Deconstructing a childhood love for a problematic sitcom
I love Friends.
I remember watching reruns of the show religiously after school, sitting on the floor of our first home in New Zealand. My mum had left behind her complete DVD box set of Friends in China when we’d moved. Every night before dinner, she’d switch the TV on in a room halfway across the world from anything she’d ever known, and she’d share something she loved with my brother and me.
I fell in love, too. I loved the charismatic best friends drinking coffee at all hours of the workday: Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross (FYI I’m a Monica sun, Chandler rising). Every episode had me laughing out loud. Rachel’s Thanksgiving trifle haunts my dreams. The ‘Smelly Cat’ lyrics live rent-free in my head, like the friends probably did in their massive New York apartments. Some episodes broke my heart. Others put it back together with a joke or earnest line. In many ways, Friends wasn’t just a part of my childhood – it was my childhood.
Then last year, my mum told me incredulously that the Friends co-creator had issued an apology for the show’s lack of diversity.
“Can’t we enjoy anything anymore?” my mum cried.
Truth be told, I hadn’t watched Friends in over ten years. I’d only ever thought about it in passing, like a favourite soft toy or childhood friend. Then, the floodgates flung open. I was left to grapple with the uncomfortable reality of a show that I’d once taken so much comfort in.
Friends is whiter than untoasted bread. It’s one thing to have an all-white main cast. It’s another to have just three named black characters and one Asian who appear in more than a single episode, out of 120+ cast members. Unconsciously or not, Friends is set in an alternative world that erases people of colour from Manhattan, New York – one of the most diverse cities in the world, with only 54% being white (46% non-Hispanic white) in 2000. Even at the time, the whiteness of Friends was criticised by enough viewers that the “race issue” was addressed—i.e. defended—by the cast in a Rolling Stone interview during its first season.
There’s also its similarities with Living Single, a sitcom that premiered one year before Friends about the lives of six black friends in New York City. Living Single never saw the same promotional push as Friends, nor the same financial investment, nor anywhere near the same astronomical success. It’s worth noting that the success of Friends coincided with the disappearance of 90s black sitcoms—a so-called “golden age” of shows like Family Matters and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—since many were cancelled by network executives who hoped to court white audiences with whiter casts.
Gay jokes and gay panic run rampant in Friends whenever there’s a hint of gender deviance. Chandler spends a whole subplot insisting he isn’t gay. Ross and Joey accidentally nap together and freak the fuck out because…gAY??? Handle this masculinity with care baby – she’s fragile. But we also have the lesbian wedding, officiated by Candace Gingrich, the real-life LGBTQ+ rights activist and sister of conservative politician Newt Gingrich. The 1996 episode was removed from air by stations in Texas and Ohio. It was honestly iconic. Even though the actresses weren’t allowed an on-camera kiss, and even though the only reason Carol and Susan are seemingly in the show is to 1) emasculate Ross and 2) be Lesbians.
Finally, we get blatant transphobia with Chandler’s estranged ‘dad’. Helena Handbasket (drag name) was confirmed to be transgender by the Friends creators after the show ended. She’s only ever referred to in-show as a cross-dresser, drag queen, gay man, or—let’s drop the pretence—a freak. Upon seeing Helena, Chandler’s mum delivers the line: “Don’t you have a little too much penis to be wearing a dress like that?” to thunderous audience laughter and applause.
It’s all pretty fucked up.
In some ways, it was progressive to have trans representation at all. Helena is funny and gorgeous. She gets invited to Chandler’s wedding, although he never stops feeling ashamed of her. It’s better than nothing, right? I don’t know, y’all. Maybe having nothing is better than portraying and treating queer characters in ways that reinforce harmful attitudes through punchlines that assure cis, straight viewers it’s okay—even funny—to deny queer people human decency.
Yesterday, I finally re-watched Friends on Netflix – a real glow-up from the box TV in my childhood home a decade ago. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
But I laughed out loud. I still got misty-eyed. It was warm and funny and sincere, like driving back to the neighbourhood where you grew up, 27 years later, and realising that nothing’s changed. Only you’ve changed.
Friends will always stay a relic of the past. But we won’t. We’ll learn and grow and maybe revisit it once in a while, before promoting, creating, and watching new shows that are fairer, kinder, and better.
I still love Friends. Except it’s different now – and that’s okay.
After years of eating trifle, I finally hit beef.