F.R.I.E.N.D.S is an American television sitcom created by David Crane and Marta Kauffman starring Courtney Cox, Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Matt le Blanc, Mathew Perry and David Schwimmer. The series revolves around six 20-30 something friends living in Manhattan. It is one of those American series which is considered a style statement of being “cool” in various countries of the world.
Even after 16 years of its completion, the series continues to have the same popularity among the new generations of people. What goes unnoticed is the impact that it might have on the youth’s perception of how gender is binary and how a man and woman should behave.
THE SHOW DOES NOT HAVE A SINGLE BLACK WOMAN OR MAN AS ITS CENTRAL CHARACTERS.
It started off as a progressive show in the 90s with a woman (Rachel Green) running away from her wedding because she was not ready to marry a guy her parents chose for her, who then cut her credit cards and she resorted to working as a waitress in order to become an independent woman. But, as the show progressed, the sexism and gender stereotypes started taking the place of the progressive attitude that it portrayed in the pilot episode.
After all these years of popularity, it is really necessary to look at F.R.I.E.N.D.S from a gendered perspective and see how it reflects and exaggerates the stereotypes of society in its own way. Now the series makes me cringe and sit with a straight face rather than laugh at all the scenes that portray the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and gender stereotypes engraved in the society around us.
The foremost problem is the casting of the show. Even after being progressive enough to show a single mother and a lesbian couple, the show does not have a single black woman or man as its central characters. The only black actress to make an appearance on the show is Charlie Wheeler who was introduced as a guest actor in season 9 of the series.
The portrayal of all three female characters in the series is a paradox of how women can be independent but they are still supposed to be “feminine” and “womanlike”. Even their independence is associated with a negative connotation to it.
Just like when Rachel runs away from her wedding, the story line follows a dependent daughter of a rich father and hence the only job she is capable of doing is that of a waitress. In the same way Monica and Phoebe are portrayed as cook and masseuse, respectively, whereas the male characters in the series are portrayed as IT professionals (Chandler), Scientist (Ross) and Actor (Joey).
The football game in season 3 is when Rachel is called an “useless girl”, Monica is ridiculed for being competitive “like a boy” and Phoebe flashes her breasts to win points – an apt example of how society views women and how media, in order to over-accommodate the views of society portrays women in the same way. In the same episode, the way Ross says that “We are not going to lose to girls”, indicating that women are weak creatures who cannot win a rough game like football.
Even the language used when the male characters are talking about women is such that it reduces women to “ice cream”. Like the time when Ross was doubtful after his first divorce whether he will be able to love again or not and Joey sweeps him to explain that “There are many women in the world, just like ice cream”. He advises that Ross only needs to “Grab a spoon”. Throughout the series all Joey does is objectify women by comparing them to the flavours of ice cream and choosing a roommate only because she is ‘hot’.
In the episode where Paolo assaults Phoebe, the show gives this shocking act a humorous turn; instead of acknowledging it as sexual assault, it terms it as “Making a move”. Instead of encouraging women to come forward and report sexual abuse, it just shakes it away lightly by saying that he was “Making a move”.
Chandler’s father is portrayed as a drag artist and is stigmatised throughout the series. In fact till Chandler and Monica’s wedding his father was just a character without a face who everyone knew existed and was an element of mockery for them. Throughout the series, there are incidences like when Chandler’s mom says “Don’t you have a little too much penis to be wearing a dress like that” that emphasize the stigma attached to a sexual minority of society. Chandler was often teased by saying that he has a gay dad, because of which he has that ‘quality’ which translates into him not behaving in a stereotypically masculine way. A heterosexual man should be ‘masculine’, anyone who is otherwise will be considered gay. Whereas, the playboy character of Joey always leaves an imprint on the viewers that having sex with ‘n’ number of women is an ideal ‘masculine’ characteristic.
Ross is another character which has been portrayed as someone who has the “right” to compare two women (Lucy and Rachel) in order to choose one. And this scene in the series again leaves the two ‘desperate’ women to compete for the ‘affection’ of a man. Throughout the series Ross is portrayed as the ‘meek’ man who is the victim of cruelty of every woman in his life. When he says the wrong name during his wedding with Emily, all of his friends constantly keep blaming Emily for leaving him.
Throughout the series Ross’s character uses “We were on a break” to prove that he was right in sleeping with another woman whereas at the same time he is jealous of her colleague Mark because he is tall and handsome and Ross thinks that he will take Rachel away from him. This again emphasizes the stereotype that women are just supposed to forgive, whereas it is okay for men to get jealous and expect woman to leave her career because they are “insecure”. Ross’s stereotypical attitude clearly comes into the picture when he has a problem with Ben playing with a doll and creates a big deal out of it.
Monica’s younger self is portrayed as a “fat-kid” and made fun of. The series again emphasizes the need to be of a certain body type. The series is full of body-shaming attitudes like this. Monica’s transformation from a “fat kid” to a thin “sexy” woman again emphasizes the need to be sexy in order to be accepted in society by men.
Double standards of the series come into view when it questions Monica about the number of her sexual partners but never raises a question on Joey’s sexual escapades. Chandler is always teased for not having “enough” sex and is labelled as gay because he is too “feminine” to be a man.
MONICA’S TRANSFORMATION FROM A “FAT KID” TO A THIN “SEXY” WOMAN AGAIN EMPHASIZES THE NEED TO BE SEXY IN ORDER TO BE ACCEPTED IN SOCIETY BY MEN.
The series emphasizes that men are “masculine” and “tough” and they do not express their emotions; whereas women are more expressive, weak and feminine. That is why Monica is made fun of for being “competitive like a boy”, Joey and Ross are ashamed of themselves for taking a nap together and everyone in the series thinks that Chandler is gay.
Though, the show portrays a lesbian couple (full of offensive, homophobic stereotypes), a drag artist, a single woman and a surrogate mother, it also portrays women who are independent and talk openly about their sexuality. But throughout the series, all it does is make fun and stigmatise all these identities through the medium of its male characters. In the show, all the other characteristics act as a tool of fun and jokes for masculinity.
Despite being popular and continuing to be a solace from real life for viewers, it should no more be considered a show that the next generation should watch and laugh at. Instead it is time to say good bye to all the humour that we have seen in the show and face the stark reality that F.R.I.E.N.D.S is homophobic, sexist, racist, transphobic and a show full of gender stereotypes like many other sitcoms.