murphy Brown” on out-of-wedlock births, a view repeated twenty years later by Isabel Sawhill (here) who should know better.  I suspect that they are all using the “availability heuristic,” our tendency to attribute undue importance to things that come quickly to mind – things like television shows – and to discount less salient sources – like the General Social Survey.

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