Revisiting Friends in 2017
It was late December. Having just finished (what will hopefully turn out to be) the worst finals week of my undergraduate life, I needed to do something that would entertain without educating, requiring thought, or upsetting me. This—along with an offhand comment from my mom about old TV shows—is what led me to Friends.
I watched Friends all through break. As I slowly recovered from finals, I lay in bed shamelessly, nearly demolishing four seasons. For a while, it was like a magic pill; starting with Season 2, though, doubts began to climb in. I didn’t care about any of the characters, but their actions revealed truths about the late 90s that my dead brain wasn’t ready to absorb. For one, there was the expected sex obsession of Chandler and Joey, the two “regular guys” in the six-person friend group. A straight man does something nice for Rachel, and Ross, her ever-jealous boyfriend, claims he’s just trying to get in her pants. And Joey agrees: “A man is only nice to a woman for sex.” In the eyes of that era’s media—no comment about the current era’s media—men didn’t really like women, but men did really like having sex with them. Things were different in the 90s, though, so I was ready to ignore that dynamic, despite its unavoidable, thematic presence in every episode.
Then, of course, there was the un-ironic belief that women can’t play sports, even if they are unusual enough to know how. In one Thanksgiving episode, there’s a girls vs. boys flag football game, and Phoebe says—no joke intended— “But how are we going to beat them? They’re boys!” This came up again with playing poker, going to hockey games, getting into fights, asking people out… In each case, the creators of the show were careful to sneak in an exception—Ross is a monogamous, non-hyper-sexual man, while Monica, his sister, is actually pretty good at football—but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re setting up a problematic norm.
Beyond the definitive gender roles that Friends openly enforces,—“This is a girls’ apartment. That is a guys’ apartment” or “You don’t tell a guy that you’re looking for a serious relationship”—there are sinister powers at play that Friends doesn’t quite seem to catch. While there are, of course, non-heterosexual characters, the general rule is that the main characters ought to be surprised by them, and offended whenever anyone thinks they themselves aren’t heterosexual. Take the episode where Chandler tries to avoid being seen as gay, or the one where Joey goes dancing with a man and Monica says, “Are you gay yet?”. The fact that Ross’s ex-wife Carol is a lesbian never ceases to amuse the friends, and her sexuality is invariably mentioned when her character is brought up. In fact, lesbianism is ruthlessly fetishized: Chandler and Joey like nothing more than imagining two women together, as evidenced by the episode where they coerce Monica and Rachel—two of their best friends—into making out with each other as they watch.
But the aspect of the show that I found most troubling was the evolution of an entire character. Ross Geller starts out as a nerdy paleontologist with a history of being unlucky with women. He’s refreshing at first in that he isn’t quite as quintessentially horny as Joey and Chandler, and thus serves as a foil to them. Hopelessly monogamous, Ross has only slept with one woman—his ex-wife Carol—and doesn’t seem to know how to sleep with another. He’s had a crush on Rachel since high school, when she was a popular cheerleader and he was a classic geek. There’s nothing wrong with this archetype, although it has, at least by this point, been used so many times we can all predict its trajectory.
Sadly, Ross quickly takes a turn for the worse. For the first batch of episodes, all we see is him hopelessly pining after Rachel. Then they get together, miraculously, and his other side begins to show itself. It’s a dynamic modern viewers are all too familiar with: the sweet, caring boyfriend who rapidly develops into a jealous, possessive partner.
While Rachel works at a coffee shop and has a lot of time for Ross—who spends all day at the museum—their relationship seems to be going well. Then Rachel gets a job in the fashion world, and Ross blows a gasket. She’s not home when he wants her to be, and he complains daily. Why can’t she go out to dinner with him? Can’t she just come home early? He feels like he never even sees her anymore. In addition, he immediately thinks she’s cheating on him with her coworker Mark, essentially because Mark is a man. Day after day, Ross accuses Rachel of being unfaithful and working too much; day after day, Rachel explains herself. Finally, Ross comes into her office uninvited and tries to force a picnic on her while she’s taking an important call. She tells him to leave; he lights a candle. She tells him again; he pulls out bread. He is utterly unwilling to listen to her or take no for an answer.
The show tries to excuse this sort of behavior by making it clear that it’s not meant to be taken seriously, but so much of the series revolves around Ross that I couldn’t ignore it. We are, I think, meant to see him as a well-meaning guy who’s a victim of the hyper-masculine stereotypes around him—and he is a victim. But that doesn’t fully justify the character that sneaks in around it, the “feminine” side that’s intended to make his jealous behavior okay. Ross is just sensitive, the show seems to argue. More so than the obvious gender roles, which Friends seems fairly aware of, Ross’s possessive side slips through the cracks of critical engagement, presenting itself as a trivial character flaw similar to, say, Joey’s penchant for one night stands.
I’m not saying Friends is a terrible, sexist show, and I’m not saying shows can’t or shouldn’t have characters like Ross. My issue is with the way the show portrays his behavior as endearing, or, if not, then acceptable and understandable. It’s easy to say that since Friends first aired twenty years ago, things were different back then. There weren’t cell phones. Men couldn’t wear tight jeans without being made fun of (at least in the Friends’ friend group). But because it’s still popular today—when, thankfully, Ross’s behavior is more readily recognized as problematic—it’s up to us to be aware of implications that people in the 90s may not have questioned. Even if it means that Friends isn’t the ideal home-on-break show after all.