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Friends’ Mixed Messages | Good and Bad Takeaways

Almost 20 years since it ended, Friends has, if anything, gotten more popular. Aside from its comfort food merits, the 90s and early 00s show was actually ahead of its time in many ways. On the other hand, it’s set in a lily-white New York and chock-full of casual misogyny, homophobia, and fatphobia. So rewatching Friends can be equal parts cringey and heartwarming. Going through the “Mixed Messages’’ of an old TV show can be a great way to examine what lessons, good and bad, we’ve taken away when we thought our brain was turned off. Here are the Mixed Messages of Friends.

TRANSCRIPT

Almost 20 years since it ended, Friends has, if anything, gotten more popular. Its portrayal of a world with daily IRL interactions with friends, and without social media or the threat of global collapse, makes it perfect escapist TV.

Aside from its comfort food merits, the ‘90s and early ‘00s show was actually ahead of its time in many ways: normalizing gay marriage before it was legal in the US,

Minister: “You know, nothing makes God happier than when two people, any two people, come together in love.” - Friends, 2x11

asserting that women deserve pleasure in sex, depicting alternate forms of family, and showing women thriving in the workforce. On the other hand, it’s set in a lily-white New York and chock-full of casual misogyny, homophobia, and fatphobia. So rewatching Friends can be equal parts cringy and heartwarming. It’s both a product of its time and a font of timeless wisdom—because its unreal New York captures the oh-so-real truth that in your 20s, your friends are your family.

Going through the “mixed messages’’ of an old TV show can be a great way to examine what lessons—good and bad—we’ve taken away when we thought our brain was turned off. Here are the mixed messages of Friends.

Let’s start with a great takeaway:

MEANINGFUL MESSAGE: DON’T GET MARRIED UNTIL YOU’RE READY

If Friends is about anything, it’s about not marrying until you’re a fully formed adult. The show starts with Rachel running away from her wedding because she realizes she’s never been her own person. When Ross gets married hastily, it goes as bad as it’s possible for a wedding to go. And the show recognizes that this is because he rushed into it. Monica and Chandler learn from Ross’ mistakes and slow their roll after Ross’ next hasty marriage in Vegas (to Rachel).

Monica: “It’s too fast, I’m happy the way things are!”

Chandler: “Me too!

Monica: “I don’t want things to change! Do you?”

Chandler: “No!” - Friends, 6x01

Phoebe plays the field for years and seems to feel no pressure to rush into things. Then, after she decides in her own time that she’s ready to get married, her honesty about what she needs is why she and Mike can go from broken up to wed in under a season. Friends emphasizes that real “adulting” is about earning true emotional maturity and knowing thyself. Decades later, the show’s portrayal of a slow journey into adulthood resonates in a world where people are getting married later, having kids later, and possibly never pulling a Chandler and Monica and moving to the suburbs to raise said kids.

MEANINGFUL MESSAGES: WOMEN LIKE SEX AND CAN MARRY EACH OTHER

This series, created by a woman and a gay man, was groundbreaking in its attitude toward women having sex. The Friends writers had to fight for the female characters to be as horny as the men.

Monica: “The beginning, where you know, it’s all sex and talking and sex and talking and…”

Chandler: “Yeah, you gotta love the talking”

Monica: “And the sex.” - Friends, 4x11

Saul Austerlitz’s book Generation Friends reports that NBC exec Don Ohlmeyer flipped out over Monica sleeping with Paul “The Wine Guy” on the first date in the pilot. And Ohlmeyer insisted on giving test audiences a questionnaire that Kauffman said boiled down to asking whether Monica was “A) a whore, B) a slut, or C) easy.” The audience, and history, was on Monica’s side.

Whether directly, or through innuendo and metaphor, Friends centered female pleasure. And the episode where Rachel and Monica argue over the last condom was—according to a study in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics—an effective tool for safer sex education.

The show also incorporated co-parenting and blended families. And although Friends didn’t show the first gay marriage on TV (that honor goes to FOX’s Roc). As Austerlitz put it, “In its embrace of the aggressively normal in its storytelling, it was able to expand the spectrum of normalcy until it could also include a lesbian wedding.” Still, because it addressed issues of gender and sexuality when it did, its approach to these same topics can sometimes come off as super dated.

TOXIC TAKEAWAYS: CASUAL MISOGYNY, RIGID GENDER ROLES, AND COULD THIS SHOW BE MORE HOMOPHOBIC?

Every man on Friends is a walking crisis of masculinity. The show ended up espousing pretty rigid gender roles by always going for an easy joke about a guy acting effeminate[s].. Joey using a handbag is the main source of comedy for a whole episode.

Joey: “It’s got compartments for all of your stuff: your wallet, your keys, your address book.

Ross: “Your makeup.” - Friends, 5x13

And even though Ross rightly gets called out over losing his mind because his son likes Barbie, Ross’ “comeuppance” is the supposedly huge embarrassment that he dressed up in women’s clothing as a young boy.

TOXIC CHANDLER: A GAY JOKE FACTORY

As the least masculine man as well as “the funny one” of the group, Chandler was a major source and target of gay jokes.

Chandler: “’Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’? ‘Surrey With the Fringe on Top’?”

Monica: “Are you trying to tell me we’re moving to Oklahoma or that you’re gay?- Friends, 9x02

Homophobia was kind of background radiation in ‘90s comedy, but Chandler’s barbs were extra painful because many of them were directed at his own father. While Marta Kaufman has confirmed that Charles Bing/Helena Handbasket is a trans woman, the show mostly refers to her as a man in drag, reflecting its time’s widespread confusion over the difference and subjecting Chandler’s dad to a lot of transphobia and disrespect. This portrayal of the “Bad Dad” who abandoned the family to sleep with the help is a terrible representation.

TOXIC JOEY: WOMEN AREN’T PEOPLE

The ‘90s also saw a flourishing of a bro-y casual misogyny in comedy, best personified on Friends by Joey. Joey perpetuates the damaging mindset that sex is a prize to win, something to trick women into, and boast about after.

Joey: “Each woman is different. You have to appreciate their uniqueness.”

Chandler: “Really?”

Joey: “No! I do six things.” - Friends, 10x03

He leads countless women on with false expectations, then ghosts them after sex. And he tries every trick in his tiny little mind to see the hot women in his life naked. Worst of all, Joey’s supposed “success” with women is presented as aspirational.

We’ve got a whole video about Ross’s toxic version of maleness, but for now let’s focus on his bad case of main character syndrome.

TOXIC ROSS: MAIN CHARACTER SYNDROME

Insecure Ross feels threatened when his girlfriend has a male colleague and a job she likes,

Rachel:“It was like you were marking your territory. I mean you might as well have just come in and peed all around my desk!” - Friends, 3x12

when he can’t name all 50 states, and when his girlfriend hangs out with a lesbian. And if Ross has a problem, everyone has a problem—as we’re told from his first line in the pilot. The show often walked a line between pointing out Ross’ male obnoxiousness, and indulging him through plots that did center on him intermittently overcoming his self-centeredness or self-pity to perform what a nice sweet guy he could sometimes be. But despite his bouts of big-heartedness, Ross is plagued by a poorly developed Theory of Mind—he can’t understand that anyone else might have a different but valid point of view. For Ross, there is always an objective right answer, and he’s the authority on it. Joke’s on you, Ross. People are coming to understand that fixed rules of grammar are racist and classist constructs laid upon an ever-changing system. Nobody says whom anymore; get over it.

MEANINGFUL MESSAGE: THE POWER OF FRIENDSHIP (REGARDLESS OF GENDER)

Ross may be a terrible boyfriend, but to give him credit, he’s actually a pretty good friend. By the end of season 1, Ross has accepted that Rachel isn’t interested in him, and treats her just as well as when he’d been actively crushing.

Friends invented the term “the friend zone,” which has not been a great pop culture legacy. But Friends didn’t actually make “The Zone’’ out to be that bad of a place. It also acknowledged that women can be friend zoned.

Most importantly, Friends is an entire show about men and women being friends, rejecting the longstanding idea in popular culture that:

Harry: “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always get in the way.” - When Harry Met Sally

Sure, a lot of the friends kiss each other, and two thirds end up pairing off. But plenty of male-female relationships result in zero kissing, zero marriages, and zero babies. Joey and Rachel even choose not to explore a romantic relationship because their friendship is more rewarding.

TOXIC MONICA: RAMPANT FATPHOBIA

One of the things that have aged the worst on Friends is the treatment of Fat Monica. Monica is made out to have been some out-of-control food monster in high school, who luckily found the motivation to transform into a hot, thin woman after her crush made fun of her. Her fat past is constantly thrown in her face as a source of shame,

Monica: “Remember Dad bought every one of my boxes and I ate them all?”

Ross: “Uh, no, Mon. Uh, Dad had to buy every one of your boxes…because you ate them all.” -Friends, 3x10

with the causal implication that the world was right to see her as undeserving of love until she lost weight. Whereas actual Monica is a sexually confident and desired woman, in “The One That Could Have Been” episode, where Monica never lost the weight, she’s a virgin well into her adult life. Body positivity writer and Friends scholar Kelsey Miller wrote in Vox, “Fat Monica isn’t even a person. She’s not Monica, fat. She’s a cartoon character…”

MEANINGFUL MESSAGE: DATE PEOPLE YOU ACTUALLY LIKE

Monica and Chandler are the epitome of the truth that true love is being with your best friend.

Rachel: “I mean two best friends falling in love, how often does that happen?”

Phoebe: “Not that often!” - Friends, 6x25

Even though the two make fun of each other constantly, they’re far from the stereotypical bickering sitcom spouses—they accept each other for who they are and actually enjoy each other’s company. Even in the world where Monica never loses the weight, she and Chandler still get together. And they do so specifically because they like hanging out together. When Monica and Chandler both make big mistakes after their wedding, they just skip the predictable fight because Chandler and Monica just like each other too much for that mess. They’re a counterpoint to the show’s more centered but more toxic relationship role model: toxic Ross and Rachel. Ross and Rachel, who spend very little of their actual screen time happily together, and are always trying to “be right” or get the upper hand over each other.

TOXIC TAKEAWAY: NOT THE REAL NEW YORK CITY

The whiteness of Friends’ NYC was glaring, both then and now. In 2020, David Schwimmer told The Guardian, “I was well aware of the lack of diversity and I campaigned for years to have Ross date women of color.” Yet this tokenism in the form of disposable love interests was about as much diversity as the show ever achieved. Monica even works in unrealistically white kitchens, while immigrant characters are mostly included in short-lived guest or bit parts.

Many have noticed the similarities between Friends and Living Single, the FOX sitcom which predated it by a year. One of its stars, Erika Alexander, has written that Living Single didn’t get the respect or audience of Friends because it was marginalized as a quote “Black Show.” But Friends depicted a smaller sliver of the American population: half of its relatively affluent white friendship group grew up as members of the same country club. And in this fantasy New York, everyone seemingly works for two hours a week but lives in giant apartments.

MEANINGFUL MESSAGE: CLASS DIVIDES US

On the other hand, the show doesn’t get enough credit for the times it brought up class, and the way that not having enough money comes between even close friends.

Rachel: “Do you guys ever get the feeling that um, Chandler and those guys just don’t get that we don’t make as much money as they do?”

Joey: “Yes! It’s like they’re always saying ‘Let’s go here, let’s go there.’ Like we can afford to go here and there.” - Friends, 2x05

We watch struggling actor Joey, from working-class roots, go through a major health issue without insurance. It’s also cool that Chandler pulled off the small miracle of paying for Joey’s rent and acting career with no expectation of ever being repaid and while harboring no resentment. Careers in the arts are often closed off to those who don’t come from money, and Chandler used his passionless office job cash to do a little mutual aid for his friend, who probably couldn’t have kept acting otherwise.

MEANINGFUL PHOEBE: ANYONE CAN EXPERIENCE HOMELESSNESS, EVEN YOUR FRIEND

The show also was one of the few on TV with a main character who had been unhoused. The show often plays Phoebe’s past housing insecurity for laughs, but it didn’t use this to define her and brought home the fact that people without housing are just like your TV friends.

TOXIC PHOEBE: PHOEBE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND WHAT BEING A GOOD PERSON IS

As the group’s resident hippie, Phoebe is often framed as the ethical friend who cares about social issues. But she’s blind to a lot. Phoebe’s good deeds are usually somewhat impulsive acts of personal kindness that make her feel good, as even Joey calls out:

Joey: “It was a really nice thing and all, but it made you feel good, right?”

Phoebe: “Yeah, so?”

Joey: “Well, it made you feel good so that makes it selfish.” - Friends, 5x04

Her focus on how good deeds feel is evident in how often she abandons her personal values when it gets hard. Today, we’re more aware that being a good person requires more informed, bigger-picture thought about how you’re contributing as a global citizen.

THE BIG TAKEAWAY: YOU GOTTA HAVE FRIENDS

Friends illustrated that—in your most formative young adult years—your friends are your family, and one of the most profound, joyous romances you’ll ever experience.

Phoebe: “Boyfriends and girlfriends are gonna come and go but this is for life.” - Friends, 7x11

And the friends show us what being there for each other means: Rachel’s friends help her become an actual job-holding adult. Chandler and Joey let Ross crash despite his being an insanely annoying roommate. And when Phoebe’s dream wedding is ruined, Monica organizes the perfect impromptu ceremony in a blizzard. Our culture doesn’t place a concrete value on friendship, so we can easily view friendships as an afterthought, second to more seemingly “important” priorities like families and jobs. But the show reminds us of the simple truth that life is richer when we have great friends and we make the effort to be there for them.

CONCLUSION

The things we watch affect us—we learn from TV even when we’re not paying attention. Friends is a mixed bag: a combination of tired gay jokes, forward-thinking blended families, and… Joey. As viewers, the more conscious we become of the mix of messages being sent our way, the better we can absorb the ones we find useful and discard the ones that fail the test of time. Reexamining Friends shows us where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and what we learned along the way.

SOURCES

Alexander, Erika. “Why The Friends vs. Living Single Twitter Beef Really Matters.” ZORA, Medium, 10 Feb. 2020, http://zora.medium.com/why-the-friends-vs-living-single-twitter-beef-really-matters-ce54d9559457.

Austerlitz, Saul. Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era. Penguin Random House LLC: New York, 2020, https://www.worldcat.org/title/generation-friends-an-inside-look-at-the-show-that-defined-a-television-era/oclc/1141215554&referer=brief_results.

Collins, Rebecca L. et al. “Entertainment Television as a Healthy Sex Educator: The Impact of Condom-Efficacy Information in an Episode of Friends.” Pediatrics. Nov. 2003, https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/112/5/1115.

Jones, Isabel. “NBC Thought Monica Was Too Promiscuous on Friends.” Instyle, 1 Nov. 2019, https://www.instyle.com/news/nbc-thought-monica-too-promiscuous-friends.

Miller, Kelsey. “Friends is 25 Years Old. It’s Still Extremely Popular—And Polarizing.” Vox, 20 Sept. 2019, www.vox.com/culture/2019/9/20/20875107/friends-25th-anniversary-polarizing-legacy-homophobia.

Smith, David. “David Schwimmer: ‘I’m Very Aware of My Privilege as a Heterosexual White Male’.” The Guardian, 27 Jan. 2020, www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/jan/27/david-schwimmer-im-very-aware-of-my-privilege-as-a-heterosexual-white-male.

Sternbergh, Adam. “Is Friends Still the Most Popular Show on TV?” Vulture, 21 Mar. 2016, www.vulture.com/2016/03/20-somethings-streaming-friends-c-v-r.html.

Thorp, Clare. “Friends: The Show That Changed Our Idea of Family.” BBC, 20 Sept. 2019,

https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190920-friends-the-show-that-changed-our-idea-of-family