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From Fat Monica to Chandler's dad: How well has 'Friends' aged, really?

Some are reluctant to put Friends under the microscope, but the beloved sitcom retains such a pull on viewers it's only fair to reckon with some of its most questionable aspects

Clémence Michallon
New York
Friday 11 January 2019 21:06 GMT
Friends: Chandler introduces Monica to his 'dad'

It has been 24 years since Friends premiered and 14 since Monica, Chandler, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe and Joey took their last bow, and, for a while after the finale, Friends lived on as a harmless pop culture icon, a cosy show to return to in trying times.

But this is 2019, and viewers – who have become more attuned to how fiction shapes our vision of the world – are casting a more critical eye on the sitcom. Some are reluctant to put Friends under the microscope. Is nothing sacred anymore? Is every childhood favourite destined to be ruined as we hold pop culture to higher moral standards?

Well, no. But Friends retains such a pull that Netflix was willing to shell out a reported $100m to keep it on its platform for at least another year. It seems essential, then, to reckon with some of the show's most questionable aspects – namely, the fact that all six friends seemed to live in a world overwhelmingly populated by straight, white people. A world where being fat or acting gay (whatever that means) doomed you to become the butt of many jokes.

“It’s fair to say [Friends] was the product of its time, but the problem is that time was far less inclusive, and an era when bigotry, even into the guise of a sitcom, was more acceptable,” says Kelsey Miller, the author of the recently released I’ll Be There for You, an in-depth look into the show’s history.

To understand why Friends sometimes feels like an older relative with whom you can discuss the weather but not important social issues, look no further than race. As Miller points out, it took the show – a show based in New York City, of all places – nine seasons to have a recurring black character (palaeontologist Charlie Wheeler, played by Aisha Tyler).

Friends let some of its characters down when it comes to religion, too. Some might be surprised to learn that Rachel Green is Jewish (a fact confirmed by show co-creator Marta Kauffman in an interview with the Jewish Telegraph) because her identity is never clearly stated. Instead, Green’s religion is hinted at throughout the show, such as when she refers to her grandmother using the Yiddish word “Bubbe”.

“A lot of people speculate is because they were just trying to make it more palatable and that having a sort of Jewish girl next door, love interest character wouldn’t have worked as well,” Miller says. “That’s certainly how it went on those big, giant sitcoms of the era.”

Then comes, of course, the “Fat Monica” problem. Monica Geller’s younger self (played by Courteney Cox in a fat suit) is so removed from her present-day personality that she feels more like a cartoonish alter ego than the teenager who would one day become a competent New York City chef.

“She’s a joke,” Miller – whose first book, a memoir titled Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got A Life, delivered a detailed take-down of the dieting industry – says.

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But as offensive as the portrayal might be, it has some unexpectedly redeeming qualities that still resonate with some viewers today.

“A lot of people really like Fat Monica because she had confidence in a way,” Miller says. “She seemed totally unaware of the fact that people were making fun of her a lot of the time. I think for a lot of fat women and girls, watching that character, that was kind of a cool thing.”

One of the most unpalatable aspects of the show today – the kind that makes you turn to your Netflix binging partner and say: “I forgot Friends was such a Nineties show” – is its treatment of queer characters and masculinity. A man expresses the slight interest in dancing, babies, or gift wrapping? (Seriously, gift wrapping.) He must be gay, or a girl, or both. It is clear now that Chandler’s dad is a trans woman (a fact confirmed by Kauffman in a 2016 interview) – and is ruthlessly mocked for it.

But there is often a 'but' whenever Friends is discussed, because what seems intolerably obsolete today was sometimes deemed groundbreaking two decades ago. Miller discussed the case of Chandler’s mother with a trans woman, fully expecting her to “lambaste” the character.

“But the woman I interviewed pointed out that Chandler’s ‘dad’ – and I say ‘Chandler’s dad’ because that’s the way the character is referred to in the show – was the only trans character, really at that time, who was not a murder victim on Law & Order,” Miller says.

“A lot of people said, ‘Yes of course it was terrible, but it was way worse everywhere else.’ So having that representation was better than nothing – and isn’t that a sad fact? But I think it was true for some folks.”

Perhaps the best encapsulation of the ambiguity of Friends is the season two episode The One With the Lesbian Wedding, in which Ross’s ex-wife Carol marries the love of her life, Susan. The segment gave viewers the first lesbian wedding shown on network TV, 19 years before the Supreme Court’s decision guaranteeing the right to same-sex marriage. It attracted significantly less controversy than expected. NBC had expected a deluge of phone calls but received only a few complaints, an apparent sign that the episode resonated with the 31.6 million viewers who tuned in.

But – here it is again – Friends could have pushed the envelope even further. “Although it was two women getting married, there was a lot of making it as traditional and as heteronormative as possible in other ways,” Miller says.

Both Carol and Susan are walked down the aisle by men, she points out – Carol by Ross, Susan by both her parents, including her father in full military uniform. Both brides are wearing “very traditional gowns”, although they are not white and the veils have been replaced by hats. And, in a move that seems reminiscent of some present-day sitcom debates (it took Modern Family an entire season to let Cam and Mitchell share a kiss on camera in 2010) the brides aren’t seen kissing after tying the knot.

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Jane Sibbett, who played Carol, has acknowledged that she and Jessica Hecht (Susan) were “disappointed” by the decision.

“We weren’t allowed to kiss, and we were disappointed by that,” she told Metro last year. “It wasn’t not allowed, it just wasn’t filmed, that segment of the wedding. People were worried that that was going to happen and maybe they pulled back on that a little bit.”

No one is asking viewers to stop binge-watching Friends, but for a show generally so brilliantly crafted (if a line didn't elicit the appropriate reaction from the audience, Miller recounts in her book, it would be rewritten until it clicked, making for "marathon" shoot nights) it’s frustrating to see, two decades later, how often it fell back on cheap laughs.

Friends would be just as funny without Fat Monica. The sitcom never needed a single “gay Chandler” joke. And it would have been just fair (especially given how many gags diminish lesbian sex, presenting it as merely a way to arouse heterosexual men) to let two women kiss at their own wedding.

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