Was ‘Friends’ Homophobic? Or Was It Actually Progressive For Its Time?

Was ‘Friends’ Homophobic? Or Was It Actually Progressive For Its Time?

Friends is a show that is beloved by many including me. It still is one of my favorite shows. There are many moments in my life that have received the ‘Friends marker’ – a marker in one’s life that reminds them reminds them of certain points in their life and all of these moments’ ferocity is somehow entangled with one’s favorite show.  Recently, however, the show has had its fair share of controversy. Multiple sites have called Friends homophobic and have panned the show.

Friends didn’t create the hangout comedy genre but merely redefined it and created characters that were unique and somehow still supremely memorable. The show created situations that vaguely reminded viewers of their lives. It was situational comedy at its best. But, these situations were removed enough from reality that tourists flocked to New York to share a coffee on the couch at Central Perk.

Was Friends homophobic?

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One magazine that criticized the show in a major way was Out magazine. The magazine’s writer referenced a look behind the scenes book that was published. In Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show that Defined a Television Era, the show’s writers pitched a B-plot. In this, Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) sneaks into a gay bar, not for the queer camaraderie or the love of ABBA songs. He does it because he likes the establishment’s tuna melts.  

Author Saul Austerlitz further wrote, “Perry said no, and the story was shelved.”

The magazine’s writer Nico Lang uses this tidbit and extrapolates.

In a not so subtle manner. Lang states, “While Austerlitz doesn’t comment on the tone of the one-off storyline, it’s hard to imagine the scene would have gone well. The male characters on Friends showed a noted discomfort and disdain toward LGBTQ+ people during its 10 seasons — from Chandler’s aversion to his transgender parent(played by Kathleen Turner, still slaying the role) to a particular episode in which Ross (David Schwimmer) insists his male nanny must be gay.”

Lang further writes, “Nearly anytime LGBTQ+ people are brought up through the show, it’s played for laughs — whether it’s the running joke that people think Chandler is gay or an episode where Joey (Matt Leblanc) convinces an acting student who he is competing for a role on All My Children to play the character ‘homosexually.'”

Lang also writes about the episode “The One With The Nap Partners”. Lang calls it “the most on-the-nose depiction of its tendency toward gay panic for cheap laughs”. In the episode, Ross and Chandler accidentally fall asleep together on Ross’ couch. “What happened?” Ross screams, before insisting: “We fell asleep — that is all.”

This introduces some situational comedy around the incident. Both the characters show some panic and awkwardness that Lang terms homophobic.

While Lang definitely is right on a lot of fronts, I do disagree with Lang on one specific front. His take “Friends made queer people into punchlines” is pretty unfair. There’s more to it than just that.

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The counter-argument

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Here’s the thing. Friends relied on situational comedy. The whole point of such a sitcom is to take a moment in time and squeeze all the laughs out from that moment/situation. Not many things grow better with age. There’s an article that even criticizes The Office. It was dismissed as “knowing, ironic idiocy”. Another show The Likely Lads got flak for an “unreconstructed racist, homophobic misogynist” lead character. Classics just do not age well.

What we have to remember is that Friends is a show that was born pre-Twitter, pre-online activism, and before #HeForShe movements. So the representation of trans, gay, polygamous and liberal people with such depth and agency is actually pretty remarkable. Before watching Friends, I’d never heard of “trans”, and didn’t know about a lot about homosexuality or gender politics. Yes, it’s true that the characters in the show screw up on a lot of things. But, what people forget to mention is that the characters also grow up and mature as the show goes on.

I watched as Joey, Chandler, and Ross said “I love you” to each other. They struggled to match their emotions to how men “should” act but did it anyway. I watched Ben raised by two loving lesbian mothers. Rachel raised a baby unwed while working. Phoebe coped with her mother’s suicide and discovered that women are as sexually free as men. This is STILL a big topic of discussion.

The male nanny episode

The Male Nanny/homophobic/Was 'Friends' Homophobic? Or Was It Actually Progressive For Its Time?
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This episode is the one that has probably caused the most controversy. In the episode, Ross takes issue with a male nanny, asks if he’s gay, refuses to hire him, and mocks him to his friends. In i-D magazine, millennials who were interviewed about this said that they found this homophobic. I agree. But, we should also talk about how Ross later admits that it’s because of his own toxic masculinity. This is a struggle many men still face. Ross also gets a lot of stick from Carol and Susan for his close-mindedness. Chandler comes to terms with his drag-queen parent after Monica persuades him to invite his parent to their wedding.

Yes, the show does have a few homophobic moments but the show does a good job in addressing these issues. Besides, there are more pressing conversations that need this sort of attention.




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