'Friends' Is Extremely Problematic, Yet I’m Rewatching It For The Sixth Time
It’s been 25 years since we were introduced to Phoebe, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Joey, and Ross, and I haven’t become any less interested in watching and rewatching six friends navigate the ups and downs of their twenties.
Call it my guilty pleasure... and I hate people calling things their guilty pleasure.
Eat your cookies dipped in Hershey's sauce. Listen to Kenny G while soaking in a nice bath. Stay in your pyjamas until 3pm on a Sunday. You're not guilty.
Except I might be -- for continuing to watch this show.
I wasn't born when the first episode premiered in 1994, but I sure as hell made up for lost time since streaming services started paying insane amounts of money for the rights to the 10 seasons of what is arguably the most popular sitcom of all time.
I'm 24 now, a year younger than Rachel was when she walked into Central Perk wearing her bridal gown having just run out on her wedding to Dr Barry Farber DDS. And while I can't say I've ever run out on my own nuptials (yet...), these characters seem like they're all going through what I'm facing.
They have a lot of the same tensions with their friends. I also worry about how I’m going to pay my rent some months, I have been in a near-constant strive for acceptance from members of my family about what I look like, what I’m doing with my life, and how I’m getting there. I have friends with their shit well and truly together, and others who are still in jobs that are just (barely) paying the rent until they find the thing they truly love to do.
In a few years, when I inevitably re-watch it again, I'll probably start to understand what it's like dealing with turning 30, getting married, deciding whether to have kids and sacrificing amazing work opportunities for men who aren't shit.
Friends captures all of that for me, makes me feel like it’s going to be okay and makes me laugh along the way, but that's not the only thing that matters.
It's also extremely problematic, in so many ways, and it's important that we don't forget that.
If you've only ever watched an episode here and there, then you might have thought of them as little behaviours that gently wave red flags while singing the theme song, lulling you into a false sense of security that no, there's nothing wrong here!
If you've ever binge-watched the series beginning to end, then that gently waving flag becomes your conscience holding a megaphone to your ear screaming 'THINK ABOUT WHAT'S WRONG WITH WHAT THEY JUST SAID'.
There are too many instances to list in their entirety, but here are the ones that immediately come to mind:
- There’s an entire transphobic subplot revolving closely around Chandler’s father, who is routinely misgendered once we do meet her, but who by that stage, has also been made the butt of seven seasons and 21 episodes worth of jokes when she is brought up.
- Carol and Susan’s relationship being continuously undermined and joked about by most of the characters, particularly Ross. Their relationship is presented as less about the two of them, and just about jabbing at Ross’ masculinity.
- When Joey takes up ballroom dancing to help Treager and gets back to the apartment after rehearsals, Monica asks if he’s “gay yet”. This one sticks out because I forgot it happened and on my latest rewatch it caused me to do a The Office-style double-take to an imaginary camera.
- The episode where Phoebe gets sexually assaulted by Paolo while she’s giving him a massage and Rachel seems to forget this in the space of a season when she sleeps with him again to try and get over Ross dating Julie. Big yikes.
- Speaking of Julie, who is one of the first visibly non-white semi-main characters to come into the show when she arrives home from a work trip to China with Ross, Rachel decides immediately that she wouldn't possibly be able to speak English.
- And finally... the entire "Monica was fat" backstory, which clearly had to involve actress Courteney Cox donning a fat suit and being referred to as "Fat Monica". This one provides ammunition for the gang for the entire 10 seasons, including Joey seeing "Fat Monica" on a home video and yelling "SOME GIRL ATE MONICA!", Chandler mocking Monica for her weight, only to marry her years later and make jokes like "our kids are going to be fat aren't they?". Oh, and then there's that whole flashback in 'The One That Could Have Been' where Monica is a 30-year-old virgin, because all fat women are sexless beings, yeah?
The six main characters are whole, three-dimensional (albeit incredibly flawed) human beings, even if writers decided most of the other characters -- including the ones that brought sexual and racial diversity -- didn’t need to be.
They're all funny, and it's no surprise the dialogue has spawned two decades of pop culture references. Every time I've had to move apartments, my friends and I have yelled "PIVOT" as we navigate my furniture through the front door. Who hasn't used 'Regina Phalange' as a name at Starbucks, and who doesn't kind of want to recreate Rachel's Thanksgiving trifle just to see how it would taste?!
In the 25 years since Friends premiered, we’ve had shows like Will & Grace (which features two gay male leads) shows like Black-ish, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place, Fresh Off The Boat, and One Day At A Time which focus on racially diverse casts that aren’t centred around a straight, white experience.
ODAAT, in particular, features an entirely fleshed-out queer storyline with a non-binary character who’s more than just a second thought to the narrative of the show. In case you haven't already, you should watch it. It's brilliant.
These casts that don’t make a big deal of themselves in the narrative, because it isn't a big deal for non-white actors to be on our screens.
Friends gave young people a show that -- despite only being filled with skinny, pretty, straight, white people -- might help make you feel like it’s okay if your life is a bit of a mess right now.
Co-creator and executive producer of Friends, Marta Kauffman, told the Tribeca Film Festival "we will not be doing a reunion show. We will not be doing a reboot", and frankly, I'm thrilled.
Kauffman said one of the reasons that the reunion won't be happening is because they "did the show [we] wanted to do".
I'm sure they did, but that's not the show we should be making in 2019. The point is progress. I'm used to seeing white people on my screens and being continually represented by characters who essentially tick the same boxes I identify with. That needs to change. Television and film need more women writing, more queer people writing, more people of colour writing, more people who are one, two, or all three (and more) of those things writing.
But, problematic and imperfect as Friends might be, I’ll continue to watch it, just like I’ll continue to watch shows that do better than it did at dealing with sexual assault, fatphobia, queer characters, identities and stories, fragile masculinity, mental health and racism.
We can’t change the show that Friends was, and we shouldn’t, but we can hold shows being produced in 2019 and beyond to a higher standard.
Featured Image: NBC