Ross Geller, played by David Schwimmer, is one of TV’s original “nice guys.” Yet ever since Friends ended in 2004, we’ve been able to take a more critical look at Ross, and spot some of the many red flags we once disregarded. Through this retrospective lens, we can see Ross as an example of male fragility. He’s a guy who’s so preoccupied with proving that he’s a ‘man,’ he often ends up overcompensating and even hurting others in the process. And yet, after ten seasons of questionable behavior, Ross ends up getting his dream girl anyway. Here’s our Take on the many Toxic Takeaways from Ross Geller’s story, and the lessons he can teach us about how not to be a good friend.
Ross Geller is one of TV’s original ‘nice guys.’ Yet ever since Friends ended in 2004, we’ve been able to take a more critical look at Ross, and spot some of the many red flags we once disregarded. Some fans have even gone so far as to remove the laugh track from certain scenes, to reveal just how sinister Ross can really be.
Through this retrospective lens, we can see Ross as an example of male fragility. He’s a guy who’s so preoccupied with proving that he’s a ‘man,’ he often ends up overcompensating and even hurting others in the process — and perhaps more than anything, he’s a narcissist, too focused on himself and his own needs to ever develop emotionally.
And yet, after ten seasons of this questionable behavior, Ross ends up getting his dream girl anyway. Here’s our Take on the many Toxic Takeaways from Ross Geller’s story, and the lessons he can teach us about how not to be a good friend.
Toxic Takeaway #1: Protect Your Manhood at All Costs
Ross is a classic example of a guy who regards his masculinity as under perpetual attack According to Dr. Darcia Narvaez, boys who grow up feeling insecure have difficulties behaving in a way that is “fiercely egalitarian.” And when these boys grow up, they become insecure men who cope by attempting to dominate.” As Dr. Narvaez writes, the fragile male “uses his survival instincts—territoriality, rivalry, routines, and group loyalty—to move through the social world.”
Ross certainly falls back on these “survival instincts.” As we see, he demonstrates territoriality over the women he dates. He makes a rival out of his ex-wife’s new partner, Carol. Likewise, any men who dare intrude on his territory—such as Rachel’s other romantic interests, or even her male coworkers—are met with grudges and suspicion.
Ross: “Look, if you’re not working with him anymore why do you still have to do stuff with him?”
Rachel: “Because, he’s my friend!”
Ross: “Okay, but do you really need another friend?” - Friends, 3x14
Many men will try to frame their nerdiness—especially when it leads to their being rejected by girls—as a form of trauma. And even though he’s channeled those nerdy interests into a successful career, and he obviously has no problem with attracting women, it’s clear that Ross has crafted a narrative about himself as someone who is unfairly demeaned and emasculated.
This low self-esteem is only compounded by Ross’s first marriage, which ends when his wife leaves him for another woman. In 2012, psychologists Joseph Vandello and Jennifer Bosson proposed the theory of precarious manhood—the idea that “manhood is seen as a precarious social status that is both difficult to achieve and tenuously held.” And having been given many external reasons throughout his life to believe his manhood is under threat, Ross is particularly susceptible to adopting what Vandello and Bosson call “risky and maladaptive behaviors” to protect it.
This need to perform his masculinity goes some way toward explaining Ross’s propensity for lashing out. His awkward adolescence and his divorce can explain some of his constant self-victimization.
Ross: “Well, I was with Carol for, like, eight years. And I lost her. So it’s hard for me to believe that well, that someone else isn’t gonna take you away.” - Friends, 3x12
But the trouble is, Ross often uses these things to justify the way he victimizes and mistreats others.
Toxic Takeaway #2: Your Fulfillment Matters Most
The very first time we ever meet Ross, he’s reeling from his recent divorce. But Ross isn’t missing Carol, specifically. He just wants a woman—any woman—to fill the role of his wife. So when Rachel walks into Central Perk wearing her wedding dress, Ross takes it as a sign: He immediately sets his sights on making her his, and using her to complete his idealized vision of himself.
Rachel: “Ross, you’ve planned out the next 20 years of our lives, we’ve been dating for six weeks!” - Friends, 2x20
Throughout their on-and-off relationship, Ross gets upset whenever Rachel does something that challenges his idea of her being solely his. He hates it when she finally finds a job that she loves in the fashion industry, feeling threatened by his partner having any interests that take her away from just being there for him. Ross also clearly doesn’t respect Rachel’s career, given how much he openly belittles it. In fact, much of his attraction to Rachel seems to be based on an entirely superficial idea of what she means for his life. He often doesn’t seem to respect her as a person at all.
Ross’s lack of respect for Rachel also extends to her choices. From the very beginning, Ross is interfering in Rachel’s relationships, before he’s so much as asked her on a date. Even when they’re on one of their many breaks, he continues to get in the way of her dating other people. He can’t stand the thought of Rachel ever becoming unavailable to him, even as he dates—and marries—other women. When Ross and Rachel get married on a drunken, Las Vegas whim, he tells her he’ll have it annulled, then secretly balks because he doesn’t like what it would mean for him. Throughout the series, Ross continues to think of Rachel as his—and his to control.
Ross: “I happened to look through the window and see you kissing a guy you’ve known for what? A week?” - Friends, 9x13
Worse, Ross repeatedly manipulates Rachel’s life in order to make it conform to his needs. This becomes most evident in the show’s final season when Ross does whatever he can to thwart Rachel’s plans to move to Paris. At the moment Rachel is finally ready to take a major step in her own life, to fully become her own person and pursue her own independent happiness, Ross panics.
Ross: “Please, please stay with me. I am so in love with you. Please, don’t go.” - Friends, 10x18
He doesn’t care that going to Paris would make Rachel fulfilled. He only cares about how she can fulfill him.
Toxic Takeaway #3: You Don’t Have to Change For Anyone
Rachel’s desire to go to Paris is rooted in her genuine need for growth and change—the very thing that caused her to run away from her wedding in the first place. Over the course of the show, most of the group changes: They’re all finding new careers, new partners, figuring out who they are. But Ross changes very little—nor does he really seem to want to. Perhaps because he’s already established in his career, gotten married, and even fathered a son, Ross largely sees his life as fixed. This explains his anxiety whenever anything threatens to upset it—and his inability to cope in healthy, normal ways when something does.
Ross’s desperate need to be seen as an accomplished adult belies one of the other, most toxic things about him. Ross is what historian Gary S. Cross identifies as a ‘boy-man,’ an ostensible grown-up who “fixates on adolescent longings for the intensity and variety of experience and escape.” “The boy-man,” Cross writes, “stands on the treadmill of endless novelty, and passively looks for hits of pleasure.’’
Chandler: “Ross is wearing leather pants!”
Ross: “See, I need a new thing for today.” - Friends, 5x11
Ross does show some obvious signs of immaturity. He also clings to reminders of his adolescence, in everything from his would-be music career to his sexual fantasies. Even Ross’s relationship with Rachel can be seen as just another teenage obsession that he’s never been able to let go of.
As a boy-man, Ross’s endless search for those hits of pleasure often results in a complete lack of impulse control. Ross routinely makes ill-advised decisions just to satisfy his own base needs. He dates his own 20-year-old student, Elizabeth, despite knowing that it’s inappropriate. He pursues Joey’s girlfriend, Charlie, and he has sex with Chandler’s ex, Janice. And he even puts the moves on his own cousin. Time and again, Ross shows that he will put his own immediate desires before every other consideration, whether it comes to flirting with Rachel’s younger sister or even getting married to someone, despite the fact that he clearly has unresolved feelings for another woman.
He also does many of these things passively. Ross frames his very first come-on to Rachel as a meek supplication, putting an unfair burden on her.
Ross: “Do you think it would be okay if I asked you out sometime, maybe?” - Friends, 1x1
And of course, there’s the break. It’s clear that Rachel is heartbroken to be asking for a break; she’s still deeply invested in her relationship with Ross and expects it to be a chance for them to reflect on and reevaluate it together. But Ross sees it as an excuse to sleep with someone else, which he tries to blame on Rachel.
Ross: “Y’know what, I’m not-I’m not the one that wanted that, that break, okay. You’re the one that bailed on us. You’re the one that… that ran the moment when things got just a little rough!” - Friends, 3x16
Over the course of their relationship, Ross remains unable to take ownership of his actions and emotions: When he accidentally gets Rachel pregnant, his first instinct is to blame the condom. When Joey and Rachel begin seeing each other, Ross avoids direct confrontation and again retreats behind passive-aggressive emotional manipulation.
And again, all of this culminates in the finale, where even Ross cops to his lingering inability to behave and communicate like an adult. Still, recognizing that he’s been selfish isn’t enough for him to actually change. As fans have since pointed out, by this point Ross had been teaching long enough that he could have taken a sabbatical and gone to Paris with Rachel. Ross also could have moved there to be with his daughter—or even considered her in his plans. All told, Ross could have realized his true feelings, used them to reprioritize his life, and changed for someone else—even if it meant leaving his comfort zone. But ultimately, that’s not Ross.
Toxic Takeaway #4: Feeling Mistreated Justifies Your Mistreatment of Others
Ross doesn’t just need to feel superior to Rachel—he’s pretty condescending to most of the people in his life. He regularly treats his friends with disrespect, generally regarding them as beneath him. He patronizes and embarrasses them when it comes to their careers and money.
Ross: “I guess I just never think of money as an issue.”
Rachel: “That’s cause you have it.” - Friends, 2x5
He can’t understand why they don’t respond the way he wants them to when he buys them tickets to a concert they can’t afford. He shows that he’s intolerant of some of their worldviews—and he gets annoyed when they pose a challenge to his own. Ross is ultimately so wrapped up in this narrative of himself, he often fails to consider other people’s feelings—or sometimes, even notice them.
Despite being incredibly sensitive about his own feelings, Ross regularly shows himself to be insensitive and even intolerant toward others. He’s a borderline bigot when it comes to his relationship with Carol, whose homosexuality Ross frequently mocks and disregards. It’s understandable that Ross would experience tension with Carol and her new partner, Susan—after all, it can be difficult to maintain amiable relations with an ex, and that even goes for emotionally mature individuals. But Ross uses his hurt feelings as an excuse to lash out at Susan with a barely masked homophobia.
Susan: “It’s my baby too.”
Ross: “Funny, I don’t remember you making any sperm.” - Friends, 1x2
And even with Susan happily married to Carol, Ross still regards her as a threat to his own precarious manhood, simply because she’s a lesbian.
Ross’s masculinity is so fragile, he spends much of his time with his son, Ben, reinforcing harmful, heteronormative stereotypes—even though we learn that he was free to explore his own gender as a child. When Ross and Rachel hire a male nanny, Sandy, to help look after Emma, Ross’s response is also knee-jerk machismo—and again, homophobia. Even when it concerns his daughter’s best interests, Ross can’t get over himself, or his prejudices. And as Sandy himself recognizes, the problem isn’t with him, it all comes down to Ross’s own insecurities.
Ross: “Maybe because of my father? I always get the feeling he thought I was too sensitive.” - Friends, 9x6
The main problem with Ross is that he probably wouldn’t agree with any of this. He doesn’t see himself as he truly is—only who he believes himself to be. He refuses to take any blame for sleeping with another woman while still technically with Rachel because he doesn’t see himself that way. But we see that this is far from true: he’s cheated on Carol with Phoebe, he cheats on Julie and Bonnie with Rachel, and he’s also emotionally cheating on Emily—and even after ruining their wedding, he still doesn’t take full responsibility for that, either.
Ross: “Second marriage, said the wrong name at the altar… A little my fault.” - Friends, 6x2
He doesn’t tell his girlfriend Mona that he’s secretly moved in with Rachel, who’s pregnant with his child. No matter the circumstance, Ross sees himself as a nice guy who’s constantly reacting to a cruel world—and as with so many nice guys, this justifies some truly not-so-nice behavior.
Ross’s deep insecurity, incredible vanity, and unwillingness to face his flaws is a toxic combination of traits. And ultimately, the fact that he gets the girl is the show’s most toxic takeaway. In the end, Rachel has given up her dream job just to stay with someone who’s manipulated her repeatedly, who’s only professed his love for her because of the fear of losing his agency over her, and who shows no signs of changing. Still, even if it’s a toxic one, theirs is a relationship we can all learn from: If you ever find yourself dating someone like Ross Geller, it might be time to get back on that metaphorical plane.
Rachel: “Oh you are a petty man. You are a petty, petty, petty, petty, small man.” - Friends, 3x19
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