How casual homophobia haunts “Friends”

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It is my fate to say “there are too many white / straight / lean / gentile / neurotypical etc people” in almost every TV review I write, because, well, that’s often true. While I’ve seen more than my fair share on television, I can’t think of a character or series that makes me feel like I’m being seen. There is no one I can point to and say, “This is me”, even if we look the same on the outside. If I don’t feel seen up there, I know that hardly anyone else does.

The problem is not just that minorities and marginalized people evade representation. Sometimes there are people who look like us on screen, but they’re not people we’re proud of. So I don’t actively look for shows when I hear that there might be a character whose identity overlaps mine; If anything, I run away from them. Often this representation hurts more than no representation at all.

It is often the most iconic shows, loved and re-viewed by the masses long after the series finale airs, that have the worst representation. Some argue that they are a product of their time, but they still have an impact on the present. Take Friends – while for many television viewers it may be a fun, familiar place to come home, problematic depictions are aplenty, especially with depictions of non-white, straight, or skinny characters.

Every time the younger version of Monica (Courteney Cox, “Cougar Town”) is shown in a thick suit, there’s a missed opportunity. This version of the character undermines a possibly body-positive portrayal into an extremely harmful caricature. When Joey (Matt LeBlanc, “Man with a Plan”) sees the younger Monica on video for the first time, he asks who “ate Monica”. Young Monica is a punchline, nothing more, and Monica, represented in the present, sees her worth constantly tied to her “new and improved” body. Unless oversized characters are played by oversized actors and treated appropriately and respectfully, they do more harm than good – this is certainly not the case with “Friends” and Young Monica.

There’s another aspect of Monica’s character that worries me deeply – her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. “Friends” reduces their mess to their 17 towel categories, their aversion to crumbs and stains and a preference for cleaning. OCD now comes in many forms – most of which have absolutely nothing to do with cleaning. Though it’s never officially called, let alone treated, Monica’s obsessive-compulsive disorder is the core of the joke, while also being framed as a trait that makes her unbearable.

Friends makes the same argument that I hear so often in my own life – that Monica’s OCD is a burden on others. As someone with a contamination OCD who is going through a pandemic, I can break this down for you firsthand. Waking up in the morning means constant conflict with my ritual; I am always faced with the dilemma of submitting to or combating the desires of my OCD. Somehow I feel like I’m losing. I promise you whatever inconvenience or discomfort OCD brings to people around me is nothing compared to my agony.

I see myself in Monica and I hate it. The authors of “Friends” made sure of that. So when people tell me that they hate Monica even though they don’t know about my fight and they definitely don’t want to hurt me, it’s hard not to take it personally. It’s even harder not to blame “Friends” for my pain.

The “friends” treatment of the LGBTQ + community is deeply embarrassing at best and terrifying at worst. Carol (Jane Sibbett, “Winter Wedding”) and Susan (Jessica Hecht, “Special”) are at the top of my list of favorite characters on the series, but Carol’s sexual orientation is most commonly used to explain Ross’ (David Schwimmer, “Intelligence “) Masculinity. When Carol starts talking to close friends, it is not because she is the mother of Ross’ child, but because she is an easy target for her lazy, homophobic jokes. Ross further diminishes their relationship by refusing to accept that the two are lovers and life partners and condescending to refer to them only as “friends”.

The casual homophobia of “Friends” goes beyond Carol and Susan. In a later season of the show, Ross and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston, “The Morning Show”) hire a male nanny Ross is never comfortable with. Ross insists that because of her job and sensitive nature, her nanny MUST be gay – which is so unacceptable that he insists Rachel fire him. When Carol and Susan are finally allowed to marry, they are deprived of the typical post-vow kiss that all straight couples can enjoy in “Friends”. When homophobia isn’t part of the plot, it’s part of everyday conversation: Chandler (Matthew Perry, “ReMastered: The Lion’s Share”) gets ridiculed all the time because people often assume he’s gay. I’ve spent most of my life in the closet, and all of the various taunts about queer people in Friends and the media in general that were played for laughs had a role in it. Those kinds of jokes are surely one of the reasons the first reaction I ever got when I came out, “Are you sure? I wish you would think again. “

Even worse is the portrayal of Chandler’s parent, known by the stage name Helena Handbasket (Kathleen Turner, “The Kominsky Method”). For one thing, people complain that the character created confusion outside of the trans community by blurring the line between drag queens and trans women so much, even though the two are incredibly different. On the other hand, the character (a trans woman, although “Friends” never admitted this during the broadcast) is played by a cis woman. Turner says she won’t take on the role now, but to Turner and Friends I say: too little, too late. The character is constantly named dead and misdirected by everyone, but most often Chandler. Additionally, Chandler often channels his frustration with the divorce and the rough parts of his childhood into transphobic digs at Helena. Dear Chandler: Come about the actions of the person who harmed you, but don’t come about their identity. It is inappropriate and you are hurting more than your target – you are causing immeasurable harm to the many others who share that identity. The comments ensure that trans people are never part of the group that “Friends” can watch for comfort, damage their self-image if they dare to watch, and shape the behavior of everyone who interacts with them.

Accordingly, Chandler’s stance toward Helena sets the tone for other characters on the show. At Chandler and Monica’s wedding, Chandler’s mother, Nora Bing (Morgan Fairchild, “My Perfect Romance”) says to her ex: “Don’t you have a little too much penis to wear a dress like that?” but the suggestion that this is the case is part of the dangerous ideologies that “Friends” engages in. The trans community is under constant attack, especially now, and media depictions like Helena’s are complicit in the damage trans people, especially trans women, suffer every day.

Media representation keeps failing us and the people we love. These characters and storylines may be created in the name of visibility, but they perpetuate harm regardless of intent – and intent is often absent, too. We have been burned so many times that I often wish we had been left out of the picture; because bad representation is worse than no representation.

The Daily Arts Writer Emmy Snyder can be reached at [email protected].


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