Karen’s heterosexual identification is also apparent in explicit discussions
about lesbianism or bisexuality, such as this one in Season 3 (Episode 3), when
Karen is jealous of Grace’s new boyfriend and Grace tries to cheer her up:
GRACE: Listen, I was sitting across the room, and I saw
you, and you took my breath away.
GRACE: Yeah. I mean, you are such a sexy, beautiful, vibrant
woman. Anyone would be so lucky to have you.
KAREN: [GASPS] Are you hitting on me?
GRACE: Wh — What? No! Where do you g —
KAREN: You are! Oh, my god. You’re a big lez.
GRACE: Karen —
KAREN: You know, people have always said you were, but I
said, "No. That’s just the way she walks."
GRACE: [DEFENSIVE] I have a sturdy gait.
KAREN: Honey, come on. Finally, an explanation for the chunky
shoes and all the keys.
GRACE: No. No, no, no, no, no. See —
[GRACE TOUCHES KAREN'S SHOULDER. KAREN SHOOTS HER A LOOK AND PULLS AWAY SLIGHTLY]
GRACE: Look. Look. Um, Karen… I just sensed that you were
feeling a little down, and I just wanted to make sure that you know how attractive
KAREN: Hey, back off, Lezzy Borden. No means no.
Karen automatically concludes that Grace is a lesbian, rather than bisexual
(probably because the writers couldn’t come up with any funny stereotypes of
bisexuals to play on), despite the fact that Karen is supposedly bisexual and
the fact that Grace is clearly attracted to men. This is not a conclusion to
which a bisexual woman would automatically jump.
Karen also clearly rejects Grace’s advances here, contradicting Karen’s frequent
comments in other episodes indicating she would be interested in such a development,
like this exchange with Grace in Season 5 (Episode 3):
GRACE: But it didn’t feel right. I’ve got tell Will the
truth — the whole truth.
KAREN: [SIGHS] Well, maybe it’s for the best. Then you and
I can move on with our lives. Out in the open to love freely.
GRACE: Karen, we’re not a couple.
KAREN: Aren’t we?
KAREN: Well, all I know is when I woke up this morning, there
was red hair on my pillow and lesbian porn in the VCR.
[KAREN RUNS HER HAND THROUGH GRACE'S HAIR, AND SMACKS HER OWN BOTTOM. GRACE
TAKES A STEP BACK.]
This kind of schizophrenic, contradictory behavior is characteristic of Karen’s
sexuality (and her personality overall): Karen might joke with her friends about
hooking up with Grace or another woman, but when it comes to actually following
through with it — especially if it’s more than a one-night stand — she pulls back.
It was revealed in the third season, however, that Karen was once in a relationship
with Martina Navratilova, through a flashback to a conversation between Karen
and Martina in a bar the 1980′s (Episode 8):
KAREN: Oh, Martina.
MARTINA: Karen, where have you been? I’ve missed you.
KAREN: Oh, honey, listen. I’ve got some bad news. I can’t
marry you. I’m in love with someone else.
MARTINA: But, Karen, I was straight before I met you.
KAREN: Well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles, Marti.
MARTINA: Well, then who? And can she give you what I give
KAREN: You mean companionship, vitality, a sneaky drop shot?
No, no. No, he’s a doughy thing with squat little legs and a bad case of recurring
psoriasis, but… I love him, and with my help… Oh! Who am I kidding? I
just love him. Who knows why? I love Stanley Walker!
But this thirty-second flashback to a past event is the only time we see Karen
actually in a relationship with another woman, and of the many lovers in her
past, only one other that we know of (a high-school girlfriend) was female.
This tenuous balance between risk and caution has defined Will & Grace from
the start, and the series’ uneasy compromise between the two is reflected in most
of the characters, especially Will. Although NBC defied convention by featuring
a show about a gay man, it consistently refuses to allow Will to have a boyfriend
(or even let him kiss another man, except in jest).
Many will argue that this compromise is required to allow the series to remain
successful, to enable NBC to attract the hip, liberal viewer by featuring unusual
characters with sexualities that push the envelope, but also keep the slightly
more conservative American viewer from being scared off by not allowing these
"alternative" sexualities to go much beyond theoretical. While it
may not be true that this compromise is necessary to keep Will & Grace on
the air, it probably is one of the reasons the show has kept its high ratings.
Karen’s ambiguous sexuality is a by-product of this environment. Her jokes
and behavior challenge network television convention, but stop just short of
openly defying it. So while she might have been truly bisexual if the series
were running on cable television, or on network television several years from
now, on NBC today Karen is confined to the role of what I like to call the Bisexual
This is a woman who frequently makes direct or thinly-veiled comments about
being attracted to other woman, occasionally kisses or sleeps with them, but
rarely or never actually dates women. She sees herself primarily as heterosexual,
and while she is attracted to women, it’s purely on a sexual level; she has
no interest in a romantic relationship with another woman beyond sex, aside
from the occasional odd relationship in her past.
In short, she is the heterosexual idea of a bisexual woman: attracted to women,
but ultimately needing a man.
Fictional manifestations of the Bisexual Straight Women have cropped up all
over TV (Bird on Soul Food and Samantha on Sex and the City)
and film (Laure in Femme Fatale, Laura in The Hours, Lauren
in A Girl Thing, and Gaby in 8 Women) in the last few years.
Several real-life women would seem to fit this description, too, such as Lisa
Marie Pressly, Alanis Morisette, and Madonna, not to mention a myriad of women
on reality TV shows, like Brynn on MTV’s The Real World: Las Vegas.
There are several ways to define bisexual, of course, and no one definition
is the right one, but most include at least the possibility of a relationship
with another woman beyond sex in the future. So while Karen’s not-exactly-hetero
sexuality is still a challenge to heterosexism, it’s not really bisexuality,
either. She shouldn’t be considered representative of the average bisexual women,
who values relationships with women for more than just sex, at least once in
But then, there are few things about Karen Walker that can be said to be representative
of the average woman of any sexual orientation, which is one of the reasons
we keep tuning in to watch her every week.
None of this is meant to imply that Karen hasn’t contributed to bisexual visibility
on television. Five years of innuendo and implied bisexuality on Will & Grace
has helped familiarize the American public with the idea that women can be attracted
to men and women, and the frequent (and lengthy) kisses between Karen and Grace
have contributed to desensitizing viewers to lesbian kisses.
Karen is also just plain funny, interesting, and unconventional, and a refreshing
departure from most female sitcom characters.
Wanting Karen to be bisexual doesn’t mean she is, and unless the Will &
Grace writers decide to finally give Karen a girlfriend, we’ll have to
look elsewhere for that. But we can still enjoy Karen’s witty and eccentric
attempt to make the world not quite so straight on Will & Grace.