Life

In defence of Friends

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Kayleigh Dray
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Millennials watching Friends on Netflix UK have expressed reservations about the popular sitcom’s storylines, describing it as transphobic, homophobic and sexist. Here, stylist.co.uk editor Kayleigh Dray reminds us of all the ways the show was ahead of its time – and shows us how, when you take a closer look, it’s actually seriously #woke, too…

I love Friends. This doesn’t make me special or unique, of course: if anything, it makes me the most basic of basic bitches. After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that every single person in possession of a television has seen Friends – twice. Honestly, I bet that you could even head into the dense tropical forests of Indonesia, find your way to the timber treehouses of the Karowai tribe, scream “WE WERE ON A BREAK” at them, and they’d know exactly what (and, more importantly, who) you’re referring to.

So, naturally, when the entire series landed on Netflix UK, I immediately sat down to binge watch the entire thing from start to finish. It was exactly as I remembered it: reassuring, and comforting, and ever so soothing – like a bubble bath for the soul.

Of course, I wasn’t the only person to rewatch Friends – thousands of others did, too. Just like me, they were quote-perfect on every single episode, they chuckled along to jokes they knew the punchline to and they were invested in the lives of Monica (Courteney Cox), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), Chandler (Matthew Perry), Ross (David Schwimmer) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc).

And yet…

Well, it seems that – for some of us, at least – the bath has run cold. In fact, that’s putting it lightly: the bath isn’t just cold – the bubbles have all popped, the towel you carefully placed in arm’s reach has been moved and there’s a menacing-looking spider sat watching you from the tap.

To put it more bluntly, people have finally fallen out of love with Friends.

All you have to do is quickly scan Twitter to see the tide has turned. Forget the old niggles about the unrealistic apartment sizes and work hours (seriously, who has time to sit around the kitchen with their neighbours on a Monday morning?): the complaints are far more serious now. Some have said that Ross is “annoying and sexist” at best, a “misogynist bully” at worst. That the show’s male characters are all “horribly homophobic” (an opinion which Matt LeBlanc strongly refutes). That Chandler’s jokes about his cross-dressing father have left them feeling “uncomfortable”. That Rachel well and truly deserves to have a sexual harassment case filed against her. That the countless comments about ‘Fat Monica’ feel very “out of place”. That Joey is just “creepy”. That Monica’s relationship with the much-older Richard smacks of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement. That Phoebe…

Well, nobody seems to have anything bad to say about Phoebe, actually. She’s managed to pass under the millennial microscope unscathed.

Ms. Buffay aside, though, people aren’t happy – and the backlash has spawned hundreds of near-identical (and, frankly, unimaginative) op-eds, all of which state that the show has failed to stand the test of time.

None of these articles, though, have considered all of the ways in which Friends pushed boundaries, challenged perspectives and blazed a trail for equality. So let’s cast our minds back and attempt to open them a little bit while we’re at it, too…

1) The one with the first LGBTQ ceremony ever shown on TV

When his ex-wife Carol (Jane Sibbett) revealed that she planned to marry her lesbian partner, Susan (Jessica Hecht), Ross was firmly opposed to the idea.

But, when his ex-wife’s parents refused to attend her wedding, it was Ross who encouraged her to go ahead with the ceremony… and even walked her down the aisle (although he found it tricky to ‘give her away’ at the end).

It’s worth noting that, in 1996, New York did not recognise or authorise same-sex marriage - and this ruling was not overturned until the Martinez v. County of Monroe case in 2008 (nowadays, of course, same-sex marriage is legal in all states). So it’s understandable, then, why The One With The Lesbian Wedding had such a huge effect on nineties audiences.

Reflecting on the episode during an interview with ITV’s Lorraine, Sibbett said: “I remember meeting a man at one awards ceremony that was held by an organisation that works with gay families.

“He said to me that if he’d had Carol and Susan as role models when he was a young boy, he probably wouldn’t have tried to [die by] suicide so many times.

“I hadn’t even thought of that.”

2) And on that note…

Ross, yes, frequently jokes about his ex-wife’s sexuality: indeed, that clunky “my ex-wife is a lesbian” joke runs throughout the entire series. And, yes, he demonstrates homophobic tendencies, too – but it’s worth remembering that he’s consciously written that way.

Discriminatory views are not solely adopted by evil characters: they are also present in warm, kind, funny people – the sort of people who just happened to learn some pretty toxic things growing up in a pretty toxic society (just think about Ross’ parents for a moment, please).

The lesson here isn’t that “evil people are homophobic”: the lesson here is that “anyone can be discriminatory, you are probably doing it, and you should stop ASAP”.

Because that’s the great thing: as Ross shows us when he walks Carol down the aisle, we are not chained to our internalised beliefs. With time, effort and help from the people around us, we can unlearn them – and become better people for it.

3) The one with the important discussion around infertility

Infertility has always been something of a taboo topic – and almost definitely not considered ‘sitcom’ material. Friends, though, decided to change that with two major storylines.

The first sees Phoebe agree to be a surrogate for her brother, Frank Jr, and Alice, his wife. This decision is not made lightly: Phoebe goes to talk it over with her birth mother, who gives her an adorable puppy – with a caveat: she can only keep the puppy for three days.

“However hard it is for you to give up this puppy,” warns her mother, “it would be like a million times harder to give up a child.”

Phoebe, though, sees how happy the puppy makes Frank Jr and Alice and decides to a) gift them the puppy and b) become their surrogate. Cue an unexpected insight into IVF treatment, her carrying triplets for an entire season run, and an incredibly emotional scene where she bids goodbye to the three babies.

The next infertility storyline came several years later, when Monica and Chandler – after excitedly attempting to start a family together and having zero luck – decide to undergo a series of fertility tests.

We are there for the tests – or, at least, for the moment when a nurse hands Chandler a plastic cup and asks him to provide a sample. We are there as they anxiously await their results. And we are there when the couple learn the devastating news that they are highly unlikely to have children of their own: Monica is diagnosed as having a “hostile” cervical environment, a condition in which a woman’s cervical mucus is abnormally acidic, scarce or dense, thus preventing sperm from traveling through the cervix and into the uterine cavity and Fallopian tubes to fertilise a mature egg. Chandler, meanwhile, is diagnosed as having sperm “motility” problems, a condition whereby sperm are incapable, for a variety of reasons, of moving through the female reproductive tract.

Or, as Chandler puts it: “My guys won’t get off the Barcalounger, and the ones that do, your uterus wants to kill them.”

It’s a good joke – and, yes, we imagine that the Friends writers could have come up with plenty more funny one-liners for the storyline. But, despite the high laugh potential, the episode ends with Monica and Chandler holding one another tightly – and the next few see them seriously considering the options available to them: surrogacy, sperm donors, IVF, adoption.

It’s a staunch reminder that infertility is not a temporary inconvenience: it is a serious, and sometimes permanent, reproductive system condition that impairs the body’s ability to perform the function of reproduction. And, while it’s hard to convey the emotions surrounding infertility, the Friends team didn’t just dismiss them out of hand: instead, they tackled them head on – proving that you can still cover heavy topics while allowing the audience to laugh.

4) And on that note…

Monica adopts her children after struggling to conceive. Rachel accidentally falls pregnant after a one-night stand with an ex. Phoebe doesn’t even consider the possibility of starting a family until the very last few minutes of the finale.

And all of them are over 35 at the time.

Why do I mention this? Well, because we are constantly bombarded with horror stories about women who tried, and failed, to conceive over the age of 35. Because we’re sick and tired of being told what to do. Because we needed a more optimistic view of motherhood – and because Friends well and truly delivered on this front.

Through Monica, Rachel and Phoebe’s stories, the writers reminded the world that there is no right way to live our lives: having a baby is a deeply personal decision and it is different for everyone. End of. 

5) The one which changed the way we view women and sexuality

Friends, first and foremost, taught us that men and women genuinely can be just good friends – and that those friendships can be the most important ties in someone’s life.

However the Friends writers didn’t stop there, as they also worked hard to break the taboo of women having casual sex. We were given a show which saw women enjoy one-night stands, discuss safe sex (remember when Monica and Rachel fought over the last condom?), consider artificial insemination and date lots of guys that DIDN’T turn out to be The One. Because, yes, not every relationship winds up becoming a fairy-tale.

Most importantly, though, the women of Friends were very aware of their own sexual needs – and never too embarrassed to meet them. Remember when Phoebe proudly told her pals that her space-hopper had proven a “god-send, if you know what I mean” (prompting Rachel to steal it)? Or when Ross walked in on Monica having fun with the massaging shower head (much to their mutual horror)? Or when Joey found Rachel’s erotic book? Or when the gang found the fluffy handcuffs used by BDSM-loving Grandma Geller?

Or, if nothing else, this scene?

Yup, that’s a pretty comprehensive breakdown of a woman’s main erogenous zones – and a firm lesson to any man who thinks it’s fine to skip on the foreplay and “set up camp” at zone seven.

“You want to hit ‘em all and you wanna mix ‘em up,” explains Monica, to a baffled Chandler. “You gotta keep ‘em on their toes. … You could start out with a little one. A two. A one, two, three. A three. A five. A four. A three, two. Two. A two, four, six. Two, four, six. Four. Two. Two. Four, seven! Five, seven! Six, seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven!”

No wonder Kathy (Chandler’s girlfriend at the time) made a point of tearfully thanking Monica for teaching him all about the elusive female orgasm, eh?

6) And on that note…

In the pilot episode, Monica is dumped after immediately sleeping with her new date, Paul (after he dupes her with a story about his lacklustre sex life). The writers were proud of the scene – but NBC executives were worried, and issued a stacked questionnaire to test audiences asking them whether they thought the character was too promiscuous. Or, in their words, a ‘whore’.

Without waiting for the results, NBC informed Marta Kauffman that they wanted Monica removed from the show. The writer laughed at them and refused, dismissing it as a ridiculous misogynist demand – and, thankfully, audiences agreed with her.

With that anecdote in mind, remember how much of a big deal it was for a prime-time Nineties TV show to address the fact that women have sex. That women like having sex. That women don’t just have sex with people they’re in committed relationships with, but for fun, too. That women are complex and multi-faceted sexual beings, with vital wants and needs and desires of their own.

Exactly.

7) The one where the women absolutely boss their careers

Monica knew she wanted to become a chef from the very moment she got her first Easy-Bake Oven and opened Easy Monica’s Bakery. Throughout the course of the series, we see her do everything within her power to make that possible: she works with creeps, she dons an outrageous costume to waitress in a diner, she opens up her own catering business – and, eventually, she secures the head chef job she’s always wanted at a top restaurant.

And her career progression didn’t stop there: in season nine, we saw her choose a position in a prestigious NYC restaurant over moving to Tulsa when Chandler’s job forced him to relocate. We saw her take on the role as the sole breadwinner when her husband quit his job to become an advertising intern. And we saw her fire incapable sous chefs, tackle nasty restaurant critics and stand up to anyone who dared take her dream away from her.

Rachel, meanwhile, was a spoiled daddy’s girl with plans of marrying a wealthy dentist and becoming a kept woman – until she came to NYC as a runaway bride, that is. With a little help from Monica, Rachel shrugged off her past, cut up all of her credit cards and started working in a coffee shop. And, when she got tired of that, she sat down and figured out the career path that would best fulfil and challenge her.

Over time, we saw her go from a fashion intern, to a fashion assistant, to buyer and personal shopper, to an executive at Ralph Lauren. She negotiates a suitable maternity package when she falls unexpectedly pregnant – and has no qualms about hiring a nanny so she can go back to work. She refuses to let her jealous needy boyfriend make her feel bad about working late – and she especially refused to let him belittle her and her chosen career path. 

And what about Phoebe? Well, while she didn’t exemplify the same passion for her career as a massage therapist, she did choose a job that allowed her to work from home. That allowed her to choose her own hours, and clients, and fees.

Crucially, though, she chose a job over a career because it gave her the chance to focus on her true dream: her music (her awful, awful music). 

8) The one which encouraged men to acknowledge their toxic masculinity

Everyone hating on Friends has been citing the episode with Sandy (Freddie Prinze Jr), the male nanny.

In this episode, Ross displays uncharacteristically hostile tendencies towards Sandy, rudely asking him his sexual preference during a hiring interview. He later insists to Rachel that Sandy has “gotta at least be bi” to explain why he chose such a “girly” career path.

On the surface, this episode sure doesn’t feel #woke – but, when you look at it a little closer, it’s actually incredibly intelligent. Sandy may be the butt of Ross’ jokes, but Ross is the one who looks idiotic – both to the audience and to the other characters. And, when it comes to the end of the episode, Ross does fire Sandy – but not before explaining why he’s not “that comfortable with a guy who’s as sensitive as you”.

“It’s my issue,” he states. “Maybe because of my father? I mean… you know, when I was growing up, he was kind of a tough guy… and I always got the feeling he thought I was too sensitive.

“It was hard. I remember I was in my bedroom, playing with my dinosaurs (playing and learning), and my father walks in and says, he says, ‘What are you doing with those things? What’s wrong with you, why aren’t you… why aren’t you outside playing like a… like a real boy?’”

It’s handled in an amusing way, sure, but it’s an unflinching reference to the fact that so many men feel forced to suppress their emotions – and the damaging effects this can have on them and society.

9) The one which prioritised strong female friendships

Friends came before the likes of Sex and the City, Girls and Parks and Recreation – and, at the time, strong female friendships were a rarity on television. This is why the wonderful bond shared by Monica, Rachel and Phoebe felt so very important.

Perhaps this is best exemplified in season six’s The One on the Last Night, which saw Rachel and Monica’s friendship take centre stage as they prepared for Chandler to move in with Monica and Rachel to move out.

Naturally, they bickered: Rachel felt hurt that she was being ‘replaced’ and lashed out at Monica, who fought back because (as Phoebe shrewdly observed) she hoped it would make it easier for her friend to leave.

But then they’re challenged to recall all the amazing things about one another. And it all comes to a head when Monica breaks down and tearfully declares: “When I told her that I was gonna be moving in with Chandler, she was really supportive.

“You were so great. You made it so easy. And now you have to leave. And I have to live with a boy!”

I think I speak for every twentysomething woman out there when I say that we all recognise ourselves in these women – and that their friendship resonated with us so deeply because it felt familiar, and true, and honest. It was a first for female-driven TV plotlines, and it paved the way for the likes of all those great Big Little Lies-esque shows to come. No small feat.

10) And on that note…

Phoebe literally invented the term ‘BFF’ in The One with the Blackout – and the rest of the world has used it ever since.

11) The one which challenged women to be their own wind-keepers

You remember the one: in the days before it was cool to identify as a feminist, Monica, Phoebe and Rachel were trying to teach themselves how to become more empowered – from a book.

As Phoebe explains: “There’s wind and the wind can make us Goddesses. But you know who takes out wind? Men, they just take it… because they are the lightning bearers.”

It’s not long before the women are attempting to follow the book’s rules: Rachel tells Ross that she refuses to do everything according to his timetable, Phoebe acknowledges that she has let men take advantage of her in the past (or “wash his feet in the pool of my inner power”), and Monica encourages the women to open up about the times they “betrayed another goddess for a lightning-bearer”.

It eventually leads to a squabble, sure, but also an important life lesson (which feels all the more vital in the Donald Trump era): lift other women up wherever you can.

After all, “we have enough trouble with guys stealing our wind without taking it from each other.”

In short, Friends wasn’t without its problems – and, yes, when you look back at it now it doesn’t feel quite as enlightened as you’d hope. But, that being said, it did some pretty amazing things for society, too: there’s a reason it was honoured at the GLAAD Media Awards, y’know.

The most important thing to remember, though, is that Friends wasn’t created to dissect society and modern-day culture: it was created to become a part of it. 

As LeBlanc puts it: “We steered clear of any sort of political content, nothing too topical. Friends was about themes that stand the test of time – trust, love, relationships, betrayal, family and things like that”

That’s why the show resonates on such an emotional level. That’s why it still makes us laugh, even now. That’s why so many people re-watch it over, and over, and over again. 

And, of course, that’s why the characters feel so flawed, and familiar, and as real as the friend sitting next to you watching your favourite fictional Friends sip coffee. That’s why we want to be a part of the Central Perk gang, even now, after all this time.

Yes, we can criticise certain elements – but we can learn from them, too. And, in this way, the Friends gang can continue to teach us important life lessons, even all these years after it’s left our screens.

If that ain’t woke, I don’t know what is.

Image: Getty

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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