With the recent news of Matthew Perry’s tragic passing, the viewing numbers for Friends, which have always been incredibly high, are likely to soar. I have found Reels and TikTok videos of the show circulating around my For You Page more frequently, with touching tributes and emotional messages pouring in to commemorate the character of Chandler Bing. There is no doubt that the show has maintained its popularity since it was first released in 1994. But rewatching some of these short clips makes me wonder, could it be released today?
The main problem Friends has been called out for is the lack of representation in its cast. The six main actors are all white, slim, straight and stereotypically attractive. The guest cast are also predominantly white, with there only being two non-white actresses appearing (briefly!) throughout the show’s ten seasons.
When there is representation of other identities, they tend to be mocked. For example, Carol and Susan’s lesbian relationship is used as a punchline in the show and their relationship is presented as a gimmick in comparison to the heterosexual relationships. In some cases, the representation is incomplete and inaccurate – with many viewers reporting that due to the portrayal of Chandler’s dad, they believed that trans people and drag queens were the same thing.
The show also presents certain identities as something to be ridiculed. For example, male characters exhibiting ‘feminine’ characteristics are automatically followed up with them being mocked for acting gay, suggesting that this would be a bad thing. Monica being overweight as a teenager is also used as a recurring jibe in the show. The implication is that she is only considered attractive and worthy after she has lost weight, furthered by the fact that ‘fat Monica’ was presented as a sad loner. Finally, there is also frequent sexism and gender stereotyping. When Rachel and Ross hire a fully qualified male nanny, Ross refuses to accept that he can do the job properly. The nanny character himself is portrayed as overly emotional and traditionally ‘feminine,’ reinforcing problematic gender stereotypes associated with women.
As a TV show developed in the 1990s, you could view Friends as simply a “product of its time.” Some may argue that with TV shows being released today showing a wide range of representation, the lack of it in earlier TV shows can be overlooked. Not only this, but the popularity of Friends is largely dependent on its quick-witted humour and relatability. I, like many others, find it to be a particularly good ‘comfort show’ and enjoy the funny skits and overall likeable and engaging characters.
However, noticing the homophobia, sexism and fatphobia that much of this humour is dependent on means that it would be considered problematic if released today. Potentially, we should not be encouraging younger generations to engage with it in the same way that society did at the time of its release. Alternatively, if the show were to be re-released, many of the issues highlighted in the article above could be remedied by including more diversity in the show’s cast and ensuring an accurate, more positive representation of different identities, still accompanied by the show’s characteristic one liners and quick-witted humour.