Culture

Friends Declared Highly Problematic

Friends (NBC)
Young Netflix viewers are triggered.

They promised they’d be there for us. Instead they betrayed us. Our friends at Friends sat on a sofa of lies. They sipped lattes of hate. Knowing what we know now, the Central Perk logo was the swastika of its time. Could this show be any more white supremacist?

Having been given a new life on Netflix two decades after it debuted on NBC in 1994, Friends is being seen by a suspicious new generation with beady new eyes. Those eyes are more determined to find something to be offended by than anyone was in the 1990s, when the Paul Reveres fighting the political-correctness revolution were already warning you, “The idiocy is coming! The idiocy is coming!”

“Millennials watching Friends on Netflix shocked by storylines,” ran the headline of a piece by Ilana Kaplan, writing from New York for the Independent. Examples of the kinds of things Millennials apparently find shocking: “New audiences claimed that Rachel would have been fired for sexual harassment because she hires an assistant who isn’t qualified for the position because she wants to date him.” Fat jokes — “Some girl ate Monica!” cried Joey (Matt LeBlanc) — are also now out of bounds, the Independent huffs.

Using the royal “we” for extra authority, Cosmopolitan writer Katie Stow says “the show is getting ripped to shreds for its ‘problematic’ content and — even as hardcore fans — we can’t help but agree,” scoring the sitcom for “chucking offensive and inappropriate hand grenades all over every episode.” This must be the first time in recorded history that anyone compared Friends’ cutesy banter to hand grenades.

Working up a Cory Booker level of manufactured anger, Buzzfeed calls Friends “F***ing Infuriating,” citing among other transgressions the episode where Ross is taken aback when his son plays with a Barbie doll, the way everyone mocks Joey when he likes girly stuff, and “the homophobic and transphobic jokes about Chandler’s dad,” who was referred to on the show as a “drag queen,” named Helena Handbasket, and played by Kathleen Turner.

“I have binge-watched Friends,” says Lauren Smith of Thought Catalog in a particularly weepy confessional, adding, “I feel flooded with guilt afterwards” and “every episode leaves me cringing” because of the “blatant misogyny, homophobia, body-shaming, and — despite being set in the most racially diverse city in the world — the whitest cast you’ve ever seen.”

In the Globe and Mail, John Doyle asks, “Is nostalgia for Friends all about white privilege?” citing a chat-show appearance in which Oprah Winfrey suggested there should be a black friend. “It didn’t happen,” Doyle says. “When Winfrey made the remark, Friends ranked third overall in the U.S. Nielsen ratings, yet sat at 111th out of 140 prime-time network shows in black households.” The smoking gun!

Over at Salon, we learn that Chandler (Matthew Perry) “is the worst, and he’s also pretty homophobic,” while Slate calls Chandler’s treatment of his father “appalling.”

Let’s break down these complaints.

Rachel was a workplace sexual harasser. That was a female-empowerment storyline suggesting women can turn the tables on men, both by being the boss and by using their power to seduce. Not that many men would complain about being sexually harassed by Jennifer Aniston.

The show was white-privileged/non-diverse/just plain racist. Almost nothing about Friends reflected reality — not the airplane-terminal size of the living room, not the setup-punchline dialogue, not the farcical situations — except for its homogeneity. New York City in the 1990s (and today) may be a diverse city, but go to any restaurant in Manhattan and report back on what you see. White people still mainly hang out with white people. Black people still mainly hang out with black people. Moreover, as on Friends, people further sort themselves out by education, age, and even job category: Twentysomething professionals from selective colleges mainly hang out with other twentysomething professionals from selective colleges. The show is called Friends, not Crash.

The (over)use of gay-panic jokes involving Chandler and Joey may be hackery, but it isn’t hateful.

‐Friends is homophobic, or transphobic. The word “transphobic” barely existed in the 1990s because everyone thought transvestites were hilarious, including the transvestites themselves, who embraced the term “drag queen.” The word “transgender” was barely used either, and the storyline about Chandler’s dad was about the son’s growing acceptance. If you can’t see the humor in the situation, you wouldn’t make much of a comedy writer. As for the “homophobia,” the show’s co-creator David Crane, who wrote many episodes, is gay. Did he hate himself? Did he employ writers who hated him? It’s okay to make fun of your own tribe, but anyway what Friends did was find comedy in all the discomfort with homosexuality, just as black comics mine racism for comedy. The show won a GLAAD Media Award in 1996 for the way it handled the lesbian affair of Ross’s (David Schwimmer’s) ex-wife. The (over)use of gay-panic jokes involving Chandler and Joey may be hackery, but it isn’t hateful.

Monica was fat-shamed. Please. Courteney Cox in a fat suit is comedy gold. And Monica’s battle with her weight led to the single best joke in the history of Friends, when everyone looked at a prom video of Monica. “The camera adds ten pounds!” she said. Replied Chandler, “So how many cameras were actually on you?”

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