So, No One Told You Life Used To Be This Way… How does FRIENDS stand up?
Nicole Alexander walks us through her experience of F.R.I.E.N.D.S from the first time around, versus life as we now know it.
Ever since Netflix gifted us with every episode of Friends, I, like many other Elder Millennials, have been sipping at the sweet nectar of nostalgia. Binge-watching my way through each series until Netflix checks you’re still alive with its oh-so-helpful, ‘Are you still watching?’ messages (don’t you judge me, Netflix, maybe I don’t want to go outside).
Now with its 25th Anniversary approaching, Friends is part of the cultural zeitgeist again – if it ever really left. My friends and I still quote it with hapless regularity and I will describe my partner as ‘My Chandler’ and expect people to know what I mean. But now a whole new generation is discovering Friends and a lot of them are not liking what they see.
I may view this show with rose-tinted glasses; I grew up with it after all. It was one of the few shows I could watch with both my mum and dad and laugh along with them. I was there: to wonder what would happen when Ross said Rachel’s name at the altar; to gasp when Ross and Rachel emerged from the Vegas chapel; to secretly root for Joey and Rachel to become FBO (or whatever the early noughties equivalent was). I am still comforted by Friends; there is something soothing about its sassy one-liners and canned laughter. So, when younger Millennials and Generation Zs started complaining about the content, I couldn’t help but feel a little protective.
But then I thought again –because the 90’s was a different time. I mean, we didn’t burn witches or anything, but it was pre-Social Media, pre-contouring, pre-Trump, pre- #metoo and pre-hashtags in general. The characters are doing such quaint things like using landlines and chatrooms. There are six people in coffee shop (that’s not a chain) and none of them have a smartphone in their hand. I can just picture the Friend’s cast nowadays; Monica and Rachel taking selfies, Phoebe updating her Tumblr, Chandler tweeting all his jokes instead of sharing with the group, Joey swiping through his Tinder and Ross correcting Wikipedia articles.
Under all reminders of a bygone era there are many issues with the show, that us now viewing find problematic. I decided to discuss the most obvious.
I admit as we are discussing a sitcom this is kind of a moot point; after all, the audience members are trying to escape reality. However, as a poor, cynical almost-30-year-old: certain things really annoy me! 23-year olds living in massive apartments in NYC; that they can afford rent and limitless coffee on a waitress’s and a sous chef’s salary. Oh, and aboutbout their careers? Everyone seems to get their dream job with relative ease. They work a semi-demeaning and low paid job then a couple of episodes later they are at the top of the career ladder working for Bloomingdales (looking at you, Rachel). They also have a lot of free time for people with such demanding careers. Anyone past their mid-twenties knows how hard it is to get more than two friends in the same room at the same time. But they seem to be able to hang out – a lot. Almost as if the show depends on it!
This is a bone of contention in today’s world. Treating homosexuality like a punchline or an insult was a staple in a lot of old TV sitcoms; Friends is hardly the worst offender, but it does have many offensive moments. Chandler seems to be the focus of many of these ‘gay panic’ storylines, and he seems to take real offence from people assuming he is gay, whether it be his friends or his colleagues. He even spends an episode obsessively asking everyone what ‘quality’ he possesses that makes him read as gay.
It is perhaps the treatment of Helena, Chandler’s parent, that is the most jarring element in retrospect. As the headliner of a gay burlesque show in Vegas, Helena is brought up throughout the show’s run for supposedly comic effect as the reason for many of Chandler’s childhood traumas. We don’t meet Helena until Season Seven when Monica convinces Chandler to go to Vegas to tell her about their engagement. It is here we find out that Chandler’s parent has repeatedly tried to contact him and Chandler has cruelly rebuffed these efforts each time.
As a child I assumed Chandler’s dad was transvestite. It is never explicitly stated within the show, though now it seems she was trans, or a drag artist, or indeed both. It is then particularly cruel that all the characters referred to her as a man in a dress and the ‘A-man-duh’ joke.
However, despite the now-uncomfortable jokes, at the time Friends had elements of being a very progressive show. I believe this can be seen in Carol and Susan’s relationship. Carol is Ross’s ex-wife, who left Ross for Susan. Despite their relationship beginning as an affair, Ross is always portrayed as the ‘bad guy’. He is mean to Susan and constantly belittles Carol and Susan’s relationship (a relationship which lasts throughout the ten years’ airtime).
On a personal level I’d like to think Friends had a hand in my eventual realisation of my sexuality. Seeing these two beautiful, stylish women in a relationship? It was so unlike the stereotype of lesbians I was accustomed to seeing. Friends was also the second US sitcom to portray a same sex wedding, something I had never seen before.
There is no real defence for this. One of Monica’s main character traits is that she used to be fat,something her friends tease her mercilessly for. The series is sprinkled, rather liberally, with fat jokes aimed at Monica. She even pokes fun at her teenage-self for being so grossly overweight, as if it was a character flaw. There are too many incidents to name them all, but the one that always seemed the cruellest to me was the one in Season Six, episode fifteen. In ‘The One That Could Have Been’, Monica wonders what her life would be like if she was still fat. She tells Chandler he wouldn’t be dating her (like, duh right?) and Chandler quite rightly answers:
Chandler: You guys really think I’m that shallow?
Ross: No, I just think Monica was that fat.
Because fat people don’t deserve love, right?
There is also the matter of Monica and Rachel’s figures. When I was a kid, I took it for granted that Monica and Rachel were so small; after all, pretty girls are supposed to be thin aren’t, they? This is drilled into us from a very young age. Now when I watch the reruns I must be prepared to feel gargantuan. Even Courtney Cox (Monica) came out recently saying she was “too thin” on the show. Similarly, Lisa Kudrow, a tall lady like myself, said she felt like a ‘mountain’ compared to her co-stars. This is a woman who is incredibly intelligent and speaks several languages, but she’s got to be petite, right? It’s all that matters.
Okay, so maybe if you examine it too closely Friends is not the progressive bandwagon we once all latched ourselves onto. But we probably shouldn’t look to a fictional group of white, middle class New Yorkers for realism. Maybe we can put Friends in the context of its time. Much like Tom Sawyer, it can show us how far we’ve come and what life used to be like for marginalised groups. Personally, Friends still makes me giggle even when it’s not been my day, month or even a… you get the jist.