Please stop woke-testing Friends
The other day, I happened to catch the end of The Devil Wears Prada on TV. It’s one of those always-stop-and-watch movies for me, so I kept it on in the background while I folded laundry on the couch. Then this scene happened.
My head jerked up from the laundry pile. Did Anne Hathaway’s Andy just celebrate her completely unnecessary and probably unhealthy weight loss? In a movie made in 2006, just 13 years ago? And why, after seeing this movie at least three times in its entirety and approximately 472 times in bits and pieces, was I just realizing now how not-okay this moment was?
Social norms change slowly. And our own ability to recognize those changes — and why they needed to happen — is often even slower. Hell, I’m about to turn 47 and I was yesterday-years-old when it dawned on me that the old slogan for KIX cereal — “Kid tested, mother approved” — was, in a word, problematic. (Thankfully, General Mills updated the slogan last year.)
What does all of this have to do with Friends? The wildly popular comedy, which aired on NBC from 1994-2004, has run endlessly in syndication for years, but in the last four years it’s experienced a surge of renewed popularity — due in large part to its emergence on Netflix in 2015. Old fans re-binged and new, younger fans discovered the show for the first time, and that — plus the show’s upcoming 25th anniversary on Sept. 22 — put Friends in the spotlight once again.
Much of the attention has been positive (who doesn’t love nostalgia?), but there’s been a fair amount of retroactive criticism, too — primarily about the show’s more outdated humor. Some of these think pieces have been thoughtful, like my colleague Clarkisha Kent’s take on the legacy of “Fat Monica”; others run the gamut from finger-wagging harangues to garden-variety clickbait. Even as a loyal, slightly-obsessive Friends fan (see: EW’s 2001 episode guide), I’m certainly not here to argue that every single Friends joke holds up today. Putting Courteney Cox in a fat suit for laughs was many things: Lazy, lowbrow, and, yes, offensive. Having a cisgender female actress (Kathleen Turner) play a transgender woman (Chandler’s father Helena) would absolutely not fly today — nor should it.
But Friends wasn’t made today; it began nearly a quarter-century ago, and it ended 15 years ago. Pop culture should be aspirational, but it also reflects the society as it exists in the moment it was made. It’s not particularly productive to hold Friends (or anything else from past eras) up to 2019 standards — and it’s disingenuous to scold the show for failing to adhere to a level of discourse that literally did not exist in mainstream pop culture at the time.
The latter-day critics often fail to acknowledge the many ways that Friends was ahead of its time. People who accuse the writers of trafficking in “gay panic” jokes for laughs seem to ignore the fact that those jokes were made at the expense of the man panicking — in most cases, Matthew Perry’s Chandler Bing. Everybody else is fine with it. In the 1995 episode “The One with the Baby on the Bus,” Lea Thompson, star of NBC’s Caroline in the City, encounters Chandler and Joey and baby Ben (Ross’s son) on the street, and she assumes they are gay dads. She is not amused, uncomfortable, or disgusted — she’s thrilled. “I think it’s great you guys are doing this,” Thompson’s character tells them. “You know, my brother and his boyfriend have been trying to adopt for three years. What agency did you guys use?” This was a full 21 years before same-sex adoption was finally legal in all 50 states.
Friends always embraced the idea of family in all of its forms. Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) served as a surrogate for her half-brother Frank (Giovanni Ribisi) when he and his wife Alice (Debra Jo Rupp) couldn’t conceive. Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) chose to raise her daughter, Emma, as a single working mom. In January of 1996, over 30 million people watched as Ross’s ex-wife Carol (Jane Sibbett) married her longtime girlfriend Susan (Jessica Hecht) in “The One with the Lesbian Wedding.” (For reference, Ellen’s milestone coming-out episode aired in April of 1997.) Yes, the writers served up several cringe-inducing lesbian jokes along the way, but generally Carol and Susan’s relationship was portrayed as normal, healthy, and even sexual. See “The One Without the Ski Trip” (season 3), when Ross shows up at Carol and Susan’s apartment late at night. “Were you sleeping?” he asks his ex-wife. Her response:
This doesn’t change the fact that some people watching Friends during its initial run found the show hurtful at times — perhaps because of jokes about Monica’s weight, Chandler’s insecurity about his masculinity, or the complete lack of diversity on screen. And it’s wonderful that today, we can talk in a frank and honest way about why those things are hurtful. But insisting that Friends was intentionally derogatory or somehow more problematic than any other pop culture at the time is a silly exercise in false outrage. It’s okay to celebrate the show while also recognizing it as an example of how far we’ve come as a culture. And if you still need something to be angry about, you needn’t look any further than the here and now.