Friends is still popular, but is it still progressive?

Content warning: references to rape and transphobia 

More than 25 years after its first episode aired, Friends is among the few television series where its sustained popularity demonstrates just how well it manages to strike a chord across generations. Yet since its 2018 renaissance – the streaming giant Netflix paid $100 million just to retain streaming rights throughout 2019 – critics have re-evaluated the show’s legacy and how poorly it has aged.

Media outlets and social media alike have suggested just how out of touch the show was during its 10-year run, noting that homophobic, transphobic and size-ist jokes seeped in throughout: “Could Friends *be* any more problematic?” ran one headline in I-D magazine.

Despite living in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, the show only managed to cast two major, yet short-lived, characters of colour. Speaking to The Guardian last year, Aisha Tyler, who played Ross Geller’s (David Schwimmer) girlfriend Dr Charlie Wheeler, spoke out about the show’s diversity problem. She argued that the sitcom “was an unrealistic representation of what the real world looked like.” Tyler claims her role was an important step for the show because “the fact of the matter was, it was a show set in Manhattan that was almost entirely Caucasian.”

Other elements have also hardly stood the test of time. Millennial audiences have picked up on transphobia within Friends, namely the running gags surrounding Chandler’s (Matthew Perry) transgender father (Kathleen Turner) and Brad Pitt’s appearance in the infamous Thanksgiving episode, in which his character spreads a rumour that Rachel (Jennifer Anniston) is a hermaphrodite. The show’s co-creator, Marta Kauffman, defended the characters, maintaining that “we didn’t have the knowledge of trans people back then”, however continued that “it really is a period piece” and that “I might have not done the hermaphrodite stuff today.” Audiences also argue that gags about Monica’s (Courtney Cox) size in some episodes would not hold up against 21st century beauty standards, nor would Joey’s (Matt LeBlanc) attitude around women, be acceptable in wake of the #MeToo movement.

It may be easy to pin these problems on the time when the show aired: one may be hard pressed to find a sitcom that was, in the modern sense, progressive. Indeed, the phenomenon of commenting on problematic subplots within 90s TV shows is hardly new. The 2017 documentary, The Problem with Apu, investigates the issue of the perpetuated offensive stereotype of Asian and Indian ethnicities within the Simpsons, and has since encouraged the likes of other TV shows to be scrutinised: the ‘#WokeCharlotte’ movement from Sex and the City suggests just how un-woke the programme is in reality.

However, these gags may be the outcome of greater issues surrounding the programme’s production. In an almost forgotten 2004 lawsuit, Amaani Lyle, an assistant in the writer’s room for Friends, sued on the basis that she was made to listen to writers joke about the character Joey raping Rachel, watch them pantomime masturbating, and mock “black ghetto talk”. The case was ruled against, with the judge citing that the writers’ behaviour was essential for a “creative environment,” yet would have almost certainly held up in court today.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Schwimmer recognises these concerns, stating “I’m very aware of my privilege as a heterosexual white male,” but he defends Friends against the millennial critique about how well the show has aged. While he was “well aware of the lack of diversity,” Schwimmer also reasons that much of Friends is being taken out of context, asserting “you have to look at it from the point of view of what the show was trying to do at the time.”

Schwimmer is indeed correct on how progressive several elements of the show actually were. He claims that “the show was ground-breaking in its time for the way in which it handled so casually sex, protected sex, gay marriage and relationships.” He referenced the show showing one of American TV’s first gay weddings, which earned the series three nominations, and a win for Outstanding Comedy Series at the Media Awards of the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD.

Its current popularity may make it easy to forget that Friends, and shows like it which are now subject to Twitter scrutiny, were produced in a ‘pre-woke’ era devoid of many minority role models which are now more prevalent in television. Will and Grace, which first aired 5 years after Friends, was revered for challenging heterosexual norms on television; yet its return in 2017 brought about severe criticism for its stereotyping of gay men.

Ray Bradford, director of entertainment media of GLAAD, has also defended Friends’ portrayal of gay people. “Images don’t exist in a vacuum – you look at where they were at the time of progression of TV… and also where we are now and the standard,” Bradford said in 2018. “When I looked at Kathnleen Turner’s character, there was nothing tragic about it. It was not a story line depicting her as a killer or a psychopath or a sex worker or anything like that.”

Friends may not be the most representative television series to date, yet it is difficult to understand just how much of an influence shows like it have on society – look at just how many on air meet today’s progressive standards, least of all one of the most contentious shows, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, featuring a very non-stereotypical gay character.

Many running jokes on Friends are at least quarrelsome, and it is definitely important to comment on them in relation to modern standards of acceptability, yet such criticism serves as a reminder of how far the idea of what is and isn’t acceptable has developed. However, to criticise the show to a point that certain content should never have been allowed to air, as some suggest, arguably denies the existence of a progressive moment in television that has got us to where we are today.

Image: Armigo~commonswiki via commons.wikimedia.org

 

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