I was recently nostalgic for 1990s television, and so I decided to rewatch a few episodes of the 1990s’ favorite sitcom, Friends. Although the last new Friends episode aired 15 years ago, Friends is all over my cable directory in reruns, on channels like TV Land and Nickelodeon.
As most of you will know, Friends was incredibly successful—and profitable—during its ten-year primetime run, from 1994 to 2004. I recall reading that at the height of the show’s popularity, the six lead actors—Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, and David Schwimmer—were being paid $650,000 per episode.
It might seem to you that a few of them have been resting on their laurels since Friends ended. David Schwimmer, who might have been the next Tom Cruise or Will Smith, has barely done anything in the intervening years. And when was the last time you went to see a Jennifer Aniston movie?
There might be a reason for that. They’ve all got tons of money. (Aniston has a reported net worth of $240 million.)
And there might be yet another reason: Friends was so popular in its day, that all of the show’s actors have become irrevocably associated with their Friends roles. You can’t see any of them today without automatically thinking of Friends.
Sometimes decades-old television doesn’t age well. Not long ago I watched a rerun of Family Ties, which aired on primetime from 1982 to 1989. I liked Family Ties in the 1980s. By 2019, however, the show’s Reagan-era jokes simply weren’t funny anymore.
But what about Friends?
I was only about ten minutes into the first episode of Friends that I’d stored on my DVR, when I realized why the sitcom was such a hit.
The setup of Friends—six twentysomethings making their way through professional and romantic challenges in fin de siècle New York—is instantly accessible. The main characters are mostly likable (though Phoebe and Joey can both be annoying).
The jokes, moreover, pass the test of time. I found myself laughing out loud at least once during each episode I watched.
This is because the humor is built into the characters themselves. Ross and Chandler are funny in awkward situations because of their insecurities. Rachel, the pretty princess, is funny when she copes with smackdowns—because she’s the pretty princess. Phoebe’s rendition of the “smelly cat” song is funny because she’s just flaky enough to take the song seriously, to consider it art.
Friends is one of those cultural artifacts that I enjoyed in the moment and then mostly forgot about. I never would have considered Friends to be the least bit controversial or offensive—even by the hyper-woke, endlessly offended standards of the twenty-first century.
I was wrong.
There is an episode in which one of Ross’s paleontology students describes him as a “hottie” on the end-of-semester class evaluation form. This will evolve into a storyline in which the thirtyish Ross will date a twentysomething former student, a problematic enough idea in the era of #MeToo. But that’s just for starters.
As Ross is sitting around speculating which girl in his class called him a hottie, Rachel asks, with a wry look in her eye, “How do you know it’s a girl?”
There is a pregnant pause, as Ross considers this possibility—which would have been awkward for most twentysomething heterosexual men in the late 1990s.
After a few more beats, Ross says, dismissively, “It was a girl.” Cue laugh track.
This was a fairly innocuous comedic setup in 1995, or even 2000. By the standards of 2019 it is borderline hate speech. As a properly woke young man, Ross should be indifferent about the gender of his admirer. And if he has the gall to explicitly prefer women, then he should at least be open to women who have male anatomical features.
The characters of Friends are like a lot of white, suburban twentysomethings I knew in the 1990s. They aren’t exactly puritanical, but they are plain vanilla and predictable in their lifestyle and romantic choices. This clashes with today’s identity politics.
There is no episode in which Rachel dates an African American man who is infinitely cooler and more accomplished than all the white guys on the show. There is no episode in which Joey questions his sexuality, and goes bi for a while.
And what about the episode where Monica is involved in a polyamorous three-way relationship? That one is missing, too.
Above all this, there’s the show’s overweening whiteness. In 1995, the idea of six white Friends was no big deal. In 2019, it must be a conspiracy. They must be closet racists.
Friends, when you think about it, is problematic on so many levels: The show is completely white, completely cisgendered, and across-the-board heteronormative.
There is a storyline in Friends in which Chandler’s father, Charles, comes out as a transgender woman. In one memorable scene, the newly christened Helena Handbasket dresses in drag and sings “It’s Raining Men” at a gay cabaret. Suffice it to say that Chandler, rather than being pleased at his father’s awakening, is horrified and embarrassed by the whole thing.
This may be a realistic reaction, but it doesn’t conform to the ideological orthodoxies of our present times. This is one Friends episode that would never see the light of day in 2019—not without Twitter mobs, advertiser boycotts, and no end of finger-wagging from CNN columnists.
I thought to myself: I can’t be the only one who sees this. I’m not even woke, and these problematic aspects of Friends were apparent even to me.
So I did a bit of googling, and I discovered that Friends has already raised the eyebrows of the culture police:
“All the reasons why ‘Friends’ is problematic” –Film Daily
“Millennials watching ‘Friends’ on Netflix shocked by storylines” – The Independent
That’s just a sample. There are scores of articles like this throughout the Internet.
And you thought there were still a few guiltless pleasures left, that the ideological killjoys hadn’t yet excreted on absolutely everything. Well, guess again, comrade.
A recent article in Cosmopolitan is entitled, “11 actually pretty shocking things Friends couldn’t get away with today”. The author of this piece, one Dusty Baxter-Wright, mentioned all the “problematic” elements that I identified, but she didn’t stop there, adding a few of her own:
Gendered children’s toys: Late in the show, Ross becomes a father, and that damned troglodyte objects to the fact that his son, Ben, plays with girls’ toys. Hate crime!
Fat-shaming: The character of Monica is played by the rail-thin Courtney Cox, but part of the show’s backstory depicts her as being obese in college. Baxter-Wright is shocked at the “fat-shaming” and “size-ism” on display here.
Sexism: “Joey Tribbiani objectifies women.” I should have caught this one, really. Joey is consistently depicted as a not-too-bright-but-good-looking Italian stallion. He does indeed “objectify women”.
So she’s right about Joey. Baxter-Wright, with the typical dour humorlessness of the ideologue, misses the bigger joke here, though: Joey is also depicted as a deeply flawed character throughout the show. When Joey constantly makes leering references to women, the show’s scriptwriters are making fun of Joey.
But such subtleties are lost on culture warriors. Likewise, Baxter-Wright goes into her tsk-tsk virtue-signaling routine over a Friends episode in which Ross assumes that a male nanny must be gay.
This episode is funny—not because it makes fun of gay men, or male nannies—but because it pokes fun at Ross’s conformity and insecurities.
Baxter-Wright observes, “Joey and Ross can’t seem to share a hug without saying ‘no homo’ or questioning their sexuality.” She’s largely right about this, too, but she misses the point, and who is actually the butt of the joke.
Young heterosexual Gen X men (I was one of them) did have contradictory attitudes about sex and sexuality. Let’s be forthright about that. Most of us considered ourselves open-minded…to a point.
We knew that Freddie Mercury was gay, and we suspected as much about the lead singer of Judas Priest (who would come out in 1998). If explicitly asked, in 1988 or 1995, the vast majority of us would have said that being gay was perfectly okay…for other people. At the same time, though, we all went out of our way— whenever any hint of the question arose—to let you know that we weren’t gay. “No homo”, in other words.
This insecurity was symptomatic of coming of age between the freewheeling 1960s and the conservative 1980s. Gen Xers (again, I am one) were raised in a cultural environment of mixed messages—about everything from gender roles and virginity, to same-sex relationships. (Admittedly, few of us thought much about transgenderism back then.)
Mixed messages lead to insecurities, because you’re torn between competing ideas. Those insecurities provide endless comedic fodder, and Friends capitalized on this.
Yes, sometimes making fun of homophobia means depicting homophobia. And not only in the frowning tone of a scold. It’s called satire. Satire, by its very nature, is designed to probe areas that make us uncomfortable.
The tendency of woke young Millennials, though, is to see a naughty word, or an uncomfortable scenario, and immediately reach for the censor’s pen.
I wish I didn’t have to be so hard on Millennials about this, but I can’t help doing so. Millennials will eventually be running our society, after all. That makes me wonder about the future of free expression in the West.
And finally, Baxter-Wright notes: “Joey and Chandler are grossed out by breast milk.”
I don’t know quite what to do with that one. But again, I ask: Is the joke here on breast milk, or is the joke on two young adult men who can’t keep their cool when confronted by a perfectly normal aspect of human biology?
Dusty Baxter-Wright wraps up with the following assessment:
“Come the end of the programme, four of the six main characters were ‘coupled-with-children’, the fifth was ‘coupled up’ and the sixth character acknowledged that ‘coupled-with-children’ was the end goal. Considering the breath of opportunities and differences there are between six real human beings, this seems ridiculous and narrow minded.”
Egads—and you thought I was engaging in shrill, farfetched sarcasm in some of the preceding paragraphs. Most twentysomethings in the 1990s did seek to be coupled with children. What the heck is wrong with that?
Fellow Gen X-ers: Consider this fair warning: Friends is still airing on cable in reruns only because legions of woke young Millennials and Zoomers haven’t yet learned what it contains. Their older ideological allies, meanwhile, have forgotten, or they’re busy protesting Trump.
But they’ll get back to Friends, in due time.
If you’re still enjoying Friends in reruns, you’d better hoard those episodes on a secure hard drive somewhere. It’s only a matter of time before watching Friends becomes yet another form of thoughtcrime, in this brave, new, woke world of ours.