Like thousands of others, I have binge-watched Friends. And like everyone else, I feel flooded with guilt afterwards. It’s not because of the excessive, unproductive hours that passed as dirty laundry piled up in the corner. It’s not because my cat was yowling for attention as my brain slowly rotted away. For me, it was the content of the show itself.
Weaved within each Fat Monica joke and “We were on a break!” moment are blatant misogyny, homophobia, body-shaming, and—despite being set in the most racially diverse city in the world — the whitest cast you’ve ever seen.
But I love the show. I love Joey’s blissful ignorance. I relate to Monica’s Type A personality. I love the women’s embrace of their sexuality. I love Rachel’s character development from a needy and spoiled girl to an accomplished, headstrong woman. Yet every episode leaves me cringing, and I can’t help but imagine how the show would differ had it been written by someone who refused to settle for clichéd notions of gender conformity.
Finally, one night as I watched Chandler panic over Joey’s potpourri and flower arrangements, I abruptly closed my Netflix window. It wasn’t that I was taking some high moral stand against the show; it was that I truly didn’t enjoy it anymore.
I wanted to relax, stop critiquing the cultural messages of the show, and just watch, but I couldn’t. I found myself rolling my eyes more than laughing, and the show would be better off without many of its reoccurring themes.
1. Susan and Carol’s marriage would not be utilized as a punchline to shame Ross and threaten his masculinity.
While I love that Friends features a lesbian couple at all (and a functional, child-raising one at that!), I sometimes wonder if it were added solely as a joke against Ross. Losing your wife to another person would devastate any human, but in Central Perk, any dig against Ross involves the fact that his wife dumped him for a WOMAN. What kind of man would ever be in a relationship with a LESBIAN in the first place?! No man at all, or so we are swayed to believe.
2. The men of the friend group would stop spending every waking hour defending their masculinity.
Their jokes would be wittier than who is acting “girly.” Their discussions would be deeper than what girl they want to sleep with. Any reference to them being single, expressing an emotion, partaking in traditionally feminine activities, or getting rejected by a woman (or, god forbid, a lesbian!) is followed by an immediate assault on their manhood.
The men spend so much time defending their masculinity and hetero-status that they appear rather unstable and desperate—and therein lies the supposed “joke.” Look! A man with a purse! A man with jewelry! Two men hugging! Don’t they seem gay?! With the laugh track roaring in the background, the viewer learns that men who act emotional or “effeminate”—whether gay or straight—are to be laughed at. Homosexuality is once again used as a punchline to ridicule a character’s masculinity. I’d rather see the men express thoughtful opinions and dress and act as desired without Chandler making some sarcastic quip about lipstick.
3. Rachel’s career advancement wouldn’t be the unjumpable hurdle in an otherwise solid relationship with Ross.
While the show likes to portray Ross as the most romantic and least misogynistic of the three man, his “nice guy” image seems questionable as he cannot celebrate Rachel working her dream job because it means less time allotted for him. Although most viewers judge Ross harshly for his selfishness here and support Rachel’s career, it is disappointing to see yet another story of a woman whose relationship crumbles because she is “too invested” in her work.
4. Monica wouldn’t be slut-shamed for having “a lot” of previous sexual partners (“The One with Where Dr. Ramoray Dies”), while Joey gets to parade his sexcapades with pride (every episode ever).
I would not have a problem with the “You’ve slept with HOW many men?!” plot, since it is a real issue that many women face in our culture, but the writers clearly were not trying to highlight the double standards here. If they were, Monica would have pointed out that nobody minds how many people Joey has been with, or she would have complained to Rachel that her sexual history wouldn’t have been scrutinized had she been male.
Instead, the viewer witnesses trusty, faithful Richard pry into “just how men” loose, indulgent Monica has slept with. On the other hand, Monica is appalled when she learns she is only the second woman Richard has been with. Translation: “normal” men should have a long list of sexual partners, and “normal” women should keep their legs closed.
5. Monica’s extreme weight loss wouldn’t be glorified as the source of her current beauty and “sexual achievements.”
The fat jokes speckled into virtually every episode speak volumes, but more interesting is the implicit reminders that Monica hasn’t always been the catch she is now. We hear about two Monicas: teenage Monica, who was unpopular and allegedly spent more time hoarding boxes of “Brown Bird” cookies than dating, and current Monica, who is thin, attractive, seemingly unscarred from her former weight issues, and active in the dating scene. We idolize current Monica and laugh at her past self.
Amazingly, even she cracks a smile when Ross mocks her former size! First of all, this perpetuates the stereotype of overweight women as jolly, unpopular, and asexual (or perhaps interested in sex but unable to get it). Second of all, while no two people are identical, I do not think I could forgive—let alone laugh with—someone who mocked my weight, whether former or current.
Despite seeing every episode two or more times, I could no longer find these reoccurring jokes funny. If I really wanted to pass time listening to insecure men call each other a woman as an epithet, I would just go hang out at the jocks’ table in a high school cafeteria.