Emma Teitel: Yeah, Friends is sexist. But so were the '90s.
It isn’t a foolish or useless exercise to consume older entertainment with a modern eye. But it is foolish and pointless to demand that entities of the past absorb the lessons of the present.
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The hit sitcom Friends was many things to many people when it aired in the ’90s. For some it was a painful reminder of the spacious apartment they’d never find. For me it was a last resort: the bland alternative to Seinfeld that my family begrudgingly watched when nothing else (a.k.a. Seinfeld) was on. But apparently for millions of other people, Friends was a warm and hilarious portrait of life in the big city that would remain in their hearts forever. What it wasn’t, however, was offensive.
Until today that is, when pretty much everything is offensive — especially in retrospect.
Friends, like a number of old sitcoms, recently relaunched on Netflix and the beloved series has a brand new audience: millennials. Not old millennials like Drake and me (adults born in the ’80s who can remember Friends when it was on the air), but a younger cohort of millennials born in the late ’90s who were still in diapers when Ross pined for Rachel — a sub-demographic that is, shall we say, a little bit more sensitive to matters of social injustice. This group has taken to social media lately to condemn the show as “racist,” “homophobic,” “sexist,” “transphobic,” “fatphobic” and of course, the umbrella term for everything icky these days: “problematic.”
And they’re right.
Like the majority of ’90s content, Friends is out of touch with modern norms and frankly, reality. It isn’t just the massive Manhattan apartments that stretch the imagination; it’s the utter lack of non-white characters and extras on the show, painting an absurdly pale portrait of one of the most diverse cities in the world. It’s the endless jokes about Ross’ ex-wife Carol who left Ross for a woman, a fact that in the less evolved ’90s raised doubts about Ross’ masculinity. (Though if there ever were a man who could turn a woman off his kind forever, I can’t think of a better candidate than Ross Geller). It’s the snide treatment of Chandler’s transgender dad, “Helena Handbasket,” the recurring theme of Monica’s weight, and of course, Joey’s general creepiness towards nearly every female who crosses his path. In short, it was a show of its time, not a show of our time, in which much of the above wouldn’t fly.
But why, young millennials, must you get so worked up about a TV relic? It’s not enough that we — human beings living in 2018 — become sufficiently enlightened, we must now demand and expect social enlightenment from defunct ’90s sitcoms?
It isn’t a foolish or useless exercise to consume older entertainment with a modern eye — to ask “What was different back then? How have attitudes changed? How haven’t they?” But it is foolish and pointless to demand that entities of the past absorb the lessons of the present. It’s also an unsophisticated demand as it ignores the progress many ’90s shows like Friends made in their representation of queer characters and working women on TV. These representations may have been imperfect and tokenistic but they were groundbreaking for their era.
But more than anything, the criticism levelled at Friends from its new viewers demonstrates a bewildering lack of foresight and humility. None of us is good enough, no matter how attune we are to the social justice attitudes of the day.
For example, I try as hard as I can to abstain from using the word “gay” as a pejorative, but I find this nearly impossible, even though I am gay. This is because when I was a kid in the ’90s and early 2000s, “that’s so gay” was an expression equivalent to “that sucks” or “that’s lame,” one used daily to describe an edict from an unpopular teacher or a song by Enrique Iglesias. It’s hard to unlearn the slang you grew up with. This isn’t meant as a defence of the totally retrograde and yes — problematic — elements of Friends. But it’s a reminder to the show’s young critics that there will come a time when you are the old fogeys who did or said the wrong thing. Your grandkids, the victims of advanced climate change, will probably be shocked and appalled that you regularly forgot to recycle and hardly ever composted. Your great granddaughters, proud 22nd century feminists, will be horrified to learn that you once entered an office pool to determine the winner of a TV show called The Bachelor. Forget the ’90s. Your cause is best served in the here and now.