Fifteen years ago today, the final episode of Friends aired, resulting in thousands of people screaming at their TV’s demanding to know if Rachel got off the plane. Spoiler alert: she did.
Coming in at number four on the list of most-watched TV show finales of all time, it’s clear Friends had a following which was unparalleled at the time – hence why it was able to survive for 10 seasons.
To this day, the sitcom about six unlikely friends based in New York remains one of the most successful and talked-about programmes of the past few decades, entertaining generations of people in a way that other shows just couldn’t.
But in recent years – as Friends became available to watch on streaming platforms such as Netflix – the show has come under intense criticism from people watching it for the first time.
Not only did the sitcom lack diversity in its mostly white cast, many have since condemned its storylines and punchlines, describing them as homophobic, sexist, and transphobic – to name just a few issues.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Friends formed a major part of my life growing up; every day, without fail, I’d get home from school/sixth form and watch two back-to-back episodes of the sitcom on E4.
As a teenager growing up in a small town, being able to watch a programme about a group of friends who were so far removed from me in every aspect (in my eyes they were older and so were automatically cooler, more sophisticated, and ultimate goals) was – to put it simply – on another level.
But I’ll also be the first to admit that the sitcom hasn’t necessarily aged well. As much as it made me laugh (and, admittedly, still does for the most part), there’s no denying that parts of the show just wouldn’t pass today.
Take, for example, the blatant sexism throughout the show. Not only towards women – although Joey’s constant objectification of women does get tiring after a while – but towards men and the types of the professions they can be a part of too.
In The One with the Male Nanny, Ross can’t seem to wrap his head around the fact that a guy – more specifically, a straight guy – would choose to be a nanny. So much so that when Rachel has the audacity to hire Sandy, Ross’s fragile masculinity can’t handle it.
He turns to Rachel and says:
It’s like if a woman wanted to be…
A what, Ross? At this, Rachel gives him a death stare and he resorts into meekly saying ‘a king?’ Which, let’s face it, is a pretty pathetic attempt to dig himself out of the hole he’s got himself into.
The viewer is left with the knowledge that what Ross really meant to say was something along the lines of a pro footballer, firefighter, or tree surgeon. You know, manly jobs. Sigh. The entire thing just reeks of outdated stereotypes and to be honest, I’m not here for it.
While we’re talking about this episode, let’s talk about how Friends has long been criticised for mixing homophobia in with their punchlines. As Sandy (played by Freddie Prinze Jr.) is empathising with Rachel about how hard it must be to leave your child with a stranger, Ross rudely interjects to ask, ‘are you gay?’
Erm, first of all: What business is that of yours? Secondly, can you BE any more inappropriate in a job interview? And finally, stop with the the stereotypes! Why can’t a straight man be a nanny? Why can’t anyone choose to do any job they want to, just because they enjoy it?
Ross can’t let it go though – despite Sandy telling him that he is, in fact, straight and is engaged. After Rachel hires him and the two hug, Ross mumbles, ‘you’ve gotta be at least bi…’
Why would it matter if Sandy was bi? The character’s refusal to accept Sandy for what he was – a man doing a job he adored, for that sole reason – is just completely outdated and out of place when you re-watch the episode.
The show has also received criticism for being transphobic, with reference to its portrayal of Chandler’s dad, Charles. Played by Kathleen Turner, it was never really made clear whether Charles was a man dressed in drag or whether Chandler’s dad identified as a woman.
However, as the series went on it became clear that Charles was a transgender woman – although this was never addressed or confirmed and Charles was consistently referred to using male pronouns.
Throughout Friends, the inner details of the character’s sexuality and gender identity are brushed to one side, useful only as a throwaway gag in random scenes. For example, at Monica and Chandler’s wedding, Monica’s dad (Jack) get’s introduced to Chandler’s mum and asks, ‘are you his mother or father?’
After he’s berated by his wife, Jack exclaims:
What?! I’ve never seen one before!
One. Not them, or him, or her. One. As though Charles isn’t even a human being deserving of recognition and is simply a creature for other people to laugh at.
Turner, who plays Charles, has since admitted the show hasn’t aged well for LGBTQ+ rights, saying people just thought her character was dressing up and was never really taken seriously.
In an interview with Gay Times, Turner said:
I don’t think it’s aged well. It was a 30 minute sitcom. It became a phenomenon, but no one ever took it seriously as a social comment.
To give Friends credit where it’s due though, 2004 was a completely different time to 2019. The show’s creator, Marta Kauffman, has alluded to as much recently, admitting the show might not necessarily have used ‘the appropriate terms’ when referring to transgender people.
In an interview with USA Today, when asked how Friends would change if it was being remade, Kauffman said ‘we didn’t have the knowledge about transgender people back then’ and so she doubts they used the appropriate terms. ‘I think that’s the biggest one,’ she added.
These are just a few examples of how many feel the show failed to grasp its audience. Except, that’s just it. Friends grasped its audience perfectly, hence why it was (and still is) one of the most popular sitcoms on TV. Every joke earned rapturous applause while the audience laughed along with every punchline.
This was regardless of how much offence they might have caused to minority groups, because it was the nineties. These jokes were applauded without second thought because, in most peoples’ minds, they were funny.
Jokes that made the show what it was 15 years ago most likely wouldn’t even make it past the writers’ room in 2019. That’s exactly the point: the world is now a very different place to what it was 15 years ago.
The truth is, Friends is offensive in 2019. You can’t get away from that – no matter how much you love it, as I do – because it’s impossible to watch a single episode without noticing a problematic storyline or joke somewhere along the way.
But, as is the case with many similar sitcoms, the show was a product of its time. Yes, it hasn’t aged well and yes, it handled certain topics in completely the wrong way. However, creators and cast members have since acknowledged this and held their hands up, saying things would be different in 2019.
As it stands, we’ve just got to accept Friends as it is and enjoy it for what it was – a hit sitcom that, although slightly outdated and problematic in today’s society, still remains the UK’s most popular streaming show, even 15 years since its last episode.
Turns out they really will always be there for you.
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