As Friends finally came to Netflix, so did a flood of complaining millennials watching for the first time and articles claiming that the iconic, ever-favourite show was in fact hugely problematic: homophobic, transphobic, sexist, whitewashing and fat-shaming. In short, it would absolutely not fly today and we are all hypocrites for laughing at Chandler’s weird jokes about his family.
After my initial reaction of calling it “oversensitive bullshit,” I started having vague memories of inappropriate jokes and mostly everything Ross ever said or did in the show. At this point, I — in the blessed name of research — re-watched all 10 seasons only to find that there are indeed many seemingly problematic scenes and storylines in Friends that should be examined closely if I ever want to claim the integrity of Friends with a clear conscience again.
There is an undeniable truth to Friends lacking diversity through its ten seasons. Apart from Ross’s Asian girlfriend, Julie, and Charlie — who is the show’s faint attempt at redemption in season ten, presenting an African-American woman as a genius and esteemed academic, who is too smart for Joey and by all means too good for Ross — it is hard to think about even minor supporting characters on this show who weren’t white, and that is definitely something which fortunately could not happen today without massive backlash.
Another fair critique is that the fact that Monica’s former weight is used as a constant source of humour in a way that is in no way acceptable. This is, while done with love and never deliberately cruel (even when Chandler hurts Monica’s feelings in a flashback episode, he never means for her to overhear and karma later finds him in the form of a chopped-off toe), is blatant body shaming which sends the wrong message about beauty that might make viewers uncomfortable in their own skin, which I think even a light sitcom should be more aware of and not foster.
I believe that the question of sexism is the most complex and equivocal in the show, and it is not as transparent as it seems from certain remarks. The massive amount of jokes based on being in accordance with traditional gender roles is indeed frightening, as the men are unremittingly afraid to seem ‘feminine’. If they do take up traits that aren’t masculine enough by a traditional standard, like showing emotion or a male baby playing with a female toy (thankfully here they at least try to tell Ross that he is ridiculous) the gang makes fun of them constantly. Does this mean that Friends is actually homophobic though?
I believe it is not. After my initial instinct that this is not something that should be used as a constant joke on the writers’ part, I tried to discover the reason behind this and concentrate on the message it was trying to convey. In one of the most castigated episodes, Rachel hires a male nanny (overplayed by Freddie Prinz Jr.) and Ross reacts in a way that makes you wish you could slap him with one of his fossils into being a tolerable human being. Still, what the critiques leave out is the moral of the tale in this episode: Ross is a very insecure man, still struggling with the ideas of toxic masculinity that his father bullied into him. The episode ultimately makes Ross look sad and ridiculous, while touching upon some very real issues. The message is absolutely not that we should conform to gender roles but that they can do real damage and are usually promoted by people who are incarcerated by inner conflicts and lack of self-acceptance.
Ross is the most objectionable (and sexist, homophobic, and much of the time borderline intolerable) character on the show, and he is usually the one behind the comments and storylines that would probably be handled differently today. But portraying a sexist character doesn’t mean the show is sexist as well. His homophobic comments are attempted to be explained as rooted in the pain over his failed marriage and resentment over his wife leaving him for someone else, incidentally a woman. The fact that he doesn’t handle the situation as he would have had he been left in favour of another man, but constantly emphasises that his issue is that they are ‘lesbinems’ (Sting’s sons must proudly claim this comment in real life) is problematic, yes. But it is also psychologically understandable as he feels deceived after a five year relationship and is unable to process this. The show, in the end, shows Ross giving away Carol in a wedding that was very progressive at the time. The writers in a later interview revealed that they expected tons of hate mail after the episode. Yet they did it anyway. Perhaps this shows an awareness of their social responsibility and a desire to promote acceptance in a way that was moderate for the time.
Throughout the episodes, Ross is constantly portrayed paradoxically as a sensitive guy who is a little geeky, easily scares and fears physical violence, has only slept with one woman at the age of twenty-five, still sees his paediatrician, and once dresses as a Spud-nik for Halloween (which I think is hilarious, but that is beside the point). He is in no way a traditionally masculine guy. Yet he conforms to this toxic masculine ideal due to the expectations of society and his parents, and his own inner bewilderment. He is a stereotypical white male in 90s America who struggles with his own anxieties about long-established gender roles. In this sense, Friends uses this complex character for a message that is definitely not intended to promote his sexist ideas but to shed light on their ridiculousness and condemns them as much as a light sitcom in the 90s could’ve done.
However, sexism as a source of comedy is excessive and unnecessary in the show, and while the other characters aren’t nearly as bad as Ross, they all demonstrate a similar conformity and narrow-mindedness when it comes to gender. Even if the message of the show is positive, it also sets an example that these types of jokes are funny and acceptable, and by ridiculing moments of sensitivity or ‘femininity’, even strengthens the stereotypes as much as it unwraps them.
There is also the issue that it is never properly addressed and condemned how Ross is the worst boyfriend of all time right after Bill from Kill Bill. He continuously and completely disregards Rachel’s career ambitions and does not support or accept her hard work and aspirations. He is insanely jealous with zero self-awareness and while, again, the presentation of such a character is does not mean that the show promotes this behaviour, the ending claims otherwise. Ross, demonstrating no character development whatsoever, completely disregards Rachel’s career again, yet this is shown as a sign of great love and romantic gesture. However, this is contrasted by all the great times where Friends was truly progressive, showing the woman claiming their sexuality as freely as the men on the show, Monica’s dominance and strength and Rachel raising her baby as a happy, capable single mother. And while members of the LGBT community were often subjected to jokes, they were also presented as happy, proud and positive characters who were loved by all. The show makes fun of those who shriek that sexuality is a choice with in ‘The One with Phoebe’s Husband’ and show Chandler reconcile with his dad, as well as explaining his antagonistic comments with his childhood traumas and struggles. Perhaps it was as politically correct as it could have been at the time. Perhaps not. All in all, bearing in mind that Friends was intended for and portrayed a much less progressive society, its appropriateness is definitely questionable, but its intentions are, in my interpretation, cleared of certain charges.