[Written by Matilda Eker]
[Image Credits: Central Perk’ by Simon Bonaventure (https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/4368099427) accessed through Creative Commons]
Everyone I know has watched and loved Friends (1994-2004). It’s arguably one of the most popular TV shows of all time and, even though it never seemed to drop in popularity, 2019 marking 15 years since the last episode aired seems like a good time to revisit our favourite show. For it is indeed a favourite. I can’t tell you on how many movie nights my indecisive crowd and I have given up trying to pick a film and just settled on Friends. Rarely a week goes by where I don’t hear at least a handful of references to the show. Sometimes it seems like one of the few things we’ve all agreed to love. And it’s fun. I love the fact that my parents watched it when it was airing and still joke about that comment Chandler made about soap being self-cleaning (“Soap is soap!”). I love to argue with people about what character they are (I’m probably a Ross). I love to snuggle up in bed with my favourite episode (The one where no one is ready!). I love it and I feel bad about how much I love it.
For when I think about it, there are so many things that are problematic with Friends that I lose sight of why I watch it in the first place. How do I justify watching a show that constantly jokes about things like sexual assault, women and queer people? If you need a reminder of a typical Friends joke, remember that episode where Joey and Chandler are totally freaked out about Carol breastfeeding? They walk away because they are too uncomfortable and when Ross comes over and says “Will you grow up? This is the most natural and beautiful thing in the world,” Joey answers “Yeah we know, but there’s a baby sucking on it.” So funny, right?
Misogynistic themes, such as enforcement of gender roles and objectification of women, are a core part of many episodes. There are countless examples of sexist jokes and storylines, for example when Ross gets upset when he sees Ben playing with a Barbie doll or when Rachel hires a male nanny. Depending on how you interpret the episodes, it could be argued that there is nothing problematic with them… they’re simply showing two opposing views, aren’t they? Rachel gets just a big a say as Ross does, so what’s the issue? I think we have to remember the bottom line: every plot in the episodes is put there with the purpose of being amusing. And why are these issues amusing? Why does an inclination towards queerness make people laugh (for I assume that is what Ross “fears” when Ben plays with a Barbie)? Is it because “queer issues” make people uncomfortable? Are people meant to laugh at Ross’ behaviour because they might relate to what he’s feeling? Is laughing at queer people just an easier option than re-evaluating our standards? Because, inevitably, by treating a specific group of people with respect, you admit that they are as worthy of it as everyone else. I suppose that’s why people might find these jokes funny: by letting an issue be ridiculed, its gravity and importance is diminished. We laugh at queerness because it makes us feel like we do not need to deal with it. However, this is not saying that we should disregard pieces of culture the minute we find them problematic, but I am pointing out that Friends, whose aim after all is to make us laugh, has a myriad of jokes that perhaps are no longer that funny when you think about it, especially in the time of awareness we live in now.
Of course, it could be pointed out that, regarding LGBTQ+ themes, the show actually includes some queer people – which, after all, is still a step in the right direction. While I don’t think it really deserves praise, portraying a lesbian couple raising a child was quite progressive. And I do admit there are some funny jokes there as well, such as when Ross exclaims “You guys sure have a lot of books about being a lesbian,” and Susan sarcastically answers “Well, you know, you have to take a course, otherwise they don’t let you do it.” But overall, these portrayals are far from revolutionary. For example, should we speak about the parent who Chandler refers to as his dad? The show makes no clear distinction between transgender and drag, and this character is referred to as a gay man who likes dressing as a woman, despite many details pointing towards them being transgender. For instance, is their name “Helena” only a stage name or have they actually changed their name? What do they identify as? These questions all remain unanswered. I understand that a lot has changed with how LGBTQ+ people are portrayed in film and television (although it’s still not easy to find good portrayals today), but what is so frustrating here is that the whole purpose of this character is to find a way to make transphobic and homophobic jokes fit into the show. Sadly, there seems to be no end to how funny it is in the show that Chandler is embarrassed to be their child. For Chandler, the embarrassment of having a queer family member is much heavier than family ties — which undoubtedly is a very scary thought for any LGBTQ+ person regardless of how accepting their family has been.
This could go on and on (if you want a more extensive list, I recommend a quick google search for “Friends+problematic”). Another relevant aspect is how white the show is. Not only is the main cast white, but throughout the show, there are only two notable characters of colour, Julie and Charlie, both Ross’ girlfriends. Despite taking place in multicultural New York, the friends essentially don’t seem to interact with people of colour. Most of the non-white characters have no more than one or two lines (if any) and are cast in roles as waiters or shop attendants. Again, Julie and Charlie, the only named people of colour, come from upper middle class backgrounds, Ross having met them through work. This almost feels like an intentional way to show that them being from the same class and social context as Ross is a condition for their interaction in the first place. Is this similar to the issue of joking about queer people discussed earlier? Does this also boil down to problematic preconceptions regarding who is worth more than the other? A higher education being a necessity for the friends to interact with a person of colour seems to imply that people’s race, ethnicity or class is something “to be overlooked” and that you might be allowed to be one of these things but not all. Moreover, the diversity of these relationships Ross has with Julie and Charlie is not presented as something positive, but rather as something that can be permitted by the women being of the same class as Ross. Just like when joking about queer people, this simply highlights how the show is written from a white, heterosexual, cisgender, upper middle class and male perspective that values some people more than others. Even when we do get diverse characters, they seem to be processed through these problematic lenses, lacking nuance. The result of this perspective is that, with characters such as Carol and Susan, the focus lies on how their relationship makes the straight people around them feel, rather than the genuine interaction between the two women. Although having Ross date Julie and Charlie may be an attempt at showing him as being open, these instances fail to make the show seem progressive and create more problems than actually shedding light on these issues.
Analysing the show under these lights makes me want to swear off watching Friends for a lifetime. Shouldn’t we all? Maybe we should (I know I won’t, I know most of you won’t either). After all, we have no obligation to stop watching a show just because we do not agree with everything it says and shows. Maybe the mere fact that it’s still so popular tells us that there must still be something very special about it. So, I’m not asking us to give it up, but maybe we could take a step back. Try to be a little more critical. A little more aware. A little less obsessed with Friends.