By Christina Brauer
The plot of the sitcom Friends is simple. Six typical all-American young people (Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler and Ross) cement their friendship by supporting each other in a tough city, Manhattan. Despite its phenomenal ratings from when the show first aired in 1994 and its reputation for being one of the most successful sitcoms ever, it seems like Friends did not quite stand the test of time – there’s nothing typical or all-American about these young people. They’re all white, all middle-class, all cis-gender heterosexuals, unlike the real population of New York. Worse, the group makes jokes at the expense of sexual and racial minorities. There’s no overt racism, but through ten seasons, there are only few people of colour and hardly any ethnic diversity. Even though I am a long-time Friends fan, I am now more aware of these critical aspects of the sitcom.
When it comes to the topic of homosexuality and other sexual orientations, Friends reveals an essentially unfriendly attitude towards queer people. A lot of people are fed up with homophobe jokes on how Chandler, the funny one who constantly makes sarcastic jokes, appears homosexual to others without them being able to say why. The only reason they can give is that he “has a quality”. Additionally, his father is revealed as being transgender. In one of the latter seasons, the line “Don’t you have a little too much penis to be wearing a dress like that?” uttered by Chandler’s mother and the disrespect it conveys towards another person’s sexuality had me speechless.
Furthermore, Ross’s ex-wife Carol turns out to be a lesbian right at the beginning. However, Carol’s sexuality is only mentioned to be joked about, never to represent a strong queer woman in a mainly straight show. In the first episode of season one, the audience comes to know that Ross, his parents’ favourite child and their pride and joy, has been through an awful divorce. Joey delivers the punchline, “And you never knew she was a lesbian?” – and we are only three minutes into the episode. These jokes were not meant to hurt anyone, but they are tasteless. Another controversial moment on Friends is the wedding between Carol and another woman as they do not kiss at the altar. The actresses revealed later on that they were forbidden to do so since two women kissing each other was something the audience would not want to see. In general, it was alright to have a lesbian couple on the show back then – as long as they did not behave like one.
In the episode “The One with the Male Nanny”, Ross fails to accept a man choosing the rather feminine job of being a nanny. He asks said male nanny whether he is gay as if this is the only possible reason for his job choice. The man is everything one looks for in a nanny. He bakes cookies, plays the flute to the baby, entertains it with DIY puppets and is very empathetic. The problem – he is a man. On top of that, he tends to cry more than male stereotypes allow. Ross ends up firing him because he cannot cope with a man being that sensitive. Overall, the show is full of misconceptions of homosexuality and typical male stereotypes. Ross tries to convince his son Ben to play with military action figures rather than with the Barbie-doll Ben prefers as he is slightly worried that Ben will grow up to be gay. Moreover, dancing is apparently also something a man cannot enjoy without being queer as suggested by Monica’s statement “So how goes the dancing? Gay yet?” On the whole, every character on the show seemingly has the urge to assert that they are definitely NOT gay by making fun of each other whenever someone does or wears something that does not scream “I am a straight, stereotypical woman/man!”
Looking at what has been said up to now it is understandable that the modern audience reacts so irritated and negatively towards the insensitivity with which the show deals with this topic particularly under today’s circumstances and LGBTQ+ movements. I do not even try to deny that I also cringed at some of these borderline homophobic jokes, like making fun of men in dresses.
Yet, they were broaching the issue of alternate sexualities when only few shows would even mention them, proving they were somewhat ahead of their time. Moreover, the sitcom shows how the six friends are slowly but surely coming to terms with other sexual orientations which realistically represents how people cope with it in real life. At first, Chandler is extremely embarrassed by his transgender father and does not even want to invite him to his wedding. But with the help of his friends, he eventually accepts his father for who he is and makes up with him. Even Ross opens up about having trouble acting sensitive as a guy because his father raised him to be more masculine. This brings up the still very topical issue of toxic masculinity. This is the stereotypical behaviour of a man as expected by society, like being strong and brave and tough. This attitude is harmful to everyone involved as it suppresses “weak” attributes because they are allegedly too feminine such as being overly sensitive and emotional in terms of crying.
Having brought up stereotypical masculinity it is time to talk about the show’s rather sexist aspects according to the viewers. Joey is the heart-throb of the group and not the brightest. Tons of people perceive his pick-up lines such as “How you doin’?” to get women into bed as beyond disrespectful. While I agree with what they say I also think the show rather drags these sexist pick-up lines into the mud as both the other main characters and the audience are intended to realise how annoying and idiotic this macho behaviour is.
Furthermore, the group continuously makes fun of Monica, now skinny, being overweight in her past. Even though her friends do not mean to hurt her by accident, one never knows if these words will offend someone no matter how light-hearted the teasing was meant to be in the first place. I especially did not like the message of the episode where it is revealed that Monica had overheard her crush-at-the-time Chandler insulting her because of how she looked. As a result, Monica lost weight just to please him. This is definitely sending out wrong signals to the audience as it promotes changing physically for somebody else instead of solely changing for one’s own good. Especially in the case of fat-shaming, Friends should have been more sensitive. Viewers who are overweight like Monica once was might feel hurt which is the very reverse of what a comedy show wants to achieve. Friends should be a comfort-show one can turn to and get cheered up by whenever they feel down.
Moreover, Lisa Kudrow, who played Phoebe, opened up about her body insecurity and the pressure she felt to be as skinny as her female co-stars. She said, “I just felt like this mountain of a woman next to them”. Yet, to my mind, the sitcom itself has little to do with this issue. In the 90s, an almost unhealthy looking skinny figure was in style, also called “heroin chic”, particularly in the entertainment industry. Besides that, body positivity movements did not really take off until 2012 with the increase of social media. Thus, of course Friends is not that advanced when it comes to raising awareness for body positivity in comparison to what we know today.
Overall, I definitely agree that Friends is not as modern as expected from a show today. But after all, it is 25 years old. A 30-year-old car is already considered a veteran car. So, when applying this rule to the show, Friends would almost be antique and needed to get a special label to signalise that it needs to be treated differently than the latest shows. Yet, I do not mind people criticising Friends for being politically incorrect. Such criticism proves how much we as a society have learned over the last few decades. In fact, I would be more than worried if viewers just proceeded to watch the show and the offensive jokes that should not go along with our ethics in our educated society would stay unnoticed. Having said that, I still do not understand why people watch Friends as if it were a present-day show with advanced ethics that are today’s standard because it simply cannot be all that. Anything old has to be consumed with its historical context in mind, even if it is just 25 years old. Besides, relatively recent sitcoms are not that politically correct either. The show “How I Met Your Mother” for example oozes with sexism and “The Big Bang Theory” is full of ethnic stereotypes. At the end of the day, comedy always plays with certain clichés.
In conclusion, Friends undoubtedly contains several homophobe and sexist elements like jokes about gay people and fat-shaming as well as a lack of diversity that should not stay unnoticed. In this regard, I am proud of our society and how much we have learned since the show first aired. Nevertheless, it is important to clarify that something can only be as ahead of time as knowledge and time itself allow. Therefore, the expectations viewers have of Friends today are simply unrealistic.