Friends… not so friendly now?

By Carys Frost

I’m sure many of you have binge-watched Friends episodes, laughing at the same old jokes, crying at the same old moments. However, having been given a new life on Netflix earlier this year, two decades after it debuted on NBC in 1994, many viewers have declared the hit 90s sitcom problematic. Having expressed concerns with regards to its plot lines, many millennials have been offended by the show, claiming that it contradicts the values of today’s society. According to viewers, the show is sexist and homophobic. Its frequent body shaming and lack of diversity in characters have also been pointed out. Perhaps it was a sign of the times or a lack of consideration on behalf of the show’s writers that shaped the problematic storylines, situations and characters. Viewers are now questioning if the Central Perk gang really are there for us.

I’m sure those who have watched the show can recall the recurrent scenes in all 10 seasons featuring ‘Fat Monica’. The gang consistently remind her of her overweight days, making cruel remarks with regards to her size. In a scene where the main cast sit to watch her old prom video, Joey Tribianni exclaims ‘Some girl ate Monica!’. Surely as her closest friends, such offensive remarks shouldn’t be made? Is this indicating that it’s ok to make jokes and body shame others, even your best friends? Yes, we understand that she was ‘fat’ when a teen, but she was happy and content with herself; she embraced her appearance, which is what everyone should do. YOU GO GIRL!

When watching, did you ever notice that there are only two people of colour featured in the show? Yes, that’s correct. The only non-white Americans that appear in the series are Julie, an Asian woman that has a romantic relationship with Ross in season 2, and Dr Charlie Wheeler, a palaeontologist who takes an interest to Ross and Joey in the ninth season. Does this depict the show as white supremacist? That’s up to you to decide. However, as a multi-cultural diverse place, we cease to get an accurate depiction of New York City.

As a viewer, have you ever considered the sexist remarks made on the show? There is a whole episode dedicated to Joey’s love of his brand-new leather shoulder bag. The gang laugh at him, proclaiming that it’s ‘a woman’s purse’ – but it merely is a normal bag. NO NEED TO STEREOTYPE GUYS!  Also, remember that time Ross asked, ‘Why is my boy playing with a Barbie?’ He accuses his lesbian ex-wife and her partner of forcing his son to play with the doll. Is this such a bad thing? I think not. Ben is having fun and being imaginative when doing so. This scene stands hand in hand with the LGBT comments featured in the show. Throughout the series, Chandler is constantly overly-sensitive to others’ perception of him as too feminine or being ‘gay’. Chandler always feels the need to defend his sexuality having been mistaken for a ‘gay man’ and being increasingly uncomfortable with this. Is this due to homophobia or just a case of feeling self-conscious? There are also frequent comments made about the homosexuality of Ross’ ex-wife, Carol. The most shocking being when Ross begins to believe that Carol is going to ‘steal’ his new girlfriend Julie from him. Crazy right? How about those frequent references made to Chandler’s transgender father who is a drag queen at a Las Vegas club? Chandler’s mother jokes about whether or not her ex-husband is able to hide his genitals in a dress. Inappropriate isn’t it? Let him be himself and be proud of him regardless of his personal choices.

Matt LeBlanc, who plays Joey in the show, has recently defended these problematic allegations saying, “I’ve heard those rumours too about people taking pot shots at Friends, but I don’t want to get into that. I disagree with all that”. He declared that “Friends was about themes that stand the test of time – trust, love, relationships, betrayal, family and things like that.” Could it be that viewers are overlooking the true nature of the series? After all, friendship and love are at the heart of this iconic show. It is unfortunate that some of its aspects did not stand the test of time and have deeply insulted new viewers. How do you feel? Do you deem Friends as problematic?

Photograph: GreenteaLori via Flickr

One Response

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  1. ds
    Apr 05, 2018 - 11:29 AM

    First, find a copy of the OED, Look up the phrase “po-faced”. Then look up “Pompous”. Then look up “context”.

    In the words of Derrida, “there is no outside-of-context” (“Il n’y a pas de hors-contexte”)*. Friends was made in a particular place and time, where society was different. The attempt to graft contemporary attitudes onto them without understanding is a bit dense. There are things in there that many would feel a little uncomfortable at now, but the truth is that the mid-90s was a period of transition, when the cultural landscape was changing, and the push towards a ore egalitarian sense of portrayal in the media in the sense we understand it now was just beginning.

    And I’m not sure what kind of friends the author has, but these are EXACTLY the things my friends would say to me, and I to them, because these are the things friends ARE allowed to say. I’d expect them to be the ones grounding me, not just encircling me with a bubble of ersatz comfort. They are the ones who know you best, and who are allowed cross those boundaries, because you know they are not meant to wound: they are a form of bonding, and inculcate a sense of collective history. It’s all about shared experience.

    In Friends, this is happening for the characters, and we are just eavesdropping on that.

    The same thing applies with Joey’s bag. And no, it was a “man bag”. And it was hideous. You had to be there.

    The Ross thing with the doll is funny because we know (and we knew then, for those of us old enough to have watched it at the time) that he’s wrong. We know he’s an uptight, buttoned-up tool. We’re not meant to be siding with him, but thinking, “What an idiot! Why is he so hung up on this?”. Which is why so many of us were so annoyed when the writers decided he and Rachel get together in the end.

    Chandler’s more complicated: the man using humour to mask a bunch of deeply rooted insecurities that are in part a result of his upbringing. His friends understand that. And yes, to modern eyes, some of the gags about his parents look a bit crass. But compared to how such issues had been dealt with before, this was major progress. Context, you see.

    The one charge levelled at the show I would agree with is the lack of racial diversity. Given that the show is set in New York, a hugely culturally diverse city, it seemed odd even then that the show was so “white”. And it was commented on even then. In part, this is why shows like Cosby, Fresh Prince and A Different World (where Cliff Huxtable’s daughter goes of to college) found large black audiences. They were mainstream shows with black role models. The thing to remember these that these shows were American, and the issues of racial and cultural stratification in US society were active then too. The landscape was slightly different here; it was not not perfect: we had different problems.

    One of the problems of dumping a huge collection of episodes onto a platform at one time is one of the major contextual problems. We are presented with them as a single, monolithic chunk, which is not how they were. They arrived bit by bit, into a media landscape and a society that was different, and evolving. Without understanding that context and that evolution, critiques of the type above will always seem rather shallow and naive. Indeed, I’d expect that quite a lot of current material seen now as being acceptable may be looked on as less so in the decades to come.

    *I know, I’m deliberately throwing in the Derrida quote in the original French to one-up your pomposity. Boo-ya!

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