By Priyanka Aidasani Sep. 22, 2019
Even as the sitcom makes a comeback, F.R.I.E.N.D.S is the subject of our generation's biggest polarising pop-culture debates. The criticism of the sitcom accuses it of being sexist, unfunny, and even bland. But I often wonder if using a 2020s lens to critique a TV show that is not from this time, a valid critique of it.
It has been close to three decades since the reckless gang of F.R.I.E.N.D.S – Rachel, Joey, Chandler, Ross, Phoebe, and Monica entered our lives and over the course of 10 seasons, forged an indelible relationship with us. When F.R.I.E.N.D.S premiered back in 1994, it introduced us to an over-caffeinated group of friends in their 20s who were navigating their personal and professional lives in the Big Apple. Within no time, we took our picks, whether it was endearing ourselves to Monica’s obsessive need for organisation, Ross’s over-enunciated speech, Chandler’s sarcastic one-liners, Phoebe’s carefree quirkiness, Rachel’s playfulness, or Joey’s possessiveness for food.
Just like a sizeable chunk of the population, I consider myself a devoted fan of the sitcom. What I like about F.R.I.E.N.D.S is that it has a real sweetness to it. There are a thousand funny things about the show, most of which have invariably been dissected several times over the years, but the parts that I fall for are always the more tender moments. Take for instance, the sequence where Ross walks Susan down the aisle on her wedding day or when Monica proposes to Chandler. I also can’t get enough of the scene when Chandler walks Phoebe down the aisle on her wedding day or when Rachel sings Baby Got Back to make Emma laugh. These are the moments that truly makes F.R.I.E.N.D.S sing, effortlessly positing why the sitcom has come to become such a pop-culture landmark.
Today, in the culturally sensitive and politically aware times that we live in though, F.R.I.E.N.D.S is the subject of our generation’s biggest polarising pop-culture debates. The show has been consistent in generating millennial criticism that accuses it of being sexist, racist, and even homphobic, coming to the conclusion that not only do a majority of the 10 seasons appear dull but that the show and its characters have also “badly aged”. Back in 2016, a viral Medium article titled, “How A TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of a Western Civilisation” argued that “F.R.I.E.N.D.S signals a harsh embrace of anti-intellectualism in America, where a gifted and intelligent man is persecuted by his idiot compatriots.” It’s almost impossible to scroll down Twitter on any given day without someone insinuating that the worst thing anyone could do in 2019 is still have a soft spot for F.R.I.E.N.D.S.
I’m not suggesting that any criticism on these lines isn’t valid. After all, these complaints are a sign of how much we’ve evolved: we’re now aware of the implications of caste, race, class, religion, gender, sexuality and also the diverse ways in which they intersect. But I often wonder if using this 2019 lens to critique a TV show that is not from this time, a valid critique of it.
Today, in the culturally sensitive and politically aware times that we live in though, F.R.I.E.N.D.S is the subject of our generation’s biggest polarising pop-culture debates.
Warner Bros. Television
For instance, there’s a Medium article titled “Bad Sitcom Characters-Ross Geller” which takes a more scathing look at Ross Geller, “In season nine, Ross actually fires a male nanny, Sandy, because he’s uncomfortable with a man working in a predominantly female field. Nevermind that Sandy is the most qualified nanny they’re going to find — clearly, catering to Ross’ misogyny is a bigger priority than giving Emma the best childcare.”
If you read these lines in isolation, you’re inclined to agree with the writer’s point. Yet, that’s precisely my grouse with the reductive millennial criticism of the sitcom: its reluctance to weigh the sitcom’s flaws against the context of its setting. For instance, what this article fails to mention is that the same episode also reveals the reason behind Ross acting that way. We learn that it resulted from deep-seated issues regarding his father, who was uncomfortable with him being sensitive.
Over the years, Ross internalises that shame, hiding a part of himself. In that sense, Ross firing a nanny because he is a man, says more about his insecurities than his biases. Sure, his behaviour might not be politically correct in the first place, but a reading of the scene (and by extension, our reaction to it) is incomplete without also taking into account the context behind his unease around a sensitive person. I’d always thought that this scene was a progressive revelation and a fascinating device for character development: It’s what helps us understand that Ross wasn’t trying to conserve some rigid idea of masculinity but reveals how men often become a victim of their own social prejudices.
Yet, that’s precisely my grouse with the reductive millennial criticism of the sitcom: its reluctance to weigh the sitcom’s flaws against the context of its setting.
Moreover, I believe that the characters in any TV show should have the freedom to make politically incorrect choices: Ross is allowed to be uncomfortable with Ben playing with dolls, Chandler is allowed to be sensitive about his masculinity, and Joey is allowed to be, well, Joey, because these flaws in the characters reflect flaws in our society. These are flaws that first need to be recognised, to be corrected. In fact, our insistence on political correctness can sometimes take a dangerous turn, easily misleading us into believing that it is an antidote to homophobia, racism, and sexism, when in fact, at times it can also be a perfect disguise to hide these problems.
In fact, I’ve had a particular problem with the world criticising Rachel’s decision to stay back in New York with Ross instead of starting a new job in Paris as “anti-feminist”. It feels quite redundant given that feminism doesn’t necessarily prescribe choosing a career over a relationship as the way to go, instead focusing on the “freedom” to choose how you want to live. This line of thinking actually invalidates Rachel’s ability to decide for herself: Why is that a woman is always presumed to be independent in her decision-making when it comes to career choices but not when it comes to her love life? Why is it that we immediately assume that she must have been pressurised to choose “love” over her “career”? In Rachel’s case, she chooses to stay in New York with Ross. I could be wrong, but that seems like the exact opposite of anti-feminist. For the sake of an argument, even if we do assume her decision is anti-feminist and that Rachel is infact “sacrificing” her dream job to be with Ross, is that such an unforgivable act? Just like us, fictional characters, are flawed, and they are allowed to make wrong choices just like we do on a daily basis. Can it be called a blunder? Sure. But to call it anti-feminist is an unnecessary stretch.
Don’t get me wrong, not even for a moment am I suggesting that F.R.I.E.N.D.S is a perfect show. It has more than its fair share of issues that are indefensible. Nobody can deny that the jokes about Monica’s weight were inappropriate as is Joey’s treatment of women was degrading. I even agree that Ross was too possessive about Rachel, and that Chandler was not only conservative about his masculinity, but also mocked Joey and Ross every time they showed a more sensitive side. All I’m saying is that F.R.I.E.N.D.S deserves a defense, one which situates it in the right context, one which takes into consideration the cultural politics of the ’90s, the rigidity of the genre, the restrictions in terms of representation, the pressures of network television etc.
Today, it’s this central perk that we’ve collectively denied F.R.I.E.N.D.S.