The One Where Friends Was Problematic
It is a well-known fact that America has never been the most progressive country especially when it comes to representation. The majority of the media only represents a small portion of the world, such as skinny white woman in shampoo commercials, overly-fit white men in deodorant ads, and sitcoms featuring only white suburban families. This has been an issue for far too long, unfortunately making this the norm. The classic sitcom, Friends is perhaps the most guilty of this. To dive deeper into the root of America’s lack of representation, it is important to ask: how were women, minorities and commonly discriminated against groups treated and represented in Friends? Furthermore, is it the same in current, similar sitcoms? To attempt to answer this question, I sat down to watch a few episodes of Friends from different seasons, to get a good scope of how the representation and portrayal of underrepresented groups has progressed throughout the show, or if it even progressed at all.
Marta Kauffman and David Crane began producing Friends in September 1994, until the sitcom came to an end in May, 2004. According to NBC News, Kauffman explained that the show was originally called, “Insomnia Cafe”, before it was called, “Friends Like Us”, which of course became, Friends. The show is now on syndication as well as available on Netflix. The show revolves around the lives of six young adult friends living in New York City. The series follows Monica, Ross, Rachel, Joey, Chandler, and Phoebe, as they navigate their way through life. Since the show was mainly aired in the nineties, their lives differ quite a bit from the lives of current young adults. The characters do not have cellphones until very near the end of the series, none of the characters have social media, and they socialize by meeting up at their favorite coffee shop, Central Perk. Very frequent themes in the show tend to be about relationships, their jobs, and friendships.
The method that I used to answer my question was to watch various episodes of the series, making sure to watch episodes from different seasons in order to get a good grasp on how underrepresented groups were portrayed throughout the ten years that the show was aired. This is the best way to get a good analysis of the different minorities that were portrayed in the series and an accurate way to determine if the portrayal of these people was done in an ethical and progressive way.
While the series is definitely one of the most beloved sitcoms to grace American television, this is definitely not the first time someone has accused the show of being problematic. British magazine, Independent, states their dislike of the show by stating that, “Storylines laced with homophobia, sexism, borderline emotional abuse and sexual harassment are portrayed as punchlines.” Though it is true that the world was a very different place twenty-five years ago when Friends first aired, certain issues such as racism and sexism were still hot-button issues that people cared about and fought against. Certain publications brought up a different argument, that Friends was actually way ahead of its time and addressed modern masculinity and female empowerment. According to Sarah Gosling, a writer for The Guardian, “Yes, Friends is dated, and there should certainly be more minority characters featured, but the conversations remain relevant. People still struggle with size, sexuality, and femininity.”
In my own analysis, I will begin by addressing the notion that Friends did not portray the LGBT community in a good light. To begin, in the second episode of the first season, it is revealed that Ross and his wife Carol are getting a divorce because Carol has come out as a lesbian. In 1994, this was a very controversial topic and many people expected the show to be canceled. The show even aired an episode about Carol getting married to her new fiance, but the network didn’t even allow the entire ceremony to be filmed. InStyle noted that, “fans expected a full-on wedding and probably expected some controversy, but there was a major thing missing from the ceremony. The two brides never actually kissed on-screen.” Throughout the rest of the series, Ross is regularly ridiculed by the group for having married a lesbian. The group also had a habit of making it look as if Ross or even Carol, should be ashamed of the fact that she is a lesbian. Secondly, there are multiple occasions where Chandler is ridiculed by the group and by himself for having a transgender parent. Chandler’s mother is a transgender drag queen in Las Vegas, and is essentially only in the show to act as a punchline for the writer’s transphobic jokes that they can’t make in real-life. Chandler repeatedly makes jokes at her expense by telling stories such as her being attracted to his childhood pool boy, and constantly reiterating the fact that he is embarrassed to have a “father” who wears dresses. Not to mention that not once in the entire series, does anyone refer to her with the correct pronouns. Thirdly, in an episode entitled, “The One with the Male Nanny” which aired in the ninth season in late 2002, the premise of the episode revolves around Ross and Rachel who now have a daughter named Emma. They are trying to hire a nanny, when Rachel tries to convince Ross that the only male nanny that applied is the best candidate for the job. Ross does several problematic things in this episode, but most notably he very rudely and bluntly asks the nanny if he’s gay, as if that is the only explanation as to why a man would want to become a caregiver. Ross cannot seem to fathom that a man would actually want to take care of a child, even though he himself is the father of two children. The episode shows Ross going through a whirlwind of emotions, stemming from his own issues with his masculinity, when eventually they decide to fire the nanny even though he was clearly the best candidate for the job and truly cared for Emma. Through these examples, it is easy to come to the conclusion that through portraying lesbian women, transgender men, and feminine men as something that people should ridicule and be ashamed of, Friends was not a particularly LGBT friendly sitcom.
Next, Friends also had many instances in which they would ridicule and mercilessly mock people for their appearances, more specifically, their weight. The first example being a character named, “Fat Monica.” The character Monica, had a background of being overweight in her teen years that the show constantly harassed her for. The UK news outlet, The Sun, points out that, “One scene sees them watching her old prom night on video, and Joey joked: “Some girl ate Monica!” Monica also claims the “camera adds ten pounds” to which Chandler replies: “How many cameras were ON you!” The amount of fat shaming that was projected at Monica alludes to the conclusion that the show did not value her worth until she became “skinny.”
Across the street from the apartment that the group of friends commonly hang out in, there is another apartment which just so happens to always have the blinds open. The man inside the apartment is a character that the group of friends so lovingly named, “Ugly Naked Guy.” The group will regularly gather by the window to watch the man live his life and judge him while he does daily tasks in his own apartment. In the eighth episode of the third season, “The One with the Giant Poking Device”, the group begins to wonder if the man across the street is dead because he hasn’t moved all day. They then decide to concoct a long stick made out of chopsticks to push into the man’s window to poke him to see if he’s still alive. Instead of doing what any normal human would do and call the police or go over to the apartment, they decide to treat him like an animal that can’t be touched, solely because of his weight and the fact that they have deemed him “ugly.”
Next, Friends seemed to have quite the problem with increasing their diversity casting. Through all 10 seasons, all 236 episodes, there are only two recurring characters of color.
These characters are both only there to be the love interests of the men, and neither of them stick around longer than five episodes. Not to mention, each of the six main characters are straight and about as white as it gets. There is absolutely no excuse for only casting one black female character and one asian female character in 10 years of one of the most popular shows in the history of american television. It is very evident that positively portraying people of color and characters that are overweight was not very high-up on the writers to-do list.
Last but not least, there is a plethora of evidence to prove that the series glorified the objectification of women and toxic relationships. A common theme in the show is the actions of Chandler, Ross, and Joey constantly trying to coerce women into sleeping with them. Ross is especially guilty of not only objectifying women he barely knows but objectifying his own girlfriends, most notably, Rachel. During season 3 episode 21, “The One With the Chick and the Duck,” Rachel injures her rib. Later on she is trying to get dressed but is in too much pain, so she asks Ross to help her get dressed. She asks Ross to turn around while she puts her dress on as they were not dating at the time, and he refuses, stating, “Rach, I can see you naked anytime I want, all I have to do is close my eyes.” He then proceeds to close his eyes and imagine her naked. The show then cues the laugh track, as if this instance of sexual harassment was at all funny.
Thirdly, there is an episode in which Rachel has the apartment to herself for a night, decides to walk around naked, yet forgets to close the blinds. Since Ross is now living in the apartment across the street, he sees her walking around and takes that to mean that she is doing it to seduce him. He then comes over to her apartment, expecting to be entitled to have sex with her, when in reality that was not the intention. Ross demonstrates many times that he does not know the meaning of consent and upholds the claim that the male characters in the show have little to no respect for women.
Lastly, there are multiple scenes in which all three main male characters, come together to help each other to convince strangers to have sex with them, while brutally objectifying them and thinking of them as no more than the gum on the bottom of their shoe. For example, Buzzfeed recalls an episode in which, “Ross and Joey are trying to leave so they can go and meet Joey’s good looking roommate and her dancing friends. During the whole episode they’re trying to think up ways to trick these women into sleeping with them, and Joey literally calls them “objects.” They regularly perpetuate the idea that women are only useful to men for pleasure, even going so far as to have the characters have this exact conversation: Ross- “Hey, Joey. Are men ever nice to strange women for no reason?” Joey- “No, only for sex.”
It is painfully clear that many aspects of this show should have been looked at with the lens of a different view point. The show is a classic and it is something that brought many people joy and entertainment, a quality that is extremely important. But comparing it to sitcoms today, it is easy to see how far television has come so that we are now able to see women in leading roles, women of color in leading roles, LGBT actors in leading roles, and so many more examples of diverse casting, something that Friends truly missed out on. Through my research I was able to determine that Friends is guilty of portraying the LGBT community as shameful, overweight people as unworthy, diverse casting as a waste of time, and women as objects. Looking at more recent TV shows like Modern Family, where there are main characters of color and two LGBT main characters, it shows that the media industry has come a long way. Even when it doesn’t seem like it, and even though the media has a long road ahead of itself to get to a place where everyone is represented, there is in fact evidence of progress.