To many, Friends is a shining beacon in the television world – the model of a perfect sitcom with a complementary cast of characters to boot. But with the show recently celebrating its 25th anniversary, is it perhaps time to reexamine the beloved show and see it for all its good – and some bad as well?
PROBLEM 1 – ALTERNATE REALITY
Ask anyone where the show Friends takes place and most will be able to answer: New York City. But Friends seems to take place in an alternate dimension – an all white NYC.
Friends has been criticized over the years for its lack of diversity, specifically among the main cast of characters. Six main characters (Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Ross, and Joey, for those who need a refresher) and all of them are white. Even the majority of the secondary characters who revolve in and out of the show are white. People of color are mainly seen as extras in the background, occasionally getting one or two lines.
In later seasons (which came out in the early 2000s), efforts were seemingly made to correct this. Aisha Tyler (perhaps recognizable for her role on Criminal Minds as Dr. Tara Lewis) portrays Charlie Wheeler throughout seasons 9 and 10, bringing a black character to the screen (at least, one with lines and significance). And even earlier on in the show, season 2, Ross dates Julie, a Chinese-American woman, for 7 episodes.
But even as devout fans of the show point to these two characters in an attempt to defend that which they love, it is glaringly obvious that these characters do not help Friends ace the Racial Bechdel Test. To those who have watched the show, Charlie and Julie are the only two characters of color who truly stand out and have a meaningful time on the show. Not only that, neither of these characters has any of their own autonomy – they simply serve to drive the plots and growth of the core six characters.
PROBLEM 2 – STEREOTYPES
Not only is there a lack of diversity when it comes to characters of color, but there is an issue with LGBT+ representation, as well as the portrayal of it when it is on the show. The majority of it comes from the over-sexualization of lesbians at the hands of the three main men. There are also many derisive jokes about Chandler, Ross, and Joey being gay (portraying homosexuality as good when it exists for the male gaze and bad when it applies to men themselves). But the stereotypical portrayal of queer characters comes to its height with the portrayal of Chandler’s father.
The show refers to this character as Chandler’s father, uses he/him pronouns, and without meeting this character this at first makes sense. Chandler’s father (before appearing on the show) is presented as a drag queen. Therefore, when in drag this character would use she/her pronouns but when out of drag identifies as a man. Upon meeting Chandler’s father however, this assumption is wholly turned on its head.
Once brought onto the screen, Charles Bing does not seem to just be a drag queen. Although he makes no corrections when referred to as Charles or with he/him pronouns, he seems to always present himself in drag. Is this a dated show presenting a drag queen in an inaccurate way? Or should we change how we refer to this character and recognize that they are not a drag queen, but rather a transgender woman? Either way, the character is wholly representative of Friends’ failings when it comes to queer representation.
PROBLEM 3 – FATPHOBIA
Although once on the screen all of the characters seem to have the typical (and coveted) Hollywood bodies, many flashbacks show Monica as having once been overweight. However, Monica’s weight does not just exist as having once been higher and is now lower. Derisive jokes are made throughout the show – even her own brother mocking her for what her weight used to be and her former eating habits.
With a single watch, it is obvious that many of the scenes which receive the laugh track and have an overweight Monica in them are only given a laugh because she is fat. If you took her weight out of it, these same scenes which receive boisterous laughter would just be Monica dancing. Others would just be her eating. The double-standard is glaringly obvious – a skinny girl dancing or eating is not funny, but apparently, a fat girl doing the exact same things is.
To add to this, Monica losing the weight doesn’t seem to be a choice she made healthily. It seems to have been brought about by constant teasing and emotional abuse from her own mother. Her weight loss (although never seen on screen, but referred to multiple times throughout the show) is one born of a desire to escape mockery.
So what do you do now? Do you go and find Jennifer Aniston and “make her pay”? Do you go into the Instagram comments of Lisa Kudrow and demand she drop off the face of the Earth? Do you stop watching the show you grew up with, the show which you have so much love and nostalgia for?
The answer: there is no right or wrong answer. The important lesson to learn after 25 years of Friends is that you can love something and still recognize its faults. But this still doesn’t take away the sad part of Friends for many viewers, because as much as some people love it, it can be hard to watch the show you love, when sometimes it feels like that same show is not “there for you”.
But for those who are entering or are in their 20s, Friends centers around a key experience, and a brand new stage of life. David Crane, one of the creators of the show, says this about the core of Friends: “…when you’re in your 20s, your friends are your family. But that’s the show!”.
Buuuuuuuuut…if you can’t ignore the problematic elements of Friends and you still want a show that displays that same key experience, do what I do: watch New Girl instead.