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.