Friends wasn’t perfect.
If any “You Know You’re a 90s Kid If…” article is indicative enough, there’s nothing Gen-Y millennials yearn for more than the rose-colored nostalgia of the 1990s. And in some ways, they aren’t wrong. Economic prosperity and GDP growth surged throughout the Clinton administration, children played outside before the dawn of the Digital Age, Kurt Cobain popularized flannel shirts, and Brad and Jen reigned as the golden couple of Hollywood. Issues of race, gender, and sexuality were beginning to shape American consciousness, while sitcoms such as Seinfeld and Friends depicted white, straight, middle-class Manhattanites navigating their way through their 20’s. While LGBTQ rights and gender politics took hold during the new millennium, you were unlikely to find such diversity on your television screen.
It’s not completely fair to examine Friends from the modern vantage point of a more socially conscious 21st century, but in many ways, the sitcom about six single 20-somethings dealing with love and life in New York City defined an entire generation. Since the Friends finale aired in 2004, 36 states have legalized same-sex marriage, hate crimes based on sexuality or gender identity have been made punishable by federal law, and the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was repealed in 2011. Writers David Crane and Marta Kauffman created the series during an era where the Defense of Marriage Act forbade recognition of same-sex unions so it’s easy to defend the show as a “product of its time.” Since its Jan. 1 arrival on Netflix, however, viewers have tuned in to see how the sitcom holds up eleven years after its finale.
Aside from calamity of Ross and Rachel’s “we were on a break” argument, the most popular running joke in the series is the hilarity behind Chandler Bing’s assumed homosexuality. Chandler, defined in the first season as having a “quality” of gayness about him, remains in constant paranoia over his inadequate masculinity. Homophobia on the show is such a highly contested topic that user Tijana Mamula compiled a 50-minute video of Friends’ running gay jokes. We watch as Chandler admits to liking the Moulin Rouge soundtrack, expresses a lack of knowledge on football, waxes Joey’s eyebrows, and is set up by his co-worker on a date with another man. Chandler’s “gay panic” becomes the butt of every joke—he can’t give Joey a prolonged hug or listen to show tunes without questioning his sexuality.
Coupled with this fact is the show’s treatment of trans-sexuality through its portrayal of Chandler’s father, played by Kathleen Turner. Chandler recounts his humiliating childhood with gender specific digs at his father—showing up to his swim meets dressed as Hollywood starlets, sleeping with the pool boy, and performing in a Las Vegas burlesque show titled Viva Las Gaygas. Chandler openly mocks his father, who identifies as female, with such contempt that he refuses to invite her to his wedding until pressured by Monica into reconciliation.
Masculinity itself is constantly questioned on Friends. Ross, who is viewed as sensitive, can’t enjoy a melon-flavored cocktail, wear a pink sweater, or bring his “girly” detergent to the laundromat without becoming the punchline of every joke. Ross himself is susceptible to gender policing when he deters his son from playing with Barbie dolls by pushing him to play with Tonka trucks and G.I. Joes. Ross even fires a sensitive male nanny, Sandy, out of discomfort with his assumed sexuality and male emotion. Joey and Ross can’t take a nap together without having their masculinity questioned while Chandler’s inadequacy with women makes him “less of a man.” One scene sees a bunny-outfitted Chandler and a potato-clad Ross literally duke out their masculinity, arm-wrestling to affirm who is the more physically strong of the two.
In retrospect, Friends wasn’t perfect, just like the 1990s wasn’t perfect and 2015 isn’t perfect either. While the show contained misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic humor, Friends also depicted Carol and Susan, the show’s token lesbian couple, as one of the most stable and well-developed relationships of the series. Similarly, homosexual-related humor on the show often exposed homophobes as foolish and forced audiences to examine LGBTQ issues. Maybe in 2015, Chandler would have come to terms with his femininity, Monica wouldn’t have to shed 100 lbs. to be deemed worthy of romantic fulfillment, and Ross wouldn’t have cheated on Rachel with that copy girl—I’m confident on all but the last one.
Featured Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Television