In 2017, Jay-Z completely reimagined the cast of Friends as being black in his music video Moonlight. The inspiration for the song and video stemmed from La La Land winning the Oscar for Best Picture, when the film that deserved the recognition was Moonlight, a film that showcases the combination of queerness, blackness, and masculinity. It is of no surprise that three years later, films and television shows with people of color continue to lose to their white counterparts. Recent news has been circulating about the Oscars, the SAG awards and the Golden Globes for their consistent lack of diversity. This news, however, isn’t new. Diversity has been lacking from our TV screens since the rise of the entertainment industry, even if the media has become slightly more progressive in representation. While newer shows such as The Good Place, Atlanta and Killing Eve have been prided for their diversity, many older shows (and some newer) lack inclusion. So, in light of Jay-Z’s black depiction of Friends, the continuous lack of diversity in media, and Netflix removing Friends from their platform, I thought that I would talk about the classic white comedy that made Jennifer Aniston a household name.
Friends was notoriously homogeneous when it came to casting, for it only included people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals in minimal episodes. The few notable diversity roles in the show are Ross’s gay ex-wife Carol and partner Susan, Ross’s ex-girlfriend Julie, that one episode with Gabrielle Union, Ross/Joey’s ex-girlfriend Charlie, played by Aisha Tyler, and Chandler’s father, a gay drag queen. While there may have been some visibility in terms of diversity in characters, the characters were never properly portrayed. The show never commented on racism and every mention of homosexuality was ridiculed. In fact, when Friends was on the verge of allowing a character to be diverse, the character would instantly be made fun of for being a bit different than the normal white folk. Let’s go through a few examples, shall we.
- The One With the Barbie (Gender Expression)
Ross’s son Ben is seen playing with a Barbie which infuriates Ross, leading him to believe that his lesbian (most likely mislabeled and should have been bi or pan) ex-wife and her partner have forced Ben into wanting to play with a stereotypically girly toy. Ross decides that Ben should be playing with GI Joe, a more manly toy, as he doesn’t want his young son to be portrayed as weak, or even potentially *gasp* gay.
- The One With Monica’s Weight (Body Shaming)
Throughout the 10 seasons of Friends, Monica is constantly fat shamed by her supposed friends. She gets taunted by Chandler, mocked by Joey when he says “Some girl ate Monica” when watching a video of her in high school, and is even labeled as “Fat Monica,” a name Courteney Cox’s character seems unable to shake off. Only when Monica hears Chandler, her crush (and future husband who never apologizes for the fat jokes!), talking about her weight, does she decide to lose weight, as if the only motivation a woman has for wanting to be healthier or skinnier is to gain sex appeal. The whole plot line is inhumane and degrading.
- The One With The Male Nanny and The Shoulder Bag (Toxic Masculinity)
When Ross and Rachel are looking at nannies for Emma, a male interviews for the position and Ross rudely assumes that he is gay because he likes kids and wants a “woman’s job”. Ross even goes as far as to say “So… you’re just… a guy who’s a nanny? Are you gay?— what kind of job is that for a man?” Similarly, the group mocks Joey when he likes something typically “feminine.” Joey becomes obsessed with a shoulder bag, that truly is unisex, but everyone jokes that Joey is carrying a “woman’s purse.” Chandler even makes a snide, sarcastic comment saying, “Pulling flowers out of it makes the bag look a lot more masculine.”
- The One With Chandler’s Dad and Ross’s Ex-Wife (Trans and Homo-phobia)
Chandler’s father, Charles Bing, who goes by the stage name of Helena Handbasket, and Ross’s ex-wife Carol and her partner, Susan, are the punchline of many transphobic and homophobic jokes. Chandler was embarrassed by his father as a child, and in the most Chandler fashion, he used humor to deflect the jokes away from him. This embarrassment led to an insane amount of mockery of the gay and trans community. The gang of six question Chandler on his father’s genitalia (like why is that necessary??) and continuously use incorrect pronouns. The show also never makes it clear that Chandler’s father is truly trans, allowing Charles to dress in drag as Helen, but never commenting on the true transition process that had occurred. (I also have to mention that Chandler’s father was played by a woman, but to be fair there were not many trans actors known at the time and trans representation was far and few).
Charles makes Chandler just as uncomfortable as Carol and Susan make Ross. In fact, the two women’s relationship seems to make Ross feel emasculated. While the lesbian couple was cutting edge at the time, Carol and Susan never really grew as individuals on the show, and they were not even allowed to kiss in their wedding scene (some states did not even allow the wedding episode to air). Chandler’s father, Carol, and Susan added the laughably low diversity that Friends needed, but the show entirely missed the mark in representing the LGBTQ+ community.
- The One With All of Joey’s Conquests (Objectification of Women)
Joey is known throughout the show as being a player, and if I may, a sleazeball. He often uses his famous pickup line “How you doin’” as he looks up and down a woman’s body, objectifying her. Women are inanimate objects to Joey, a conquest for the night, and a thing to throw away the next day. While he may have found friends in Monica, Phoebe and Rachel, his connection with women never really ventured beyond that. It is no surprise that by the end of the show, Joey is the only one left without a significant other, even if he may have grown as a person throughout the course of the ten seasons.
- The One Where You Can’t Name More Than Three POC (Lack of Diversity)
Racial diversity is truly lacking in Friends and everyone knows it. It’s fascinating that a show based in New York can feature so few people of color. The main characters are all white, cis, and straight and for the most part date white, cis, and straight individuals, with the exception of Ross’s girlfriends Julie and Charlie (and the one episode where he and Joey try to date Gabrielle Union’s character). Halfway through the series, Friends started integrating more people of color as extras, but it was not until season 9 that the first person of color, played by Aisha Tyler as Charlie, got a recurring role in a whopping 9 episodes. To put things into perspective, the series has a total of 236 episodes. Friends needed to do better.
If Friends was being realistic, the casting would/should be representative of the population and not just merely show people who represent diversity for the sake of visibility. In today’s day and age Friends would not be able to get away with it’s stereotyping and objectification of women (and men), homophobic jokes, lack of racial diversity, and weight shaming amongst other things. There are so many more examples and television shows that I could discuss, but for now I’ll leave you thinking about your previous go-to binge-worthy show that in fact, is not worthy at all.