Despite being one of the most beloved and successful television shows of all time, there are some aspects of Friends that haven’t aged well. Sometimes it’s funny “you had to be there” moments, like when Monica gets a hickey from those rock and roll party animals Hootie and the Blowfish. Other times it’s just baffling, like how black people don’t seem to exist in New York until Joey and Ross start dating Charlie in season nine.
The lack of diversity is usually what gets called out nowadays, and credit where credit is due, series co-creator Marta Kauffman has put her money where her mouth is by both apologising and donating $4 million to the African Studies programme at her alma mater Brandeis University.
It’s not the only part of the show that Kauffman is now walking back on. Throughout the series, Chandler’s father is mentioned as being both gay and a drag queen. The role was taken on by Kathleen Turner in season seven, but the series didn’t specify whether Charles Bing was transgender or not, despite Charles living life off the stage as a woman.
“Pronouns were not yet something that I understood. So we didn’t refer to that character as ‘she’. That was a mistake,” Kauffman told the BBC’s radio show The Conversation. “I like very much to create an environment where we have a happy set and a happy crew. It’s very important to me that where we are is a safe place, a tolerant place, where there’s no yelling. I fired a guy on the spot for making a joke about a trans cameraperson. That just can’t happen.”
Kauffman also confirmed in the interview that Charles, also known on stage as Helena Handbasket, was indeed trans. “I’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years,” Kauffman added, referring to the lack of diversity and inclusion that made it onto the show. “Admitting and accepting guilt is not easy. It’s painful looking at yourself in the mirror. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know better 25 years ago.”
The lack of diversity on Friends was previously addressed by actor David Schwimmer in an interview with The Guardian in 2020. “I feel that a lot of the problem today in so many areas is that so little is taken in context,” Schwimmer said. “You have to look at it from the point of view of what the show was trying to do at the time. I’m the first person to say that maybe something was inappropriate or insensitive, but I feel like my barometer was pretty good at that time. I was already really attuned to social issues and issues of equality.”
Schwimmer noted that the show presented one of the first gay weddings on network television at a time when gay marriage was still illegal in the United States. “The truth is also that [the] show was groundbreaking in its time for the way in which it handled so casually – sex, protected sex, gay marriage and relationships,” Schwimmer said. “The pilot of the show was my character’s wife left him for a woman and there was a gay wedding, of my ex and her wife, that I attended.”
Series co-creator David Crane also addressed the representation issues on Friends during an interview with Good Morning America in 2019. “There are certainly things that if I knew then what I know now, I would have done differently,” Kauffman explained. “I think it’s true of any show — that you would look at it through a contemporary lens. You’re going to look at things differently, and I think that’s inevitable.”