No one can go back in time and correct the problems with Friends but with a global audience, that is set to gather for a reunion, the show can certainly acknowledge those problems and hope that the generations ahead remember them for all the right reasons.
The much-awaited reunion of the American sitcom Friends is just a few days away and fans from all across the world, who have waited for a reboot/sequel/movie or basically just anything more to do with the show for the last 17 years, can’t contain their excitement as they wait for the main cast members – Jennifer Anniston, Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer, to get together and recreate moments that have been a part of the pop culture for almost three decades now. And while the cast members give us a trip down memory lane with many tears and laughter, it would be nice if they also acknowledge the problematic bits of the show that have scarred its reputation.
There’s no doubt that Friends has created a legacy that will outlive its first-generation fans. The show’s fandom is already past its original viewers, thanks to streaming platforms and multiple networks across the world airing the show on television umpteen times. But no amount of fame or popularity can take away from the fact that Friends’ representation of the society it existed in, was extremely biased. The problematic nature of many of its episodes has never been addressed, despite the show living through cancel-culture. With the show having a much-celebrated reunion now, it seems like the perfect opportunity for the makers and cast members to address those problems that have been raised by critics all these years.
At the time when it aired, Friends was widely criticised for being all-white. The six main characters here were all straight white people and the show hardly had any significant characters where people of colour were cast. This problem was frequently seen in the shows during that era but unlike Friends, not many have got the popularity or the stage, to address that issue.
As the show entered the woke era, the next generation that was watching this much-hyped show for the first time, started pointing out that comments about a person’s weight, or how they become desirable after they have lost the said weight, should not be used for comedic effect. The Fat-Monica track was the entirety of Monica’s backstory and the way it was played was quite derogatory. Years after the show ended, Lisa Kudrow spoke about the show on WTF podcast and openly addressed how working on the show affected her body image issues. “You see yourself on TV, and it’s that, ‘Oh my god, I’m just a mountain of a girl.’ And I’m already bigger than Courteney and Jennifer. (I was) taller, bigger. My bones feel bigger, I just felt like this mountain of a woman next to them,” she said. The body-shaming jokes that were played for fun on the sitcom had real-life implications on millions of people watching the series. There is no way that these jokes would even be broadcast in today’s world, which is why it is essential for the show to acknowledge its misgivings.
Friends cast Kathleen Turner, a cis female actor, in the role of a transgender person named Charles Bing, Chandler’s father. The makers could argue that they didn’t know any better at the time but watching Chandler get freaked out by his father in The One With Chandler’s Dad is truly disappointing.
The characters of this much-loved series were shown as highly homophobic, especially the men. Friends was one of the first mainstream shows to broadcast a lesbian wedding and treated Carol and Susan like any other loving couple but it also made a mockery out of same-sex relationships when it had its male lead characters share their take on them. Ross, Chandler and Joey have a hard time accepting same-sex relationships and their homophobia is evident throughout the series. In one of the earlier episodes of the series The One With the Baby on the Bus, a passerby just assumes Chandler and Joey are together and have adopted a baby. It’s played in a matter-of-fact or rather loving way, but the reaction to the assumption by the two male leads is played for hilarity. In 2021, this is something that the show should definitely acknowledge, and maybe, even apologise for.
The show’s understanding of gender also stems out of traditional gender stereotypes and while a mainstream sitcom of the 90s can’t be blamed for not being revolutionary, it can certainly be blamed for making fun of those who choose to step out of society’s prescribed gender roles. Rachel hiring a male nanny is seen as almost blasphemous by Ross and Joey participating in a little home renovation is seen as ‘womanly’ by Chandler. The makers weren’t scared of stepping out of the traditional boundaries as they willingly gave all its three female characters different versions of motherhood but this woke-ness on the part of the makers was only seen sporadically.
Friends has influenced an entire generation on a global scale. The show has been embraced for its friendships, love stories, character chemistry and has even become a benchmark for success for many of its follow-up sitcoms but that doesn’t let it get away from the issues that have somehow tarnished its image. No one can go back in time and correct the problems with Friends but with a global audience, that is set to gather for a reunion, the show can certainly acknowledge those problems and hope that the generations ahead remember them for all the right reasons.
The Friends reunion special will stream on ZEE5 in India.
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