10 times ‘Friends’ was incredibly problematic
(Credit: Netflix)

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10 times 'Friends' was incredibly problematic

In 1994, when David Crane and Marta Kaufmann created the pilot for the show Friends, where they cast relatively unknown actors – including a very broke Matt LeBlanc as the main characters – they could have never imagined what a cultural phenomenon it would turn out to be. This decade-long show has been a defining moment in the 1990s and has amassed a cult-like fan following where people turn to this show on their coldest, darkest nights for comfort and solace.

18 years since its finale in 2004, the show continues to garner heaps of revenue. Today itself, the cast is coming together for a reunion after 18 long years for a table read and it is a highly anticipated event. The show has touched lives all over the world with its fun, relatable content and an overwhelming trope of love and friendship imbued by humour and punchlines. 

The premise is simple and idealistic. Six odd young adults in their mid-20s living in Manhattan. They are the best of friends and constantly support each other as they try to find their way in the world. With relatable problems and flaws, these perfectly imperfect characters make viewers vicariously live the Manhattan life through them as they live their comedic lives laden with heartbreaks, romantic exploits, frustrations, joys as well as bitter-sweet emotional experiences. They keep one another grounded while helping each other overcome various obstacles in life. Starring Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox, David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry in lead roles, the show has an iconic song that tends to set the nostalgic mood. The storyline is good with fair character development.

Initially a spoilt brat, Rachel Green leads a fulfilling life of independence after securing a job in the fashion industry, rigid and uptight, chef Monica Geller finally finds her true purpose and falls in love with the sarcastic and self-critical accountant Chandler Bing who gradually learns to be confident of himself. Joey Tribbiani, goofy and slow, is a struggling actor who is trying to make ends meet yet never loses his smile. Eccentric and bizarre, Phoebe Buffay adds a dash of joy to the show while Ross Geller, Monica’s brother, is a smart and insecure palaeontologist who is irrevocably in love with Rachel. 

While the show has provided comfort, peace and happiness to hundreds and thousands of viewers, they have also been groundbreaking in lots of ways, including a transgender parent, featuring lesbian relationships, the trope of a single working mother, stereotypes of adoption and surrogacy and more. However, given the decade it was produced in, there are certain jokes and punchlines that have not aged well. While trying to do away with stereotypes and prejudices, more often than not, the show has been insensitive and ignorant, misrepresenting its purpose with borderline offensive jokes. From being homophobic to having a predominantly white cast, Friends has often been a painful watch. The laugh tracks end up aggravating our frustration. 

As the world goes gaga over their reunion after 17 years, it is pertinent for us to take note of and call out the show on the times they were ignorant and problematic. Here are 10 moments on the show when Friends was incredibly problematic and insensitive. 

10 times Friends was incredibly problematic:

The “male nanny” predicament 

Let’s get it straight. Ross is really not a very good man. Besides being oppressive, obnoxious and a walking pile of jealousy, Ross is the epitome of fragile masculinity. This was best portrayed in the sixth episode of the ninth season when Rachel tries to employ a male nanny named Sandy. Sandy is a wonderful fit for his job and is great with children and has the necessary qualifications. The only hindrance that stands in Rachel’s way of hiring him is her baby daddy’s toxic masculinity and prejudices. 

Freddie Pinze Jr. plays Sandy as a sensitive young man who cannot take care of Emma according to Ross as the latter has a meltdown about the choice of Sandy’s profession. Ross does not hold back from asking exceedingly invasive and inappropriate questions pertaining to his sexuality, reinforcing the gender stereotypes, even mocking him for his hobbies that include “plays recorders, recites poetry and bakes Madelines”. Ross even fires him because he is a male nanny. Just when we thought Ross could not be even more toxic, the episode hit us right in the gut, reminding us how insecure and insensitive he could get at times. 

“Fat Monica” as a running gag 

Monica Geller, despite her many flaws, was one of the most ill-treated characters on the show. The “fat Monica” gag which made up a lot of the jokes on the show for over ten seasons reinforced the body stereotypes that activists spreading body positivity are trying to do away with. Sure, Monica’s obesity caused her to have a  heart attack and she miraculously changed within the span of a year to fit the “attractive” body measurements. However, had she not looked the way she did in the ten seasons, she probably would have received even lesser screen time than Gunther. 

The jokes were offensive and using her body image to feed Ross and Chandler’s punchline jokes were never amusing. She was portrayed as a loner while she was obese and Rachel was constantly placed beside her in every video with the latter talking about her very happening love life while Monica had nothing noteworthy to share. Not only did these scenes show how constant fat-shaming crippled her personality as a teen but also her friends kept making insensitive comments, never really allowing her to let go of the trauma she faced when she was overweight. Chandler, in particular, made fun of her size and even admitted how he broke up with his “camp girlfriend” because she was overweight. 

Mistreatment of Chandler’s dad

Chandler did go through his fair share of childhood trauma due to his parent’s divorce. His dad even came out as transgender; sure the transition might have been difficult for the young boy but nothing could serve as an excuse for his insensitive, crass and awful homophobic jokes he made about his father. Chandler’s father, initially Charles Bing and now under the professional alias of Helena Handbasket, is portrayed by Kathleen Turner. She is a transgender woman who performs as a singer in a Vegas nightclub with her distinctively gritty voice; she is first shown in the episode where Monica and Chandler travel to vegas to invite her to their wedding which takes her by surprise as the wedding invitation is something she would have never expected. 

While the show is progressive in a way as it includes a transgender parent and tries to promote inclusivity, they end up doing quite the opposite by promoting the misrepresentation of the trans community. Instead of disrupting stereotypes, they end up reinforcing them. Not only does the show fail to show the distinct difference between transgenders and drag queens but makes certain offensive jokes, led by Chandler. Even his gang keeps on making offensive jokes about her genitalia and Chandler’s father never gets addressed with the correct pronouns. Her identity is made the butt of all jokes which is problematic and hurtful, to say the least.  

Blatant objectification of women 

As much as we love the loud, goofy and somewhat dim-witted Joey Tribbiani and his overarching love for food, especially pizzas and sandwiches, we cannot turn a blind eye to his blatant objectification of women. In a particular thanksgiving episode, as Ross and Joey want to leave and meet Joey’s roommate Janine and her dancer friends, he refers to them as “objects”, fantasising about sleeping with them. While Joey’s classic “How you doin’?” became an iconic quote, he was shown as a womaniser who never called women after bedding them nor did he have any respect for them. To him, sleeping around was a fun activity and the woman’s feelings never mattered. He even compelled Rachel to make breakfast for one of his hook-ups and planned to dump her via Rachel and Phoebe. 

Joey’s behaviour is even more problematic in the episode when he tries to look for a new roommate following Chandler moving in with Monica. Joey shows his inherent sexism when his advertisement states “Female, non-smoker, non-ugly”. He even rejects one of the “finalists” as she is not as obsessed with sex as he is; simply put, she associates the word “doggy” with “kitten”! Joey is incredibly problematic around women. While we condemn Chandler kissing Joey’s girlfriend, it is pertinent to note that Joey, too, was going out with another woman behind Kathy’s back. Can the men on this show BE any more problematic? 

Flawed understanding of consent 

Ross Geller. He has a PhD in Paleontology and claims to be the smartest yet is dumb enough to not understand the meaning of consent. There are too many instances and it is honestly infuriating to see a grown man never understand his problem. In one of the episodes as Chandler, Ross and Monica reminisce about Ross’ first kiss with Rachel, he realises that he had actually ended up kissing his sister who was asleep on his bed. Ross had initially intended to kiss Rachel who had passed out at the college party. Ross has a problem with Monica and Chandler’s relationship in the beginning as he pays no heed to his sister constantly telling him how she is a consenting adult who wants to engage in physical intimacy with Chandler willingly. 

If these examples made you think he is a creep, wait for the time when he thought Rachel was trying to seduce him. Since Monica was not inside the apartment, Rachel wanted to unwind for the night, roaming about naked inside her home.

Like a creep, Ross observes her from across the street and thinks she is inviting him for a night of debauchery, and even exclaims to himself: “What kind of game is she playing? I think maybe someone is lonely tonight”. It gets worse. In one of the events, Rachel hurts her rib before an event and wants Ross to help her dress up. She wants him to turn around to stop him from seeing her naked self. But Ross being Ross, comes up with a pathetic argument that since he had seen her naked before, he can “imagine” her naked as he has seen her multiple times. Rachel looked uncomfortable and violated yet the tittering laugh track continued which made the situation worse and somewhat painful for viewers. Talk about sexual harassment and inappropriate comments- Ross’ name tops the list. 

Homophobic jokes and comments 

The show derived its main humour from the various jokes that reeked of homophobia and ignorance. The men, especially Chandler, are extremely insecure about their sexuality. Chandler’s paranoia about being perceived as someone who is feminine or gay is on an all-time high. Being gay is taken as a shameful act on the show; his hypersexual mother makes him insecure as does his mannerisms which makes people assume he is gay. He is always trying to bravely defend his sexuality which is not amusing and extremely problematic. 

The men make a big issue out of each other engaging in slightly “feminine” activities or being emotional. In one of the episodes, when Chandler and Monica start living together, Chandler refuses to make cedar sachets from pantyhose, he refuses as he wants to do “guy stuff”. He is appalled when he sees Joey trying to learn knitting and Ross applying compact powder to balance out his bleached teeth. He is disgusted and asks “Oh my God! Where are all the men?” He later tells Joey that with all the new changes to the apartment decor ushered in by Joey’s roommate Janine, he was “turning into a woman”.  

Lack of diversity and representation

Friends had no concept of diversity or representation and it is embarrassing to even reflect on it. From the cultural appropriation in form of Monica’s cornrow braids in Barbados which were made fun of on the show to the characters engaging in romantic relationships with only white men and women (except two), the show’s indifference did not age well. The main characters are all white, heterosexual characters who conform to certain stereotypes. The only people of colour on the show are Dr Charlie Wheeler, Dr Julie and the Puerto Rican tanning shop, owner. 

Even Lisa Kudrow was quoted saying that had the show been shot now, “It’d be completely different. It would not be an all-white cast, for sure.” David Schwimmer claimed that he was aware of the lack of diversity and pushed for his character to date women of colour. “One of the first girlfriends I had on the show was an Asian-American woman, and later I dated African American women. That was a very conscious push on my part.”

However, the question is, was that enough? It was honestly satisfying to see the people of colour call out the problematic behaviour of the cast. From the Puerto Rican man in the tanning salon calling out Ross’ insensitive remarks that hints at the exoticism of his skin colour to Julie pointing out Rachel’s ignorance when the latter assumes the Asian-American woman of not being able to comprehend the English language, these minor characters are somehow more likeable at that moment than the main cast. 

The Barbie debacle  

Ross is traumatised by his first divorce when his ex-wife Carol comes out as a lesbian. While we appreciate Ross for walking her down the aisle to marry Susan when Carol’s father refused to do so, it is hard to let his problematic comments and behaviour towards the lesbian couple pass. In one of the episodes, Ross and Carol’s son, Ben, is seen playing with a barbie doll. Ross desperately tries to make Ben play with a dino soldier or a monster truck and is horrified by his boy’s fixation with the barbie. 

Despite others trying to explain the situation to him, Ross is convinced that being mothered by lesbian women, ben has been playing with barbie dolls. He wants his son to “man” up. Ross apparently failed to understand that a kid chooses whatever toy appeals to their senses the most and somehow tried to project his fragile masculinity on his infant son which was extremely problematic and hard to ignore- an unforgiving trait possessed by Ross. Rachel, who is present there, fails to understand Ross’ inability to accept his son’s choices and ends up calling him “pathetic”. 

Fifty Shades of toxic Ross 

Ross is synonymous with problematic behaviour. Talk of sexism, narcissism, jealousy, obsession and insecurity, Ross will always top the list. Ross was an absolute jerk to Rachel. He was emotionally abusive, incredibly jealous and borderline psychotic when it came down to Rachel. He was in love with Rachel for the longest time but who said he owned her? When Rachel was on amicable terms with her colleague Mark, he made her extremely uncomfortable by sending her over-the-top gifts to her workplace, reminding her that she had a boyfriend as he was afraid of losing her. This obsessive behaviour came back even in the last seasons when he suspected Mark of still trying to get into Rachel’s pants. 

Ironically, it was Ross who ended up cheating on Rachel. While fans of the show have this ongoing debate regarding whether Ross sleeping with another woman was ethical or not since they had taken a break. Ross had no respect for Rachel’s boundaries or her career. He was unprofessional, petty and felt that her sexuality was the only thing the men around her were interested in which is extremely derogatory to a young woman trying to make her mark in the industry.   

A spoiled character arc 

As a woman, I was personally offended by how the showrunners felt it was absolutely okay to flush Rachel Green’s wonderful character development down the drain. Rachel stepped into the first season as a daddy’s girl who thrived on her father’s money and was spoiled and bratty. She took up the job of a waitress in the Central Perk coffee shop and later found her way into the fashion industry which had always been the point of interest for her. From serving coffee to her boss to becoming an independent, self-aware single mother, Rachel had come a long way in the show. Her development was praiseworthy and satisfying; to add the cherry on top, by the end of the tenth season, Rachel had received her job at Louis Vuitton. 

While the other characters were visibly upset to hear the news as their friend would leave, Ross went to great lengths to make her stay. We all were kind of satisfied to see Rachel finally escape the douchebag. But no! The showrunners made Rachel sacrifice the amazing job offer that lay in her hands for the absolute douchebag who had tormented her emotionally for so long. Who knows, Rachel could have probably met a nice French guy, built a great family with him and Emma and eventually become one of the top magnates at Louis Vuitton! Why did you get off the plane, Rachel?