It’s an understatement to say that, as a concept, millennials being offended by something is somewhat of a meme. Gone are the days when it was the older generation who got offended by anything approaching “edgy”. Whilst the motivation and principle behind these cries of injustice are virtuous and noble, in its justified vehemence, often nuanced and innocent examples are tarred with the same brush. Ironically, tarring people with the same brush is a behaviour that is most often criticised by those who wish to fight social injustice in the first place. Amusing ironies aside, the nuanced and innocent example of this piece is the 90s hit-sitcom Friends.
Whilst describing the premise of a show like Friends is akin to describing The Beatles, or what a tree is, a short précis of it would be ‘a group of friends go through the trials and tribulations of living in New York City in their late 20s/early 30s’. Like many people born in the late 80s/early 90s in the UK, I grew up on Friends. Every episode was shown multiple times a day, every day, for over a decade. It wouldn’t be too outlandish to say that most people in the UK who are currently the same age as the characters in the show have not only seen every episode of Friends, but can almost always recall the entirety of an episode – including whole exchanges and jokes – based just on the first scene alone.
Recently, Netflix made all 236 episodes of Friends available; cue the Falcon Heavy-esque (topical) skyrocketing rise in 90s kid binge-watch activity, followed by a monsoon of “Are you still watching?” messages delivered by concerned Mama Netflix. However, the rebirth of this popular show wasn’t greeted by cheers everywhere. On the contrary, those too young to have had Friends part of their childhood daily routine, or those who have become attuned to the proliferation of social justice awareness, according to this article by The Independent, have reportedly been “shocked” to find how “homophobic, sexist, and transphobic” the show was. It is my contention that the context surrounding the examples that are used to support this claim explains and justifies itself.
Usually, if the writer of a film or TV show know what they are doing, you can infer what the writer intends the audience to think, feel, and react to their film or show. If the writer of a film or TV show wants you to dislike a character, they will make that character behave in annoying, dislikeable ways. They will also probably make the character that they want the audience to root for likeable, and will often get the dislikeable character to do dislikeable things toward the likeable character.
You’re supposed to like Dumbledore, Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Hagrid. You’re supposed to dislike Voldemort, Bellatrix, Dudley, and Umbridge. With regards to Harry Potter, when Bellatrix and Voldemort talk about the joys of murder and torture, at no point does anybody think that the film is promoting murder and torture. Everyone understands that it’s those characters who believe that. With the film Django Unchained, it is understood that the rampant racism depicted in the film isn’t condoning racism but exploring it. Black slaves aren’t the target of the film, but the subject. If the racist mindset were being condoned and celebrated, why would Tarantino a) include and portray the characters against racism in a positive manner, b) portray the racist characters in a negative manner, and c) have the slave kill all the slavers and racists, run away with his wife, and convey all this as a good thing? This brings me to the criticisms of Friends.
With regards to the accusation of sexism, the episode ‘The One with the Male Nanny’ is used as an example. In the episode, Rachel employs a nanny to look after her daughter Emma. Ross agrees to this, but becomes somewhat perturbed when the nanny that Rachel wants to employ is a man. Throughout the episode, Ross’ attitude to the male nanny is negative; often making jokes at the nanny’s expense.
However, I disagree that this makes the episode sexist. The keystone to the entire comedic construct of the episode is predicated on the juxtaposition between how Ross views himself, and how he really is. Ross seems to value his own stereotypical notion of masculinity (and insists upon it), whilst repeatedly exhibiting enjoyment in traditionally feminine things – whilst going out of his way to either hide these feminine interests or doing mental gymnastics to try and make it non-feminine.
This comedic trope is carried throughout the entirety of Friends. For example, in the episode ‘The One With The Tea Leaves’, Ross mentions losing his ‘faded salmon’ shirt whilst everyone else in the episode refers to it as ‘the pink shirt’; much to Ross’ chagrin. Contrary to the mentality of someone who believes Friends is a sexist or homophobic show, the butt of the joke here isn’t that ‘wearing pink = gay and being gay is funny’. What’s funny is Ross revealing an insecurity about himself and his own masculinity when he goes out of his way not to call his shirt pink by calling it “faded salmon” instead.
Naturally, his friends witness this insecurity and exploit it for comedic effect. The joke is on Ross’ obsession with being perceived as masculine and not feminine, and how he sheepishly tries to hide his interests if he thinks they might be perceived as feminine. This is further supported in the conclusion of the episode ‘The One with the Male Nanny’ when Ross decides to fire Sandy – the nanny – who, in response, asks Ross why he feels inclined to do so. At which point, Ross reveals that he has childhood trauma of his father expecting him to be manly, and shaming any activity that he likes that doesn’t align with his dad’s wishes.
The punchline to the entire episode builds to Ross breaking down, in a comedic and overly-dramatic effect, revealing Ross’ deeply held feelings about his father not accepting his interests; changing the scene from what was going to be Ross firing Sandy into a scene wherein Sandy is Ross’ therapist. The episode was about Ross’ sexist attitude towards stereotypical gender roles, explores how and why he has those views, and depicts his realisation and growth as a result. To then suggest that the episode in some way endorses this sexist attitude is either inaccurate or dishonest.
But sexism isn’t the only crime that Friends has been accused of according to this article by The Independent. “Millennials'” claim that the show is homophobic too. Moments wherein Chandler, Ross, and Joey panic for fear of being seen as gay have been highlighted, indicating – for some – of a prevailing homophobic undercurrent throughout the series. Whilst Seinfeld I feel deals with this scenario far better and more explicitly (specifically in the episode ‘The Outing’ wherein a piece being written about Jerry that inaccurately identifies him as gay is responded with Jerry exclaiming in panicked tones “Now (the reporter) thinks I’m gay! Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”), Friends is similarly using heterosexual discomfort about homosexuality as the subject matter of a joke, and not using homosexuality as the punchline of a joke.
For example, in the episode ‘The One With The Nap Partners’, Ross and Joey freak out when, after falling asleep from watching a movie together, they wake up from the nap and discover that they fell asleep next to one another in a rather tight embrace. The “weirdness” that they address from this situation doesn’t stem from “being gay is weird”, but rather the out-of-the-blue intimacy of sleeping together – considering that they haven’t done anything even remotely approaching that before – is odd and unsettling for them.
Furthermore, the ‘mountain out of a molehill’ comedy trope uses this framework, utilising the stereotypical dialogue of some secretive, dramatic, forbidden love affair from a soap opera, but in reference to the pettiness and triviality of being nap partners. In essence, like with the Ross/Nanny example, Ross, Joey, and Chandler exhibiting discomfort towards questions about their own sexuality is primarily used comedically in the show at their own insecurities’ expense. The fact that they feel that anything more than a handshake between them might make others, and themselves, question their heterosexuality is amusing because of how immature that outlook is.
This contrast is made all the more humorous considering the fact that the movie Ross and Joey watched prior to their intimate nap together was none other than Die Hard; the writers evidently going out of their way to choose the most “macho” film they could think of to further emphasise Joey’s and Ross’ obsession with being seen as manly and being interested in “manly” things, only for it to be undercut by them sensitively napping with one another.
In the TV show The Green Room with Paul Provenza, there’s an episode starring the superb comedian Bill Burr wherein he defends his use of the incendiary word “faggot” in a routine wherein he and a heterosexual friend are playing ice hockey together. In the routine, Burr talks about him falling down on the ice and his friend asks if he’s okay, and Burr, in a panic, says,”Yeah, you faggot – get away from me”. Asked why he uses the word in the bit, he said,
“Because of the way I grew up, because of the way guys are, you’re not supposed to be ‘I fell down are you okay?’. It actually struck me as funny and I thought it would be a great bit because the bit is actually two straight guys who can’t have that fuckin’ moment of like ‘Hey, I was worried about you’. You’re just not allowed to have that moment. But it has nothing to do with gay people.”
When Provenza goes on to point out that the target of Bill Burr’s joke is Burr himself, criticising himself for not being able to accept sensitivity from another man, Burr says, “That’s why guys drop dead at like 50; from 40 years of not being able to admit that a puppy is cute. You just gotta push that down into your stomach. And actually, it’s a weakness.”
Similarly, on the charge of transphobia, throughout Friends, Chandler, and some other characters, make jokes about his estranged trans-father Charles – or Helena as she later became known. Here, I feel that the Ricky Gervais sentiment, “People confuse the subject of the joke with the target of the joke” rings true once again. When determining whether Chandler has a resentful attitude towards his father’s transition, or whether the show itself is resentful towards trans people, one must look at how Helena is portrayed.
In an article about Friends and its alleged “offensiveness”, Ray Bradford, director of entertainment media for the LGBT advocacy organization GLAAD said the portrayal of Chandler’s trans-father “wasn’t what we hate seeing on TV by a mile. When I looked at Kathleen Turner’s character, there was nothing tragic about it. It was not a storyline depicting her as a killer or a psychopath or a sex worker or anything like that”. If the show were truly transphobic, would it make any sense to a) include a trans character in the first place, and b) make the trans character sympathetic?
It’s also not as if Chandler’s father being trans is the true source of Chandler’s bitterness either. When Chandler was young, his father had multiple affairs with other men, causing many arguments and fights that seem to have created some inner demons – hence Chandler’s use of humour and sarcasm as a defence mechanism (as is noted by Phoebe’s psychiatrist boyfriend in The One With The Boobies).
As Friends co-creator David Crane – who, it’s worth noting, is gay – says, “(Chandler) has his own anxieties and issues.” In this context, it is then understood that Chandler expresses his distaste for his father causing a failed marriage by using the transition as a scapegoat. The accusation of the show being transphobic also doesn’t make any sense considering the story-line wherein Monica convinces Chandler to let go of his resentment towards his father, and invite her to their wedding, symbolically acknowledging and accepting Helena for who she is.
It’s also kind of narcissistic for our generation to look down at TV shows and movies from decades past, from our “woke bae”, PC-infused, Buzzfeed encrusted thrones, and pat ourselves so heavily on the back for knowing, on all levels, what’s offensive and what’s not – whilst pointing out that every generation prior to ours were all ignorant.
It’s the same sort of mindset that occurs when looking at old photos of ourselves, face-palming, and saying “What was I thinking wearing that?!” – as though you were delusional and stupid with regards to fashion sense in the past, but now you’re totally “with it”, even though in twenty years time, you’ll be looking at a photo of you from today, and be face-palming yourself all over again.
In other words, don’t be surprised when, in twenty years time, that generation will look back at the shows we currently have on that we think are politically correct, and similarly will shake their heads at us in disappointment, asking us how we could be so insensitive and politically incorrect by watching and supporting these shows when they were broadcast.
It simply isn’t a “shock” to find that the language, terminology, and attitudes conveyed in Friends happens to be directly in sync with the language, terminology, and attitudes prevalent in US society in the 90s when Friends was made. Things must be judged within the context of when they were made, and what its intent is. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is considered the greatest video game of all time, despite having blocky graphics and frame-drop issues when compared to the graphics and high-frame rates of today. It doesn’t matter. The game was revolutionary at the time, and should be judged as such. A similar thing can be argued for Friends.
The criticisms made by these “millennials” in the article by The Independent don’t take into account how progressive and barrier-breaking it was to have a sympathetic trans character, and relatable, realistic lesbian couple (in the form of Carol and Susan) in the mid-90s. As Ray Bradford of the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD says, “Images don’t exist in a vacuum — you look at where they were at that time of progression of TV and our country, and also where we are now and the standard.” And, most importantly, in the end, the overall attitude conveyed in Friends with regards to women, gay people, and trans people is that of acceptance, not hate.
In conclusion, whilst one might perceive their own distaste of the offensive in media from the past as a sign of maturity and insight, ironically I think it suggests an immaturity and lack of sagacity to freak out over the odd poorly aged joke from works made decades ago. Surely it’s more perceptive and wise, if I do say so myself (please note the self-back-patting from earlier), to understand and appreciate the fact that sentiments and language change over time, and that certain words and terms didn’t necessarily mean then what they do now, and that, from the newly formed thorns and rough, one can still gather roses and diamonds amongst the brambles, and they can, if its heart is in the right place, still yield some beauty and value now, and for years to come. Also when Joey does “smell the fart acting” it’s funny, lol.