Friends, one of the most popular television shows in history, was a game-changer during its 10-year run on NBC.
The show, about six friends — Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Ross, Phoebe and Joey, living and struggling in New York City (hey, those oversized apartments were expensive!) was a true celebration of life for twentysomethings: career highs and lows, breakups, babies and self-discovery. And at the crux was unconditional friendship.
Friends does remain timeless. In 2015, Taylor Swift and Lisa Kudrow (who played Phoebe) performed “Smelly Cat” during the singer’s The 1989 World Tour; the phrase “We were on a break!” from the Ross and Rachel “cheating” episode earned an entry in Urban Dictionary; and, in 2019, three pop-up events have honored the show.
However, when the show ran from 1994 to 2004, it was appreciated differently. Body-positivity was not a trending hashtag (nor were hashtags even a thing), activist Tarana Burke had not yet launched the #MeToo movement and breastfeeding definitely wasn’t normalized.
These are six plotlines that might need re-thinking in 2019.
Breastfeeding made the men uncomfortable.
A Season 2 episode, titled “The One With the Breast Milk,” tackled Ross, Joey and Chandler’s aversion to breastfeeding. When the episode aired in 1995, New York’s breastfeeding laws were new — one year prior, the state became the first to pass laws protecting a woman’s right to nurse in public.
However, in fictitious New York City, where two-bedroom apartments were affordable on entry-level salaries, the men of Friends weren’t on board. When Ross’s ex-wife Carol breastfed their son Ben — inside an apartment — Chandler and Joey freaked out.
“Look, will you guys grow up?” said Ross. “This is the most natural, beautiful thing in the world.”
Joey replied, “Yeah, we know, but there’s a baby sucking on it.” At Ross’s encouragement, his friends badger Carol with personal questions. “Does it hurt? How often can you do it?” and “If he blows into one, does the other one get bigger?”
Still, that breastfeeding episode was important, says Katie Foss, Ph.D., a professor of media studies at Middle Tennessee State University. “It was progressive and revolutionary because we weren’t seeing many breastfeeding moms on television,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment.
But now, with the #NormalizeBreastfeeding social media hashtag empowering women to nurse in public, Chandler and Joey’s morbid fascination feels creepy, not funny.
“Even today, we still haven’t explored breastfeeding television characters beyond the educated white woman,” Foss says. “We also need scenes that both educate and treat nursing as no big deal.”
Chandler’s transphobic attitude.
In Season 7, we’re introduced to Chandler’s estranged father Helena Handbasket, played by Kathleen Turner, who starred in a Las Vegas drag show.
As such, Chandler was ashamed to invite his dad to his and Monica’s wedding. “Look, trust me, you don’t want him there either, OK?” he said to Monica and Phoebe. “Nobody’s going to be staring at the bride when the father of the groom is wearing a backless dress.”
Chandler reveals that when he was 14, his father attended his swim meets dressed as various female Hollywood celebrities and had sex with a man named “Mr. Garibaldi.”
Everyone cracks transphobic jokes throughout the episode: When Monica’s father Jack Geller met Chandler’s mother Nora (played by Morgan Fairchild), Jack asked, “So are you his mother or his father?” When his wife reprimanded him, Jack replied, “What, I’ve never seen one before” and “I didn't even have a chance to act as though I'm OK with it.”
When Turner’s character runs into Nora and insults her dress, Nora replies, “Don’t you have a little too much penis to be wearing a dress like that?” And when the waitress (played by Alexis Arquette) approaches Monica and Chandler’s table at the club and asks, “Has someone taken your order yet?” Monica says, “She did. Um, he did. She? I’m sorry, I’m new,” to hearty laughter.
In 2018, Turner told the Gay Times how she came to play Helena. “How they approached me with it was ‘Would you like to be the first woman playing a man playing a woman?’ I said yes, because there weren’t many drag/trans people on television at the time.”
Gillian Branstetter of the National Center for Transgender Equality says transgender people didn’t have much media visibility. “Even though the term ‘transgender’ was coined in the 1960s, during the Friends era, transgender people were depicted as devious or disgusting, or as drag queens and sex workers,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Transgender people needed more options — especially for people who didn’t have the vocabulary to describe their experiences.”
Due to poor media representation, says Branstetter, “People are mystified about where transgender people came from. Well, they’ve been here all along.”
Body-shaming was just fine.
“Fat Monica,” a name for the character before she lost weight after college, was always hungry — a misconception about overweight people — and teased.
“Monica, you look gorgeous,” said Rachel’s mother. “Oh my. The last time I saw you, it was eat or be eaten.” Watching a high school prom tape of Rachel and Monica, Joey pointed at the screen, shouting, “Some girl ate Monica!”
Even her name felt unfair. As Holly Harper smartly wrote in “Fat Monica From Friends Isn’t Even Fat” published on The Odyssey Online, “Not only do the stereotypes present a problem, the use of the nickname Fat Monica for a skinny actress in a body suit is just offensive. Even in a body suit, Courteney Cox, the actress who portrayed Monica, could hardly be described as fat.”
Courteney Cox wore a “fat suit” to play her character, a costume that onscreen actors use today.
In 2017, This Is Us actor Chris Sullivan defended wearing the suit during Watch What Happens Live. “We currently live in a culture where outrage is a bit of a hobby for some people. If they’re not outraged about something, they’re totally bored,” said Sullivan, according to Us Weekly. “It’s a tool. It’s a costume that I put on. Logistically speaking, it allows me to travel back and forth through time when Toby was not as heavy as he is now.”
In 2018, actress Debby Ryan who plays Patty in the Netflix show Insatiable, was cautious at enhancing her body through costume, according to Teen Vogue. Ryan told the magazine she was afraid “it would almost be done in parody like in Friends.”
Teacher-student relationships weren’t that controversial.
In Season 6, Ross worked as a paleontology professor at New York University and met a student named Elizabeth (whose suggested age is 20), 10 years his junior. When Elizabeth suggested they date because the semester had finished and, “you’re not my teacher anymore,” Ross nervously agreed, despite university rules that forbade teacher-student relationships.
Ross’s biggest concern was that the relationship would be “frowned upon,” so their romance was a secret, with Ross pushing Elizabeth into a storefront and ducking in Central Perk when they ran into his colleagues.
“Today, an intimate relationship between a teacher and a student would be treated differently,” Margaret L. Signorella, a professor of psychology and women's gender and sexuality studies at Penn State Brandywine, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Whether that student is in grad school or taking classes from that teacher matters — some schools allow such relationships if there is no evaluation or direct supervision of the student.”
The dynamics of Ross and Elizabeth’s relationship may have been humorously explored — but that was before the #MeToo movement encouraged women to publicly challenge abuses of power.
The regular cast was mostly white.
Friends took place in New York City, recently ranked by a WalletHub study as the third most diverse U.S. city (falling behind Jersey City and Houston, respectively). Yet the main characters were white, not representative of the estimated 8 million-person city.
Ross’s girlfriends, Dr. Charlie Wheeler (played by black actress Aisha Tyler) and Julie (played Asian American actress Lauren Tom), were exceptional guest stars.
In February, Tyler commented on the show’s homogenous cast. “People of color were always aware of it [the lack of diversity],” she told The Guardian. “Even at the time, people were constantly pointing out that Friends wasn’t as diverse as the Manhattan of the real world.”
Tyler added, “My character wasn’t written on the page to be a woman of color, and I auditioned against a lot of other women of different ethnic backgrounds, so I like to think they picked me because I was the right person for the role. But I knew it was something new for the show, and it was really important because, the fact of the matter was, it was a show set in Manhattan that was almost entirely Caucasian. It was an unrealistic representation of what the real world looked like.”
Foss tells Yahoo Entertainment that mostly-white casts seen on “yuppie” television shows (focusing on young professionals,) such as Seinfeld and Friends, were “a step backwards from the increasing diversity in TV of the 1970s and 1980s.”
Before then, she adds, family-oriented shows Webster, Different Strokes and Punky Brewster were integrating diverse characters through best friends or parental figures. “Although this was still an era of tokenism, so interracial relationships weren’t fully explored for their complexities,” explains Foss.
Cultural appropriation was a gag.
When everyone tags along with Ross to Barbados for a paleontology conference, Monica’s hair gets frizzy in the humidity. Tired of jokes about resembling Diana Ross and Buckwheat, she visits a local salon, leaving with cornrows and beaded braids.
The look frightens Chandler. “I can see your scalp,” he exclaims. And later, “I hate them.” After Monica gets one braid stuck on the bathroom shower rod while singing the Bob Marley song, “No Woman, No Cry,” she covers her cornrows with a Jamaican-style hat.
According to Anita Jones Thomas, PhD, executive vice president and provost at St. St. Catherine University in Minnesota, Monica’s hairstyle is “an example of white privilege, because there's nothing outside the cultural framework of what the main characters bring to the table,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment.
Thomas says the scene in which Monica playfully hit Chandler with her hair is racially offensive. “Beads are a source of pride and significance for many black people,” she says, “and that’s minimized in the scene.”
There was a fun way to depict Monica wearing a traditional black hairstyle, says Thomas. “It would have been interesting to have someone, a black person, call her out.”
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