The Problem with Rewatching Friends (All the Sexism, for Starters)

Andrea Chiu finally got around to watching Friends—and realized the beloved series has *not* aged well

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Friends tv show: General atmosphere at the Central Perk Pop-Up Celebrating The 20th Anniversary Of "Friends" on September 16, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty)

The final episode of Friends aired 13 years ago—and it took me almost that amount of time to finally watch it. So how *did* Ross and Rachel finally end up getting back together?

Thanks to Netflix, I now know the answer to that burning question after making my way through the sitcom’s 10 seasons. I’ve never binge-watched shows, and am often months, if not years behind a series, and Friends was no exception. But when I did catch up with the gang I first I got to know during my teen years, I realized that the show really hasn’t aged well.

Like thousands of other millennials fuelling the current ’90s revival, it’s hard not to look back on Friends fondly, a relic from a simpler, pre-9/11, pre-Trump time. There’s a simple comfort to observing Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey living out their lives with relatively few real problems. Watching Ross try to even out his bright orange spray tan is a funny reprieve from ominous news stories about equally orange politicians.

But the comfort’s fleeting, and I find adult me cringes more than laughs, thanks to the sheer number of episodes on Friends that rely on fat-shaming, non-traditional gender roles, homophobia and transphobia to get their kicks.

Friends tv show: "The One That Could Have Been: Part 1, 2" Episode 15, 16 -- Pictured: Courteney Cox as Monica Geller (Photo by Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Cringe (Photo: Getty)

Throughout the show’s decade-long run, it’s now clear that anything that deviated from the norm was turned into a punchline. One of the most obvious offences was the depiction of college-aged Monica as a one-note “fat kid.” Or the time that Rachel hired a male nanny, and Ross repeatedly questioned his sexuality and eventually fired him because he was uncomfortable having a sensitive straight male around.

And then there’s the show’s treatment of Chandler’s gay “dad.” Throughout the series, Charles Bing, played by Kathleen Turner, is referred to with male pronouns but is shown as identifying as a woman. Their sexuality and gender identity is treated as nothing more than a sideshow gag. For example, at Chandler and Monica’s wedding, Charles berates Nora, Chandler’s mom, for wearing a revealing dress. “Aren’t you a little old to be wearing a dress like that?” asks Charles, to which Nora responds, “Don’t you have a little too much penis to be wearing a dress like that?”

Friends also employed loads of eye roll-y gender stereotypes for laughs. For example, in the first season, Ross, still missing his ex-wife Carol—who left him for a woman—cradles a can of beer. “This was Carol’s favourite beer,” he says, “She always drank it out of the can, I should have known.” Or when Joey, desperate for help after an eyebrow waxing appointment gone awry, finds out that Chandler is a talented brow-plucker—a secret which he had shamefully kept to himself. “You know how much kids get their allowance from mowing the lawn or taking out the garbage? Well I earned mind by plucking the eyebrows of my father and his ‘business’ partners,” Chandler admits. Did this stuff really make us laugh back then?

And then there’s the way that Friends puts a neat bow on the burning “Will Ross and Rachel end up together?” question. Rachel gets a dream job offer to work at Louis Vuitton in Paris. Ross finally realizes he loves her, and spends the final episode chasing her down at various airports, trying to prevent her from leaving. The finale, spread out over two parts, ends with Rachel declaring her love for Ross, and deciding to stay in NYC.

Talk about an extremely frustrating conclusion to one of television’s most famous romances. Yes, like everyone else in the world, I wanted Ross and Rachel to be together—but I had expected/hoped that Ross would move to Paris, too. He had just received tenure at his university, after all, and likely could have taken a sabbatical. As the final episode faded to black, I couldn’t help wondering if 2017 Rachel has regrets. What might her life look like now had she made it to Paris? Sadly, we’ll never know—though on the bright side, we likely dodged some dated Parisian stereotypes in the process.

Related:
Wait, Did Ross and His Friends Just Step Up for Women in a Big Way?
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