In October of last year, Netflix announced that the 90’s NBC sitcom, Friends, would be available for instant streaming in January of 2015. As the media revises the hype for the award winning show, it begins to feel just as new as it did in 1994.
While basking in the 90’s nostalgia can be fun, the show lacks in 2015 progression. This twenty-year-old television program does not accurately depict young people living on their own for the first time, nor do they embrace a sensitive consciousness.
The 1994 television show starred six straight, white friends, who almost exclusively dated other white people. Through its ten-year run, there were only a few recurring characters of color and three queer characters. While the lack of diversity is alarming and a big turn off to viewers now, the affirmation of heteronormativity was probably Friends loudest flaw.
Tijana Mamula, a professor of media studies at John Cabot University created a 50 minute long, Friends supercut titled The One with All the Gay Jokes. Dr. Mamula’s video highlights just how frequently the sitcom perpetuated heteronormativity.
One of the clips from the supercut is a scene where Joey and Monica have a conversation. Joey owed the apartment superintendent, Mr. Treeger, a favor, so he had to practice ballroom dancing with him. In the season 4 episode 4, The One with The Ballroom Dancing, Joey comes back from practice, and Monica asks him, “So how goes the dancing? Gay yet?”
The majority of the examples in Dr. Mamula’s video consists of dialog between the guys in the show. Joey Ross and Chandler are constantly reaffirming that their masculinity is intact and that they are not sexually attracted to males. Such as in season 7 episode 6, The One with the Nap Partners, Ross and Joey accidentally take a nap together. When they wake up they refuse to talk about it. Or the scene in The One with The Baby on the Bus, season 2 episode 6, Joey and Chandler are confused for a gay couple they are quick to prove their heterosexuality.
There was, however, three recurring queer characters on the show, who were most often used as devices to cause conflict for the six straight characters. There was Ross’s ex-wife, Carol Willick, who came out as a lesbian during the show’s pilot and Carol’s partner Susan Bunch. Through most of the show, Ross has unpleasant and homophobic things to say about Carol and more so about Susan. In season 4 episode 18, The One with Rachel’s New Dress, Ross is threatened by Susan’s new friendship with his girlfriend, Emily. In distress, Ross claims, “[Emily] and Susan are going to a poetry reading together! Poetry? Susan’s gay. They’re being gay together!” He perpetuates the stereotype that lesbians are often trying to “convert” straight women.
These microaggressive, small plot lines, driven by straight characters, reinforce gender norms and heteronormativity. But at least there are a few scenes where traditional gender or sexuality norms are challenged. Despite Joey and Chandler often being very cautious of the intimacy of their relationship, in season 9 episode 7, The One with Ross’s Inappropriate Song, Joey questions the importance of gender norms in male friendships. While Chandler and Joey look at real estate for Joey to invest in, the listing agent assumes Chandler and Joey are a couple. Chandler immediately objects, but Joey finds Chandler’s attitude off-putting. Chandler’s knee-jerk reaction continues to perpetuate heteronormativity, but Joey voices his opposition to Chandler. The writers could have been using Joey’s potential “gayness” as a laughing point, or perhaps they were trying out a new progressive voice. The implications could argue either way.
But perhaps the most offensive joke involved Chandler’s father figure.
Chandler’s dad, Charles Bing, was portrayed in the show as the following; a gay man, a performing drag queen, a transwoman, and most importantly the butt of every joke. The writing used every available stereotype of the 90’s to scrape together a character with no depth who could be used mainly for laughs and riddle Chandler with “daddy-issues.”
Mr. Bing was first mentioned in season 5 episode 8, The One With The Thanksgivings Flashbacks. During the episode, there is a flashback to when Chandler was nine years old. In the flashback, Chandler and his mother are sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner and Charles’ back is to the camera. During the dinner, his mother tells him that she is divorcing his father, Charles Bing. Charles had an affair with the houseboy and had come out as gay. This is the first time the audience hears about Charles, but they have not formally met his character until now.
It should also be noted that the flashback is filled with racist and homophobic writing. Right after Chandler’s mother finishes her announcement, the houseboy enters the scene and asks, “More turkey, Mr. Chandler?” and winks. His approach to Chandler, a minor at the time, is predatory and smug. The character is a man of color, and considering the lack of diversity on the show, the writers were likely playing into the stereotype.
Things begin to change two seasons later, when Charles makes his first official appearance in season 7 episode 22, The One with Chandler’s Dad.
At the beginning of the episode, Monica and Chandler are making wedding plans when Chandler admits that he did not invite his father to the ceremony. When Monica asks why, he reveals that his father is a Las Vegas drag queen, and he is embarrassed by his company. The audiences understanding of Charles has developed a little bit more: Charles is a gay man who performs drag. The audience also understands that Chandler’s opinion of his father is founded in the status of his sexuality.
There is a common misconception that gay men who perform as drag queens are transwomen or cross-dressers. This, in fact, is not the case. Gay men who perform drag are usually just that, men who do drag. Most Drag Queen performances make dramatic statements that exaggerate femininity or challenge gender norms. The act of cross dressing is less for statement making and more for personal comfort. So at this point in the audience’s journey, it would not be safe to assume Charles is a transwoman or a cross-dresser because there are no plot clues that would suggest it.
When Monica disagrees and says she would like Charles at the wedding, Chandler foolishly adds, “Nobody’s going to be staring at the bride when the father of the groom is wearing a backless dress.” In contrast, the writers do give Monica a more progressive opinion. She says “So what? As long as he’s not wearing a white dress and a veil, I don’t care.”
Chandler’s last comment is implying that his father would show up to the wedding in drag. This comment makes things even more confusing for the viewer. Drag Kings and Queens usually reserve their performances for the stage and it is less common for performers to dress in drag in their personal lives. So when Chandler says Charles would dress as a women to a personal life event, their wedding, he is undermining the notion that Charles is a drag queen. Now the audience might have reason to believe that Charles might cross-dress, or is actually a transwoman.
Later into the episode, the couple flies out to Las Vegas to surprise Charles and invite him to the wedding. Before they do, Chandler confesses to Monica, “All kids are embarrassed by their fathers. You’d have to come up with a whole new word for what I went through,” establishing that his homosexuality is an ultimate shame and embarrassment for Chandler. Monica again reassures Chandler that inviting him is the right decision, saying, “You’re not 14 anymore, if your father’s not at your wedding you’re going to regret it for the rest of his life.”
When they attend Charles drag show, the audience finally meets Charles’ character for the first time, and the character is being played by the actress Kathleen Turner, a ciswoman. The only other time the audience had seen Charles was during the Thanksgiving flashback, where just his back was visible.
In the following episode, The One with Chandler and Monica’s Wedding: Part 1, Turner’s character attends the wedding ceremony, and she is dressed in traditional women’s clothes. As previously stated, it would be unusual for someone who identifies as a drag queen to attend a personal life event in drag, but it would be usual for a transgender woman to dress in women’s clothing. Considering that the character is being played by a ciswoman, it would make more sense that Turner’s character is a transwoman and that the show’s writers would change her name or her pronouns.
If the audience were under the assumption that Turner’s character was a transwoman, the entire show is riddled with transphobic jokes. Her real female name is never revealed, and Turner’s character was referred to as “him” for the length of the show.
At this point, the audience can conclude that the writers of the show had dropped any consistent identity for Turner’s character. They utilized every sexual and gender status that did not identify with heteronormative and ran with it. The character went from gay, to drag queen, to cross-dressing to transgender. Much like Ross’s ex-wife, Carol Willick, and her partner, Susan Bunch, the character is utilized on the show as the butt of every joke made by Chandler and the rest of the Friends gang. Turner’s character is the source of conflict, shame, and embarrassment. Friends made a mockery of any sexuality that is not heteronormative.
The 90’s throwback might be a nice way to end the day, but this twenty-year-old sitcom reflects the racism and heteronormativity of the 1990’s. Friends viewers should re-think their decision to binge-watch the show, or at least keep these things in mind before settling into a viewing session.