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The one with the controversy: Is Friends as insensitive as everyone says it is?

ByAddison Baker

Feb 1, 2018

The renowned sitcom Friends, which first aired in 1994, has joined the list of TV shows migrating to Netflix. Running for over 10 years, Friends is a celebrated sitcom due to a combination of both the cast and the writing talent. Since the show’s appearance on UK Netflix in late 2017, however, it has come under serious media scrutiny for being homophobic, transphobic, sexist and ageist. Publications such as The Independent, Metro, The Guardian and The Daily Mail have reported on the media frenzy – or more accurately, the Twitter frenzy – that the show’s addition to the streaming service has led to.

Most arguments claiming Friends to be problematic share reservations on three specific themes; those that seem to inspire the most emotional response as well as pertain most currently to modern issues, namely: homophobia, age-gaps and body-shaming.

Instances of some far-fetched criticism involving age include Monica and Richard’s relationship, in which Richard was at least 25 years her senior. A plethora of people have taken to Twitter to call this relationship ‘disturbing’ and have linked it to the current #MeToo scandal, claiming that it perpetuates a Lolita-like perverse attraction of older men to young girls. This is despite the fact that Monica was nearly 30 years old, and their relationship consisted of no known abuse. In fact the whole nature of the on-screen couple’s relationship was contrary to the arguments made against it — it was about love, and overcoming societal judgment and bias for the sake of happiness.

Current viewers of the show claim that there is a tasteless and cruel depiction of obesity and being overweight. These comments cite episodes where Monica flashes-back to when she was overweight in high school and the group makes discriminatory and surprised remarks. In ‘The One That Could Have Been’, an alternate reality is depicted when Monica never lost the excess weight. She is shown dancing around while eating a bagel: a scene that Twitter members have found particularly upsetting. This is an example of the writers choosing a predictable crowd-pleasing gimmick, despite its connotations. This is an ongoing issue today as well, however. Mike and Molly, for example, tells the story of a couple who met at Overeaters Anonymous. The near-entirety of the programme consists of weight-centric comedy.

Homophobia is by far the most disputed and polarising issue, however. Remarks such as “are you gay now?” after Joey dances with a man, or Chandler fretting that he seems homosexual when meeting women, definitely both warrant some eyebrow raises nowadays. Yet, Friends was one of the first shows on air to feature a same-sex marriage, as well as a same-sex couple raising a child together. Not to say that this excuses discrimination, however it does somewhat clarify the intentions of the writers.

Another show that has fallen under a similar conversational-umbrella of criticism recently is Stranger Things. Critics commented on the lack of female roles, as well as the undermined wife voice in its marital dynamics. These denunciations have been shrugged off, however, because Stranger Things is “based in a different time”, and that was the reality of the decade it is set in.

What the audience of Friends fails to remember is that it actually was a different time when the show was written, filmed and produced; 1994 may not seem like that long ago but relatively it was. To put it in perspective, Google wasn’t even invented until two years later. Even the last season is now 14 years old – look at how much the world has changed since then.

The real question that emerges from this mess of tweets and Daily Mail articles is whether or not every light-hearted sitcom needs to be entirely morally just and socially aware? Or whether it’s enough to watch Friends and just to be aware that not everything is entirely correct in 2018, so long as you know you aren’t homophobic yourself?
Friends, despite its blunders, is a pop-culture staple, and has been for the past decade. Perhaps, then, we should consider this as more of a lesson of awareness as opposed to a rejection of the show altogether.

Image: the maddox e machocarioca via Wikimedia Commons

By Addison Baker

Addison is an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and resident editor of the TV & radio section of The Student, winning the best writer prize in December 2017. She also writes for ShortCom publications specializing in interviews of Comedians. Addison is also a tech supervisor/production manager at Monkey Barrel Comedy and dabbles in stand-up comedy herself.

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