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8 Reasons Why It Might Be Problematic to Say Friends Is Problematic

Updated on June 20, 2018
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Marianne is a "millennial" from the United Kingdom who watched a lot of television, growing up.

The apartment in New York where Friends is set.
The apartment in New York where Friends is set. | Source

A new generation is discovering Friends, one of the most successful TV sitcoms ever. Friends first ran from 1994 to 2004, but is now available via Netflix to a generation that was barely out of nappies when the show started.

Some of this new generation of "millennials" finds 'Friends' deeply problematic. In particular, Friends is criticised for fat shaming, being homophobic, transphobic and lacking diversity.

I think this criticism of Friends is problematic. I am a "millenial" but old enough to have watched the (later series of) Friends first time round as a teenager.

My issues with calling Friends problematic are that:

  1. Standards in the 1990s weren't that different than today. When I watched Friends then I knew then that it was sometimes offensive then.
  2. Most more modern sitcoms aren't much better and are sometimes worse
  3. The characters in Friends were always shallow and superficial. Some of the jokes that people are questioning now, were lame back then.

I have gone through the reasons Friends is criticised one by one.

Did You Watch Friends First Time Around?

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1. Diversity

New York is a very diverse city, so why does Friends only feature white characters? The only notable ethnic characters who last more than one episode are Ross's girlfriend, Julie in series 2 and his girlfriend, Charlie in series 9 and 10.

I agree that Friends is not diverse, but I am not sure it deserves total condemnation for this:

Friends Doesn't Deserve to be Singled Out

Most mainstream modern sitcoms are not exactly diverse.

'How I Met Your Mother' (2005 - 2014). A show about a group of friends in New York, an entire decade after Friends. Its cast, a group of all white American friends.

'The Big Bang Theory" (2007-present) also features mostly white characters, with the exception of Raj who is Indian.

It Probably Does Reflect Reality

Whether it should be the case, it is believable that a group of white people in New York would mostly hang out with other white people, from similar backgrounds to themselves. Friends is a show about a group of Americans in New York living in their own bubble.

Diversity is Complex

If Friends was remade today they would probably cast some roles with a black or Asian actor, but how would that really make it a diverse show?

Adding in one Black character would not make a show diverse. It would still be a comedy about wealthy, straight Americans in New York.

I am not sure what the answer is to making television more diverse, but I it is about much more than just adding in one or two non white actors to a show. People tend to write stories about people like themselves, so it might be about commissioning shows written by more diverse writers.


2. Fat Shaming

There are constant jokes based on the premise Monica used to be fat. I have read lots of articles criticising Friends because nowadays this fat-shaming is not acceptable. My problem is that I really don't remember it being acceptable to mock people for their weight in the 1990s either.

How is This a Revelation?

When I grew up in the 1990s I was taught that it is not nice to make fun of people for how they look. I watched Friends as a naive teenager (a lot of the jokes about sex went over my head), but I was very much aware mocking someone for their weight wasn't something you should do. I thought some of the jokes were not funny.

Society has Not Moved on

Has society really moved on from fat jokes? Maybe in some television critic circles, but nearly all television sitcoms, past and present, feature attractive people who are slimmer than average.

At least in Friends, they make it clear that Monica and Chandler would still get together even if Monica was fat.

The One with What if Monica Was Still Fat

3. Homophobia and Transphobia

Another criticism levelled against Friends is that it is homophobic and transphobic. Examples of incidents that are singled out are:

  • Ross is horrified that Ben is playing with a Barbie doll ('The One With The Metaphorical Tunnel': Series 3, episode 4)
  • Joey is mocked when he buys a "unisex" handbag ('The One with Joey's Bag': Season 5, episode 13)
  • Chandler is consistently mocked because people think he is gay (for example in 'The One Where Nana Dies Twice': Season 1, episode 8)
  • Chandler's treatment of his father, who is now living as a woman ('The One With Chandler's Dad', Season 7, episode 22

Friends was Ahead of its Time

Before criticising Friends, it is worth remembering that 20 years ago attitudes were very different. Friends was ahead of its time as a mainstream television programme for its inclusion of LGBT characters. When Susan, Ross's ex-wife, marries Carol in a 1996 episode it was Network tv's first lesbian wedding.

Friends isn't Ever Hateful

However, there is nothing to suggest that the characters are in way anti-gay or hateful towards gay people. Chandler struggles to come to terms with his relationship with his father, but that seems more generally to do with his father cheating on his mother and screwed up stuff happening in his life.

Masculinity

There is a constant theme of jokes concerning the male character's need to be seem as "men". For example, Chandler not wanting people to think he is gay, or jokes when the guys in the show act 'feminine' like when

  • Joey gets a handbag
  • Chandler has to have a ship in his bath to counteract the "feminine" bath salts
  • Ross stresses his pink shirt is "salmon".

In my opinion, these jokes are more lame and tedious than offensive. The writers were either running out of ideas or lazy.

Modern Examples

Friends is not alone in having these issues. For example, 15 years later, the Big Bang Theory has no significant gay characters whatsoever. It is also full of jokes about masculinity and Raj's "metrosexuality".

4. Behaviour Towards Opposite Sex

Sometimes the attitudes displayed by many of the characters towards the opposite sex are criticised as inappropriate.

Joey as a Womaniser

Joey's treatment of women has been singled out. He goes out with them, sleeps with them and doesn't call them back.

Phoebe also dates a lot of men, and doesn't always call them back, and isn't always nice to them, so I think there is some equality of gender here. Versions of Joey's character appears in just about every sitcom I've watched.

  • "How I Met Your Mother" - Barney
  • "Big Bang Theory" - Not exactly, but Howard wishes
  • Baby Daddy (2012-2017) - Just about all the characters (including females) do this

Sexual Harassment

One of the least acceptable storylines to modern eyes is when Rachel hires Tag Jones as her assistant, over someone more qualified for the job, because she fancies him. ('The One with Rachel's Assistant': Series 7, episode 4). She then spends time leering at him at work and talking about how she could 'spread him on a cracker'

In my world growing up in the 1990s, sexual harassment wasn't acceptable, or funny. Recent news stories suggest that it was (and is) a significant problem in the television and film industry.

Monica's Relationship with Richard

Some commentators have also criticised the relationship between Monica and Richard I don't see the problem. Yes, there is an age gap, and yes, he knew her when she was a child, but the relationship is clearly a consensual relationship between 2 grown adults.

5. The Friends are Bullies

Sometimes the Friends step over the boundaries of being funny towards bullying behaviour.

Take the Friends' treatment of Janice. Yes, Janice is loud, overbearing, has a grating voice, and seems oblivious of her effect on other people. However, does that mean she deserves to be treated the way she sometimes is by Chandler and his friends? She comes across as good-natured and kind.

Chandler uses her, repeatedly and lies to her. Rather than act like a normal decent human being, and tell Janice he wants to break up with her, he lies to her and says he is emigrating to get out of the relationship. Clearly, Janice is well shot of him.

If I had a friend who treated a girl like that, I wouldn't want to be friends with them anymore because I only want to be friends with people who are decent human beings. In the sitcom world of Friends though this isn't a big deal and is all very amusing.

This was the case in the 1990s, in 2018 and in the 1950s.

6. Pet Monkey

In the first few series Ross Gellar has his own pet monkey, Marcel. Keeping a monkey as a pet is not legal and it is not ethical, certainly not in a small apartment in New York. This bothered me in the 1990s as much as now.

Marcel is a white-faced Capuchin monkey. This breed of monkey is known to be illegally traded as pets in some countries. Apparently, they also soak their hands and feet in urine to mark out their territory, a lovely thought, if you think of having one in your kitchen.

White faced capuchin monkey swinging in a tree, where a monkey should be. This is a photo from Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
White faced capuchin monkey swinging in a tree, where a monkey should be. This is a photo from Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica | Source

7. Narcissistic, Entitled People

Sometimes the characters in Friends are hard to like because they are narcissistic and entitled.

For example, 'The One with Monica's Thunder' Season 7, episode 1, is particularly cringe-worthy. Monica and Chandler are celebrating their engagement, and the whole premise of the episode is about how Monica must be the centre of attention and is annoyed that Ross and Rachel apparently try to "steal her thunder" by kissing in the hallway.

Watching this, I am not quite sure if we are supposed to sympathise with Monica, or conclude that she is a terribly self-centred.

Rachel is also very self-centred. For example in "the One at the Beach" (series 3, episode 25) she encourages Bonnie to shave her head, just because she is jealous and wants to get back with Ross.

It is easy to come up with a list of selfish incidents for all the characters.

In Friend's defence, often selfishness is where the humour comes from. You are laughing at the awful behaviour of the characters. It's not like the show is a drama or tries to be realistic.

What do You Think is Most Problematic About Friends?

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8. Enjoyable and of its Time

So I have concluded that Friends is not diverse, and sometimes crosses the lines of what is acceptable.

But if Friends is problematic, so are a lot of sitcoms that aren't almost 25 years old. Many of these have very similar issues, I've mentioned most of these above, however special mention goes to Friends from College (2017-present).

Friends from College

The newest American sitcom I've seen about a group of Friends in New York is this Netflix drama. Now compared to Friends, this ticks more diversity boxes, one of the main characters is gay, and not everyone is white.

However, all the characters are awful, awful people. 2 of the characters have been lying to their respective partners by having an affair for over 20 years, they kill a rabbit, take drugs. I could list more, but that would mean I have to watch it again to remind myself. If you haven't seen this show, I recommend not bothering.

Compared to Friends from College, the characters in Friends are very very tame and safe. They never cheat on each other (apart from the silly "on the break" saga), don't kill animals and live respectable lifestyles and always look out for each other.

Final Thoughts

The humour in Friends is often in the fact that the characters don't act appropriately. A lot of the time Friends is genuinely amusing and funny. Sometimes step over the line into being a bit problematic, not really funny or lame. Attitudes and life in the 1990s were different.

Although, I think a lot of the things that the modern generation are apparently complaining about have always been problematic.

Besides Friends was so much a defining part of my generation's teenage life, I can't possibly not relive my youth watching it.

If you ever watched Friends, you will recognise the water fountain from the opening sequence.
If you ever watched Friends, you will recognise the water fountain from the opening sequence. | Source

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