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Did TV change America’s mind on gay marriage?

Did gay and lesbian characters on TV (and to a lesser extent in the movies) help pave the way toward acceptance of gay marriage and this spring’s potential Supreme Court landmark? So Vice President Joe Biden said last year in his possibly strategic endorsement of same-sex marriage on “Meet the Press”: “When things really began to change is when the social culture changes. I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody’s ever done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”

I’m a fan of Biden’s, more or less. (Here’s my unsolicited advice on 2016, Joe: Don’t do it!) But that may have been the only time anyone ever described “Will & Grace” as educational, and Biden is engaging in a classic Democratic Party, pro-Hollywood fence-straddle here on the effects of culture. A popular and vaguely liberal sitcom gets credit for driving social change in a positive direction, but violent media bears no responsibility for real-life violent crime. (Conservatives are at least more consistent, if also more consistently wrongheaded: Pop culture has pernicious effects all the way around, and is turning us all into slutty divorced gay mass murderers.) No, the two things are not parallel, and the general point the veep was struggling to make is valid. But “Will & Grace” marks only one minor milestone in TV’s 30-odd-year struggle with representations of sexual identity, during which the box has served both as an agent and a mirror of social change.

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