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The iconic, trendsetting ‘90s sitcom is both revered, criticized today
The NBC sitcom “Friends,” which first aired in 1994 and ran for 10 seasons, was a hit from the start. The ensemble cast of six 20-somethings in New York City trying to figure out life resonated deeply with the American public. The series was nominated for 62 Primetime Emmy Awards and the 2004 finale was the fifth most-watched television finale of all time.
More than 25 years later, new viewers have come to question the merits of “Friends” and wonder why older generations were so obsessed with it. There have been debates about some of the offensive humor and antiquated messages. And there are critiques regarding the dozens of fatphobic jokes surrounding Monica’s character as well as the lack of diversity in the cast.
“‘Friends,’ a show about white people being thin and having the pointiest nipples in the continental Americas…is absolute garbage,” writes Scaachi Koul for BuzzFeed News.
Others, however, have defended the series for being progressive for its time. The series was created in the early ’90s, and some argue that it should not be held to the same standards shared by a more modern and progressive audience.
“The truth is also that show was groundbreaking in its time for the way in which it handled so casually sex, protected sex, gay marriage and relationships,” said David Schwimmer, who played Ross Gellar. “I feel that a lot of the problem today in so many areas is that so little is taken in context. You have to look at it from the point of view of what the show was trying to do at the time.”
Both sides of the debate are valid and present important discussions about the way art ages and how we should interpret it. More than 25 years after the debut of the series, “Friends” has aged both well and poorly, and that’s okay.
There are certainly aspects of the series that have aged poorly. For example, there were only two significant characters of color in the show’s 234-episode run. In New York City, it is hardly plausible that the six main characters ran into people of color so infrequently.
There were also many insensitive, fatphobic jokes. The characters would mock the “Ugly Naked Guy” that lives across from the girl’s apartment because of his weight. Even more mean-spirited jabs were directed toward Monica, who struggled with her weight in her teenage years. Flashbacks to the ’80s include Courtney Cox in a fat suit, often seen dancing or with a candy bar in hand.
There were also several jokes where people in the LGBTQ community were the punchlines. Chandler’s father was a transgender woman, which was constantly played up for laughs. The role was also played by cisgender heterosexual actor Kathleen Turner. The male characters were always mocked for acting too effeminate or showing too much emotion, and when they did, they were quickly accused of being gay, used as a pejorative.
Not only were these storylines offensive and tasteless, they were also lazy. Having an overweight character dancing around should not suffice for comedy, regardless of the year it was written.
While there are glaring issues we can’t ignore about “Friends,” there are also ways to appreciate it today and view it as even progressive for its time. The characters are adamant about having protective sex, and the female characters are just as sexually active as their male counterparts without being shamed or being the butt of a joke.
“Friends” definitely passes the Bechdel Test, as Monica, Rachel and Phoebe are written to be dynamic, three-dimensional characters. They all have successful careers and deeply value each other as friends. The series even explores the concept of infertility in a sensitive and progresive manner. When Monica and Chandler cannot conceive, they decide to go forward with adoption. This is never written as an invalid way to have a child.
“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,” writes Kayleigh Dray for Stylist.
The 1996 episode “The One with the Lesbian Wedding” featured one of the first weddings between two women to be shown on television. NBC even expected complaints about the episode, but aired it anyway. Despite some distasteful jokes about the pair, the episode was unanimously positive about the union, and the wedding scene was touching. Even Ross’ character, whose betrayal after Carol left him for another woman led to some serious homophobia, walked Carole down the aisle and supported her completely.
To summarize, “Friends” is not — and never has been — perfect. The characters are clueless at best and sexist, homophobic and closed-minded at worst. But they reflect the level of education and awareness the average person held at the time. The fact that so many struggle with the issues of “Friends” shows how far we have come. Nonetheless, there is a lot to be enjoyed about the series for what it is. It may not be fair to hold the series accountable for norms that did not exist back when it was the most popular show on television.
Written by: Alyssa Ilsley — firstname.lastname@example.org