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FRIENDS: A classic sitcom or another problematic media product?

Falling victim to peer pressure, I first started binge-watching Friends back in 2020. However, as soon as I started watching the show, I was taken aback by utmost disappointment. I realized that the storylines embedded within the show were all laced with problematic gender representation, sexism, borderline sexual harassment, narcissism, jealousy, insecurity, and peak homophobia and transphobia all camouflaged as part of humor.


While it is true that the show is set up some thirty years ago, the way the writers and directors have filmed certain parts of the show is still inexcusable. The sitcom itself revolves around a group of six best friends – Ross and Monica Geller, Rachel Green, Chandler Bing, Joey Tribbiani and Phoebe Buffay, all of whom were involved in extremely problematic and questionable behavior in one or more seasons of the entire show.


Early on in the sitcom, it is revealed that Ross’s ex-wife, Carol, comes out as a lesbian, and this aspect of Ross’s past life was used as a way to ridicule his ex-wife until the very last season of the show. For example, there is this instance where Ross’s son, Ben Geller, is seen playing with dolls. Ross is shown to be extremely upset during this scene, where he also blames Carol and her partner for apparently ‘forcing’ Ben to play with barbie dolls simply because they were a lesbian couple. However, the homophobic tone to the show did not end just here. Chandler was seen to be disappointed with his gay dad throughout the ten seasons, and all of the characters would very subtly uphold Chandler’s homophobic ideas. Because of his father, Chandler was shown to be extremely paranoid about the idea of people considering him gay or ‘too feminine’ and was always seen to be defending his sexuality in front of others. While the addition of a gay character into the show was indeed a brave step considering the era that the show has been shot and filmed, I also feel that in the attempt of trying to dismantle certain biases, the show just ended up reinforcing the same stereotypical narratives for a lot of these ideas. The male nanny scene attached below is another example of this:



People who have seen Friends before would agree with the fact that the way Monica Geller’s character was constantly fat-shamed and made fun of throughout the entirety of the show was an uncomfortable watch. There is this scene during Friends where the gang sits down to play the prom video from Monica, Ross, and Rachel’s high-school era. As soon as young Monica enters the screen eating a sandwich, Joey instantly screams: “Some girl ate Monica.” Towards the end of the show, there was an entire punchline, ‘fat Monica’, to be precise, that had made its way through all ten seasons. The way the writers tried to normalize body shaming by covering it under humoristic remarks is unacceptable.


Although some Friends fans seem to love the idea of Ross and Rachel together, it is not wrong to say that their couple was layered with all forms of toxicity. Ross was controlling and obsessive during many bits and scenes of the sitcom, and this ultimately became a recurring theme throughout the show. It was very disturbing and off putting to watch the part where Rachel is seen working for Mark, and Ross just could not believe that Rachel and Mark were simply colleagues. Ross mailed unprofessional and excessive gifts to Rachel’s office and even stalked her when she was going out for lunch with Mark, creating an atmosphere of idealizing borderline harassment with couples. Ross also undermined all the hard work Rachel was shown to be putting in building an established career. With the representation of Ross’s jealousy and insecurity, Friends reinforced the idea that all successful women are successful at their office or workplace simply because of their sexuality. This, again, was a flawed gender representation and could have been avoided by the creators of the show.


So, is Friends really a classic sitcom, or is it just another problematic media product to have been given birth to during the 1990s? While I do think it is the latter, regardless, the show remains one of the most acclaimed sitcoms till date. If there is one reason why I would want to watch the sitcom again, it is only because of Phoebe Buffay. So, while the show constructed problematic characters like Ross, it also helped build better ones like Phoebe. And that in itself is a success to celebrate.




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All the problematic themes of the show can not be negated but I think we also need to appreciate all the positive and strong messages given. For instance, all female characters were financially independent and did not marry only because they needed a man's "support'. Moreover, Rachel was shown as a single mother hence setting this precedent that women can alone look after themselves and even raise their children. And I, very clearly, remember this dialogue where Rachel says "no uterus no opinion". This is a very empowering statement, reinforcing that men have no right to make decisions on behalf of women,

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Hi Natalia! Thank you for commenting - yes the show definitely had some aspects to it also. I appreciate that you highlighted them. And yes, I agree, all the women in the show were seen to be financially independent as well as self sufficient. That was definitely a refreshing watch.

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the first time i watched friends, i didn't really notice most of these things. however, when i rewatched the sitcom recently, i realised how many ways this show would be cancelled if it was aired now. this isn't just for friends also, other sitcoms like how i met your mother also display very problematic behaviour in many avenues. the shift that has come about in the past decade about political correctness and whats alright to joke about is huge and for a good reason

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Yes, I completely agree!

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I found the final episode of friends so romantic until I took this course. In the episode, Rachel has the chance to go to Paris and pursue her dream job, but she ultimately chooses to stay with Ross out of duty and loyalty. She has to be the one making the sacrifice , she has to be the one giving up on her dreams. Ross has always been problematic with Rachel's career as you mentioned. Rachel's decision reinforces the stereotype that women should put their relationships above their own goals and aspirations. Even in todays world ,this is very prevalent and many female partners quit their jobs to work on their family.Now when I look at this scene , …

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Hi Laiba, thank you for your input. I made a comment above that I would also like to attach here:

I had completely missed out on the last bit of the show in my blog post where Rachel gives up her dream job in Paris in favor of her romantic relationship with Ross. I feel that while these are very subjective choices, when they are portrayed by means of mainstream media, then they seep into the minds of the audiences and eventually become narratives for the entire society to follow. That is what makes these shows so problematic. To establish a better storyline, the writers could have simply shown Ross and Rachel working out despite the distance, or maybe Ross…

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The male nanny scene was just one of many scenes where the fragile masculinity of the three main characters was highlighted. There was a whole fiasco created by Chandler when Joey's roommate Janine started putting flowers or paintings in their apartment. Chandler’s argument comprised of claiming that these feminine objects around the apartment would somehow spill over the femininity into joey therefore he should get rid of them (although flowers or paintings aren't necessarily feminine, to begin with). Such scenes show how fragile their masculinity was. Acts such as applying powder to their face or knitting pot holders made them less of a man.


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Hi Ibrahim, thank you for your input! I completely agree with what you said. The way the three male leads would always gang up and support each other in upholding their fragile and toxic masculinity was indeed a troubling watch. Rather than challenging each other's previously held problematic beliefs, the show just continued to normalize the behavior for audiences as well.

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I think you are absolutely right about how some professions are portrayed as gender specific professions, like the male nanny. There is a scene where Chandler is seen to be making fun of a guy that Monica liked just because he was a 'Nurse'. And we do not see any justification given by the show after Chandler ridicules him for being a Male Nurse, other than the fact that the latter became a male nurse because he wanted to pay for "medical school." I think there was a clear chance of rebutting and challenging the assigned gender norms, if they had come up with a better explanation for Chandler's already problematic joke. They could have set up an example by…

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Hi Sehla, thank you for commenting. Your comment provides great insight into what could have been an alternate course of action to improve the series. You are right - even if the team had considered adding a single scene where they could have shown that Chandler's jokes are being challenged by his inner circle, the entire representation would have been better and different. It would have been a great step towards educating the audiences and breaking certain established stereotypes as well.

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