What the easily offended don't get about Friends – it was once the most progressive show on TV

·8-min read
Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow and Jennifer Aniston in Friends  - Getty
Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow and Jennifer Aniston in Friends - Getty

The Friends reunion show, inevitably called The One Where They Get Back Together, has finally aired. It's the first time the cast of one of the last great sitcoms have appeared together since 2004; the TV event of the year, you might think.

But when a teaser landed online earlier this month, there was an undercurrent of negativity – an overhang from the tiresome Millennial vs. Gen Z debate about Friends’ less-than-progressive attitudes. From some quarters, the question lingered: is there a place in the modern world to celebrate Friends?

Response to the full trailer was more positive, with the six Friends back together, talking about the show, recreating iconic moments, and weeping at their own brilliance. A feel-good tonic, perhaps, after a year of awfulness. The bile is now mostly directed at reunion host James Corden, a popular hate figure on social media

But the debate about Friends is never far away. We can barely go a year without a couple of articles popping up to call out Friends for crimes against woke-ness: fat shaming, gender stereotypes, homophobia, transphobia, white-washing, misogyny, and borderline sexual deviancy.

It’s a trend that I may have even started back in 2014, when I wrote a tongue-in-cheek article about why Ross, Chandler, and Joeyare such dreadful examples of modern masculinity. The joke, of course, was on me – the only way I could possibly have known the guys’ shortcomings so intimately is if I watched Friends repeats every single day on E4 and Comedy Central for about 20 years. (I’m showing my age there – the Gen-Zedders are consuming it through streaming these days, which has kept the debate alive.)

If modern viewers are "triggered" by Friends – one of the chirpiest, most well-intentioned comedies ever made – imagine what would happen if they clapped eyes on the kind of classic comedy shows us British audiences have watched over the years: Only Fools and Horses, Fawlty Towers, Till Death Do Us Part, ‘Allo ‘Allo, or Bottom. There’s enough political incorrectness in that lot to trigger an embolism of pure self-important outrage.

But should it matter that old TV comedies don’t meet up to modern standards? Shouldn’t they be accepted as examples of their own cultural and social moment? And can’t we appreciate them for the ground they broke at the time?

Back when the likes of Home Improvement and Married with Children were still the standard bearers for US sitcoms, Friends was more forward-thinking than modern Twitter arguments will let us remember.

Rachael, Monica, and Phoebe have moments of being regressive gender stereotypes, but they made bold moves that were revolutionary for female sitcom characters at the time: Rachael abandoned her future as a kept wife, a future which had been mapped out for her, when she left her husband at the altar; Monica was a career woman and the strongest-willed character of the bunch; and Phoebe refused to conform to the norm, such as choosing to be a surrogate mother to her brother’s triplets. Together, they made a groundbreaking depiction of female friendship.

Friends was also way ahead of its time in the portrayal of lesbian couple Carol (Ross’s ex-wife) and Susan, who raised Ross’s son and were married in one of the US TV’s first gay weddings. It earned Friends three nominations and a win for Outstanding Comedy Series at the Media Awards of the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD.

Carol and Susan's wedding - youtube
Carol and Susan's wedding - youtube

How many recurring gay characters were on TV before Carol and Susan in 1994? And how many of those gay characters would have maintained the moral high ground, or left leading straight characters – in this case, the deeply-insecure-in-his-own- sexuality Ross – as the butt of the joke?

Some of Friends’ gay jokes do feel clumsy now, particularly in regards to Chandler, whose masculinity is constantly torn to shreds in what could be deemed homophobic humour, largely based on the fact he has a trans father – played by straight cis woman Kathleen Turner if you really want to crank up the outrage.

Co-creator David Crane, himself gay, defended Chandler. “He has his own anxieties and issues,” Crane told Comedy Central, “but I don’t think the character was homophobic in the least.” Raymond Bradford from LGBTQ group GLAAD has spoken out to defend Kathleen Turner as Chandler’s father, one of most commonly cited “problematic” elements of the show in the current debate.

“Images don’t exist in a vacuum,” he said. “You look at where they were at that time of progression of TV and our country, and also where we are now and the standard. When I looked at Kathleen Turner’s character, there was nothing tragic about it. It was not a story line depicting her as a killer or a psychopath or a sex worker or anything like that.”

Kathleen Turner as Chandler's father
Kathleen Turner as Chandler's father

The issue of sex in general was way ahead of curve in Friends, with its forward-thinking attitudes to casual or promiscuous relationships, or decidedly un-nuclear family life – bucking the stuffy norms that would have been commonplace on conservative American TV at the time.

Of course, look hard enough and it’s easy to call Friends problematic in 2021. How could it not be? It’s more than a quarter of a century old. Monica’s backstory, that she was fat and that’s hilarious, is unpleasant. The guys are so inherently insecure that none of them can handle being mistaken for a gay couple (as happens often). And Joey not only sleeps with women and never calls them back, he also bursts in on female roommates in the bathroom.

In the past few years we’ve seen shows, movies, and stars seemingly banished as part of so-called cancel culture. Calling out Friends as problematic was an early example of cancel culture crossing over into retrospective criticism of now un-PC comedies. Last year Little Britain and Come Fly with Me were removed from streaming services for using black face – even the beloved League of Gentlemen was removed. There was a Basil Fawlty-style meltdown when Fawlty Towers’ ‘The Germans’ was briefly removed from the iPlayer.

The issue of supposedly cancelled stars – a spectrum that includes Louis CK, following accusations of sexual misconduct; Gina Carano, booted off Disney’s The Mandalorian in the wake of outspoken political views; or Black Panther star Letitia Wright, who left Twitter after sharing an anti-vax video – opens up a wider debate about separating the art from the artist.

But holding Friends or other TV shows to account for not meeting modern PC standards is more about separating the art from its context. How many other classic comedies stand up to the progressive standards that are so rigorously imposed in 2021? Should we cancel Hancock’s Half Hour for Tony Hancock’s sneering jokes about women who don’t meet his standards? (“You’re not used to going out with class, that’s your trouble.”) Or should we hail it for setting the blueprint of British sitcoms?

Andrew Sachs and John Cleese in Fawlty Towers - PA
Andrew Sachs and John Cleese in Fawlty Towers - PA

And shall we throw out Fawlty Towers (again) for Basil’s abuse of Spanish dogsbody Manuel – compounded recently by John Cleese’s occasional outbursts of “You can’t say anything these days, can you?” – or quite rightly credit Fawlty Towers as the most perfectly constructed farce in British comedy?

The Office, perhaps the best and most influential sitcom of the last 20 years, gets laughs out of homophobia and disabled people, hidden behind Ricky Gervais’ increasingly thin veil of irony. Stewart Lee, stand-up comedy’s most searing liberal voice and purveyor of “PC gone mad” routines, used to perform material about ugly girls and stalking women alongside partner Richard Herring on This Morning with Richard Not Judy. Even The Inbetweeners, a show which felt like the freshest, youngest thing in British comedy for years, has already been turned on by some quarters of that very same generation.

Does it make any of these comedies any less brilliant? Of course not. If a comedy – or film or any work of art for that matter – mediates and reflects the mainstream ideas of its time, or finds ways to break taboos and push boundaries, it has an important cultural and social relevance. It shouldn’t be cancelled and tossed out like it never happened – even if we now find those mainstream ideas un-PC in 2021. (The exceptions being comedies whose humour was based solely on prejudice, such as wretched Love Thy Neighbour.)

Only Fools & Horses, which seems woefully outdated now in its racial and homophobic slurs, set out to portray a multi-ethnic London in the 1980s. The Inbetweeners, meanwhile, struck a chord because it was first comedy to speak so honestly and relatably about sex-obsessed teenage boys (as embarrassing as that is for us men to admit).

Similarly, Friends became a phenomenon because it spoke to a generation of young people like no sitcom that came before it, and on various levels: from promiscuous relationships and gay weddings to coffee shop culture. For all its faults, it brought us one step closer to the self-aware, tolerant, and more acceptably PC culture we have now.

As ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable change, it’s easy to forget how and why these comedies were influential or groundbreaking. And if you’re really wondering what Friends’ legacy is, beyond its crimes against woke-ness and endless repeats, just ask yourself why we can’t stop talking about it in 2021.

Was Friends ahead of its time? Tell us in the comments section below
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