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29/05/2020 The Communication Science magazine

Why Friends was really, really problematic

The famous 90s sitcom Friends did not age well. Author Emma takes us on a journey through blatant homophobia, transphobia and a parade of toxic masculinity.


I have a confession to make: Friends is my favorite TV show. I know, I know: how can I still like it in 2019? In the midst of bandwagon hate trends on every single social media platform, Friends did not remain unharmed, as the majority of the Internet population deems it as boring, bland, and just overall a terrible sitcom.

I admit it, like many before me, I fell into the trap and got infatuated by its nostalgic aesthetic and sarcastic jokes, which convinced me to watch the show… more times than I probably should have. It’s my comfort show, so it’s obviously difficult for me to be completely unbiased while discussing it. However, intrigued by the critics, I too had a look at it from an outsider’s perspective and suddenly everything was clear: Friends is really, really homophobic.

The series completely redefined modern television and humor in the 90s and paved the way for many of the most popular shows of the early 2000s – like How I Met Your Mother and New Girl –, so much so that its audience has not yet scampered, as it still remains the most viewed sitcom amongst all streaming sites. For such an iconic program, you’d expect it to be the epitome of comedy in good taste, however, right now it’s being widely criticized by the younger generation for its underlying yet somehow blatant homophobia, transphobia and parade of toxic masculinity.

The three main male characters – Ross (David Schwimmer), Joey (Matt LeBlanc) and Chandler (Matthew Perry) – show time after time how uncomfortable they are in situations involving LGBT+ characters. Given that Ross’ first wife – Carol (Jane Sibbet) – ended their marriage after coming out as a lesbian and the two seemed to have no hard feelings for each other after the fatal split, you would expect him to be at ease around LGBT+ individuals. Unfortunately, that is far from the truth.

In the episode “The one with the male nanny” (season 9 episode 6), his close-mindedness is particularly transparent. When Ross and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) decide to hire a nanny for their daughter, she decides to employ a man for the job, since he is by far the most qualified candidate, but Ross is extremely uncomfortable with it. He repeatedly states that he must be gay, as no “real man” would ever choose to work in such a female-dominated field.

In fact, Susan and Carol’s relationship never had a proper storyline

Additionally, when his ex-wife decides to get married to her partner Susan (Jessica Hecht), he doesn’t hide his discomfort with the wedding – not even one bit, therefore ruining the fact that Friends was one of the first shows to air an openly gay relationship on screen. In fact, Susan and Carol’s relationship never had a proper storyline, as it seems to only serve as a tool to make Ross uncomfortable and emasculate him.

However, Ross is not the only one with a toxic mindset about lesbians: Joey has one as well and it’s pretty obvious. He constantly oversexualizes the idea of two women being intimate or in love with each other, making jokes all the time to his female friends, as he appears to believe that girls can only be physical with one another for a man’s pleasure.

Chandler is the character whose storyline is closer to the LGBT+ community, given that his father came out during the son’s childhood. Nevertheless, whenever he discusses this topic, he doesn’t even attempt to hide how mortified he feels about having a “gay father”, and the way the rest of the characters use the subject to tease him constantly on the show does not improve the situation. However, Chandler’s father actual sexual orientation or gender identity were never confirmed on the show. Even though the gang refer to “him” as a gay drag queen and use male pronouns, the most avid viewers of the series have noticed that “he” seems to present “himself” as a woman at all times. Therefore, many accused the show of misgendering them, by using the wrong pronouns and refusing to use their preferred female name – Helena.

Once again, similarly to Susan and Carol’s relationship, this LGBT+ character is merely used as a background prompt, to add to Chandler’s “humiliating” sob story, instead of being portrayed as an actual person.

It still influences our social perception of the LGBT+ community and sexualities with its distorted version of comedic bigotry

This narrative of completely eclipsing LGBT+ storylines was carried out throughout all the ten seasons of the series, resulting in a sitcom about 6 white straight cis individuals and their bad romantic experiences, narrated with obnoxious laugh tracks. Sure, all of that is sadly true, there’s no point in denying that. However, what the show’s defenders claim most do not take into account is the historical and social context of Friends.

As they say, it was the 90s after all: TV networks could barely have a POC actor play a role with an actual storyline and depth, it’s a bit unrealistic to expect them to have portrayed a LGBT+ character properly and respectfully.

However, even taking that into account, the show was still extremely problematic back then and definitely did not age well. Friends was an award-winning sitcom that revolutionized pop culture and became a trend to follow for other series and, unfortunately, still is. Even 25 years after its debut, it remains unmatched in regards to its audience, however that just means that more and more people are witnessing all these toxic messages and making them theirs.

As it continues to have an impact on our society, it still influences our social perception of the LGBT+ community and sexualities with its distorted version of comedic bigotry. That’s just adding fuel to the fire, as the LGBT+ community still faces ridicule nowadays and certainly does not need a major TV show in history mocking it. At the end of the day, no one is stopping you – or me – to enjoy it, but you cannot be hypocritical about it: Friends is a show about 6 white straight cis individuals who play cruel pranks on each other and treat being gay as a joke.

So, don’t be surprised if your non-straight friends don’t enjoy the show as much as you do: not everyone enjoys being treated like a punchline.

Cover: ANP, Kippa

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