Is the Uproar Towards Friends Justified?

Friends is on Netflix, which means lots of young people are watching it for the first time, but they aren’t happy…

Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe and Joey. They were the real friendship goals of the 90s. Say any of the following phrases to a millennial and the majority will instantly think of Friends: “We were on a break!”, “how you doin’?”, “PIVOT”. In fact, there are too many to list.

But, since the popular sitcom has been put on the streaming service, Netflix, new and younger viewers being introduced to the TV show for the first time are finding serious issues. The white-washing, with all six main characters (and the majority of secondary characters) being white, the constant transphobic jokes towards Chandler’s dad, and the serious fat-shaming that Monica endures are just some of the problems now being brought to the wringer.

But, these issues simply weren’t severe enough to stop 90s and naughties kids thoroughly enjoying every episode. One of these Friends fans is James Pywell.

“I enjoyed Friends growing up because it was easy to watch and was light comedy,” James explains. “It was nice to just watch to unwind after a day at school.”

Another fan of the show, Hannah-Mae Greenham agrees, stating that she “enjoyed it as it offered an escape and it covered a lot of social issues at the time. Not to mention it was fricking hilarious!”

Ande Hunter, another huge fan explains why he found the show so enjoyable: “It was one of the first TV shows I ever watched as a kid and thanks to re-runs on E4, continued well through school to University,” he says. “It’s just one of those feel-good relatable shows, what’s more relatable than the subject of friendship?”

“It’s just one of those feel-good relatable shows, what’s more relatable than the subject of friendship?”

So, why is such a popular TV series proving so problematic with a new audience? It could be to do with the fact that the first episode was aired back in 1994 – 24 years ago. That may not seem like a particularly long time, and a lot of people still find Friends relatable today, but it’s worth looking at how attitudes around oppressed and marginalised communities have changed since then. We may have a racist in the White House, but it makes a change that people are openly calling the president a racist. It’s also astonishing to see how in recent years, the word ‘feminist’ has had a reinvention, with many young women finding their voice. While the fight for queer equality is still needed, there have certainly been improvements. For example, the legislation to allow same-sex marriage in the UK – while far from perfect – coming into force in 2014 was a huge step forward.

Hunter believes it can be explained fairly simply.

“Social attitudes change over time,” Ande explains. “If you look back at comedy being made in the seventies – a lot of it would simply not be acceptable now for example Fawlty Towers is incredibly racist at times. Our social perceptions of what is offensive or not will inevitably dictate how shows like Friends age. For a lot of people my age (26) – we grew up with Friends and many concerns now at the forefront of discussion simply would not have occurred to us as kids when it was first being shown.”

James Pywell agrees that the time in which Friends was made is a huge factor in why the jokes that were once deemed acceptable, are now understood to be offensive and problematic.

“I think younger generations are finding issues because the humour was of it’s time and doesn’t really fit in with the kind of acceptable jokes that people come to expect nowadays,” he says. “If the show was made in the modern day, these jokes would not be used but at the same time, Friends would not be Friends without some of the jokes that are in it.”

It has to be said that Friends did try. Their inclusion of a same-gender relationship between Carol and Susan was refreshing to say the least. Also, Ross did date an Asian woman (Julie) in season two, so there was an inter-racial relationship fairly early on, as well as dating a woman of colour named Charlie in season nine. Phoebe led a storyline in which she was dating two guys at the same time – something women were, and still are, shunned for doing, while men are celebrated. And while we’re on Phoebe, it was nice to see an animal activist being portrayed in a caring manner rather than a stereotype of an angry preacher.

Jenny from the online blog, Mum in Practice understands where the frustration is coming from, but also believes we must acknowledge the positive storylines the show did explore.

“If it was written now, many of the ‘jokes’ wouldn’t be able to go in but that’s because it was written a long time ago,” Jenny says. “Yes, it uses incorrect pronouns and relies far too much on fat-shaming but what about them openly talking about infertility issues? What about the one with the gay marriage and cooperative parenting? What about the women at the top of their careers? There are things to feel uncomfortable about for sure but there is also much to be admired for a show made so long ago.”

“If it was written now, many of the ‘jokes’ wouldn’t be able to go in but that’s because it was written a long time ago”

Whether Netflix made the right decision in buying Friends is still up for debate. Dean Wales has been a fan of the show for years, and he’s conflicted as to whether the show should have been put on the streaming service in the first place.

Friends is a classic and one of the best things to watch when you are hungover or ill. But maybe Friends has had its time and it’s now time for a new show to take its place,” Dean explains.

There’s no denying Friends will forever be one of the most popular sitcoms to ever grace our TV screens. And we can’t ignore the fact that for the 90s, there were some very modern and refreshing storylines. But this uproar from younger viewers actually shows us something extremely positive. It shows that the time in which we 90s and naughties kids grew up, where fat-shaming and transphobic jokes were seen as acceptable and even funny by audiences, is over. Kids are now growing up into a more equal and caring world. Political correctness is not something to moan about, it’s something to celebrate as society strives for equality for all.

The world certainly isn’t perfect – far from it – but people now have a voice that they didn’t have before. We are encouraged to call people out for queerphobic comments, we’re allowed to push for white-washing in the media to stop. But most importantly, we’re trying to teach older generations that body size, skin colour, gender, and sexuality do not determine a person’s worth to be on this incredible planet.

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