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Unconventional Femininity Used as Joke Material in FRIENDS

 

Edited by Nidhi Munot

 

“Hey, check me out, I’m a slut!” *cue laughter*

“What are you talking about, one woman?! That’s like saying there is only one flavour of ice cream for you. Grab a spoon.” *cue laughter*

“Shut up, the camera adds 10 pounds.” “So how many cameras are actually on you?” *cue laughter*

 

The 90s were known for their famous comedy TV shows with the classic “live audience” laughter after every joke, signalling a funny line and invoking laughter in the viewer even if the joke was offensive. Laughter is not merely treated as a guide to the punchlines, it also normalises the various sexist comments made by paid actors. It validates the opinions of those viewers who strongly believe in and impose gender norms. This allows them to treat any deviation as unnatural and turn it into a joke.

The One Where Fat-Shaming is Rampant

Whether you’re a ‘well-if-nothing-else-is-on’ fan or a regular FRIENDS re-watcher, you have heard about the character “Fat Monica”. Along with them casting exclusively “ideal” bodied women on the show, they overtly treat Monica’s “overweight” younger self as the punchline of their never-ending jokes. Moreover, the sudden transformation to a fitter Monica after Chandler’s offensive comment trivialises fat-shaming and does not consider the mental effects that caused the change. The weight loss is seen as a mere accomplishment, and even that is brushed aside by her insensitive mother. A show as well known as FRIENDS has viewers who imitate the characters and seat them on pedestals to aspire to. The burden imposed on women to live up to people’s expectations of their bodies and personas is mentally exhausting, where nothing short of “perfect” is acceptable.

The One Where Porn Consumption is Typically Masculine

The sight of Chandler and Joey sitting on their Barcaloungers and watching porn is quite common in the show and is even displayed as a normal act. On the other hand, when Joey finds Rachel’s erotic novel and says, “You got porn!” it invokes laughter and subsequent teasing. If Joey or Chandler walked in to see Rachel and Monica flipping through the Playboy in Season 6, Episode 12, I know it would result in the uncomfortable vibe that they would get from two men objectifying them through a sexual lens. Furthermore, to assure Phoebe that he’s “a man”, Joey refers to his “huge stack of porn” which he believes validates his masculinity. Equating masturbation and porn consumption purely with masculine traits implies that femininity is threatened if a woman even owns erotica. This also promotes the idea that their sexuality cannot and should not be expressed unless in relation with a man.

The One Where Lesbianism is a Joke

Carol and Susan’s infamous relationship on the show has perhaps been one of those recurring jokes that “never get old”. The portrayal of lesbianism as being a choice or a switch that can turn on and off is something the show has perpetually propagated. For instance, when Ross says “No, I know…you’re a lesbian. What do you say we just put that aside for now?” It immediately suggests that sexuality is voluntary and that leaving Ross after she realised her sexual preference was somehow her fault. For a show that often openly displays passionate scenes, the lack of portrayal of even so much as innocent affection between same-sex couples is disappointing. Of course, they showed Rachel and Phoebe’s kiss, and even spoke of Bonny’s sexual experience with a girl, but when it comes to the show’s actual lesbian couple, their affection is never expressed, and when spoken of, usually turns into yet another “haha” moment. 

It’s one thing to live in a generation of toxic gender norms. It’s an entirely different issue to enforce them in a popular American TV show whose global viewers call it the pinnacle of comedy even today.

Ishita Ahuja

Ashoka '23

A Literature enthusiast with an interest in Biology and newswriting, hoping to some day do Environmental journalism.
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