Friends is the sitcom classic which in many ways defined a cultural era. But in the same way the quintessentially 90s haircuts and fashion seem out of place in 2018, so too has the era’s taste in humour suffered from the passing of time.
Since Friends was released on Netflix earlier this month, millennials have expressed reservations about many of its storylines. The show is often transphobic, homophobic, and outright sexist; many of the recurring jokes give a stark and unforgiving reflection of a less socially progressive era.
Friends is far from a bastion of diversity, and from this, humour is often cruelly derived from anyone who doesn’t fit the ‘copy and paste’ casting method of white, straight, middle class characters. Viewers will remember only two notable non-white characters in the show, Charlie and Julie, neither of them last long enough in the series to make a significant impact.
The most notable criticism is probably the show’s often blatant homophobia and transphobia. Chandler is paranoid about being perceived as gay, the concept of a male nanny forms the basis of an episode tinged with homophobic undertones, and mean-spirited jokes about Chandler’s transgender father, Helena, are a staple for the show’s iconic wedding episode between Monica and Chandler. Correct pronouns are dismissed with little thought, Monica describing Helena as ‘the man in the black dress’ to the delight of rapturous canned laughter.
On top of the racism, sexism and homophobia, Monica was never allowed to forget she was once overweight. “The camera adds ten pounds!” she says in the episode titled ‘The One with the Prom Video’, to which Chandler responds: “so how many cameras are actually on you?” Her weight is a constant source of mockery, the writers consistently assuming that audiences will find the concept of fatness inherently funny.
I was a young teenager when I began watching Friends. The cast were charismatic, attractive, and the supposedly ideal image of young adulthood. But re-watching Friends, the humour often appears cheap. What once felt witty now provokes tangible discomfort, the kind you experience when forced to spend time with a particularly ignorant grandparent.
It calls into question what the purpose of comedy is, does it have a social or moral purpose? Do we have an obligation to call out insensitive jokes, or merely take them on the chin and view them through the more informed social lens which we can derive from our now more progressive social landscape? It’s good for audiences to demand more from their TV shows. Shows with the success Friends experienced over its ten year run permeate the cultural consciousness, and often what we find funny is a reflection of what we find acceptable in society.
The influence of TV shows doesn’t end when they are taken off air, they evolve into similar cultural incarnations, like How I Met Your Mother, and The Big Bang Theory. Joey’s sexism is reincarnated into the form of Barney Stinson, both labelled as ‘womanisers’ but more accurately described in this context as a term for men who objectify women.
For this reason, it’s important we remain critical of the way different genders, sexualities and races are depicted on screen. The perpetuation of stereotypes is damaging, and when your identity becomes the punchline to a mass audience, it no longer feels like innocent fun.