TNT ANALYSIS | APRIL 28, 2018
Whether you’re belting to its theme song ( I’ll Be There For You- The Rembrandts) when it airs on Comedy Central or watching re-runs of newly-available episodes on Netflix or your computer, chances are you’ve seen ‘Friends’. Originally a seven-page pitch called ‘Insomnia Cafe’, the show took over the world when it premiered on September 22, 1994, having been nominated for a staggering 62 Emmy awards. While most millennials look back fondly upon the easily available (the re-runs don’t seem to have an end at Comedy Central) 90s sitcom about the life and problems (or lack of) of six twenty-something New Yorkers, much has been spoken about what the comedy series now looks like, in the cold and harsh light of 2018.
Together with the announcement that all ten seasons of ‘Friends’ will be available on Netflix (which has 93 million subscribers and counting) in January of this year, came a new generation of fans, Generation Z and a few millennials, (wonder how they’ve never binge-watched it) as well as a new-found sense of discomfort among old fans over the inappropriate nature of some of the plotlines that have regularly been portrayed as punch-lines leaving us saying: “It’s more problematic than we remember from the last decade”.
In an era where Trump’s ‘wall’ is legitimately in progress, the lack of diversity in the cast itself seems inexcusable. The show, as we all know, centres around characters that are all white, middle-class and straight. Although known for the great number of guest stars in its ten seasons, ranging from Brad Pitt to Julia Roberts, most of them are predominantly white. In fact, we’ve got the numbers to prove it. The closest the show ever got to a diverse cast was when they casted one of Ross’ girlfriends named Julie who was Asian and much later when he dated Joey’s ex-girlfriend, Dr. Charlie Wheeler, who was black. That amounts to only two people of colour in TEN SEASONS of the show.
For a show promoting acceptance and people being there for one another (“I’ll be there for youuuu”), the homophobic sentiments in the sitcom is horrifying. Chandler’s transphobia when it comes to any conversation about his father is the butt of every joke (Fiona’s love for show tunes, penis jokes, etc). The writers are seen to deliberately use incorrect pronouns for comedic purposes, having Chandler refusing to refer to his father as her chosen name (Helena) and instead referring to her as her given name (Charles). There are many such instances that make light of the issues faced by the LGBT community. The episode where Rachel and Joey sit at a one of Ross’ conventions and make fun of the word ‘homo-erectus’ with Rachel laughing at ‘homo’ is problematic, to say the least.
Besides depicting Ross’ lesbian ex-wife as the centre of the writers’ homophobic jokes throughout the first few seasons, Ross’ inability to accept non-traditional gender roles (Ben for playing with a Barbie doll and Rachel’s male nanny for threatening his masculinity by having a non-traditional ‘male’ job) is ridiculous and only reinforces conformity and gender stereotypes. The male characters also can’t seem to have any intimate physical contact without questioning their sexuality, which begs the whole other question of fragile masculinity in the show. In fact, homophobia seems to crawl its way into every episode. A video editing of all the homophobic moments from the show racking up a whopping 50 minutes confirms this.
One can, however, argue that it was one of the first shows ever to depict same-sex marriage. At the time it was aired, 1996, New York had not yet authorised same-sex marriages. While there are minute glimpses of progress once in a while, the show ultimately fails to have an in-depth discussion of gender identity. Such jokes, while being little parodies and may have no malicious intentions, may still contribute to a societal culture that is ignorant on the subjects of gender sensitivity.
The sexism and gender stereotypes played out in the show are endless – Joey being made fun of for liking ‘feminine’ things (the man purse, Chandler making fun of Joey’s roommate’s girly stuff in his apartment, Joey waxing his eyebrows), Chandler being called gay and having been made fun for it, etc. Obvious offences also include the depiction of teenage Monica as the stereotypical ‘fat kid’ and its constant and relentless punchline (“Some girl ate Monica!”), Ross’ emotionally abusive behaviour in his relationship with Rachel (stalking her while she’s at lunch with a male colleague)… the list is lonnnnnnnnnng.
It is to be said that in comparison to a lot of shows at the time, FRIENDS is still an endearing, comforting and humorous sitcom at its best. There is no denying that it did push boundaries and challenged perspectives on subjects such as infertility, gay marriage, feminism, etc. Older fans of the show have come forward to defend the accusations against their favourite show as reflective of an earlier era adding that the conversation around such subjects as gender identity wasn’t as prominent in the 90s as it is today. While it is true that the main characters seem to be laughing at their own stupidity, sexism, homophobia and racism will not and should not be tolerated. Such stereotypes in TV and the movies are no longer acceptable in such a politically-charged and rightly so.
There is little doubt that the show will remain a favourite as other classics steeped in nostalgia usually are. However, the question being put up regarding how sensitive a present TV series or movie will appear twenty years from now and whether it will live up to future expectations remains to be answered.