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Watching « Friends » in 2020: a racist, sexist and homophobic sitcom? Part II, The One with the Sexist

As already established in Part I, the One with the Racist, although Friends is still regarded as one of the most popular TV shows of all time, lately the sitcom has not gone down very well with a new generation of viewers. Indeed, as the 90s show is watched through 21st-century eyes, it is said that it has not aged particularly well. Nearly a quarter of century has passed since Friends was first broadcasted, and while a new generation of viewers are discovering the hit show now available on Netflix, the sitcom is not left uncriticized. Indeed, millennials are taking a critical look at the show, and it seems that what was a must-see show for an entire generation in the 90s is now regarded as problematic for another. As reported by The Independent, the show was widely criticized on social networks by new viewers, but also by people who had known the sitcom in the 90s and wanted to benefit from its arrival on Netflix to rediscover their favourite show. Many were left disappointed by the storylines of Friends, and agreed with the millennials who accused the show of racism, sexism and homophobia. Of course, everybody does not agree on saying Friends is problematic. Many people fight tooth and nail against the accusations against their favourite show, lacking sometimes of objectivity.

I’ve already addressed the issue of racism in Friends in a previous article (that I invite you to read if not already done). This article is going to focus on sexism in the famous sitcom, and then a third article on homophobia will come and complete this series about how political correctness had had a massive impact on people’s tastes and how it can explain the recent reactions to the iconic sitcom Friends.

Objectification of women

While the main cast is composed of three men and three women, some of their behavior is regarded as being problematic in terms of gender treatment. One recurrent argument in this respect is Joey’s objectification of women. Indeed, Joey Tribbiani, with his well-known catchphrase “How you doin’”, is an inveterate womanizer and will happily sleep with a girl and never call her again, letting his roommates in charge of breaking up with the girl for him. He sees every woman as a potential sexual partner rather than a human being. Especially, Joey’s remarks on his female conquests suggest women are objects. For instance, he compares women to ice-cream, telling devastated-divorced-Ross to “grab a spoon” in the very first episode (11:30-12:00). These kinds of remarks on women are nothing occasional for Joey, since it seems it is almost the only topic he is able to talk about. Indeed, whatever the theme of the conversation is, he always finds a way to insert some sexual comments on women. His obsession for women goes as far as writing an advertisement in the newspaper saying: “Wanted: female roommate, non-smoker, non-ugly” (Season 6, Episode 3, 5:36-5:40), with the only intent to have sex with a “hot girl”. He even takes off the locks from the bathroom, as well as the shower curtain, so he can take a peek, and turns the thermostat up so his roommate would walk around the flat in her underwear. Although Joey is the most criticized of the three men for the way he treats women as sexual objects, Chandler and Ross are not perfect gentlemen either.

Indeed, Chandler is the one who chooses a roommate only because his sister is a porn star and because he photographs models that might be around time to time (Season 3, episode 6). Moreover, Chandler has maybe the most disrespectful attitude towards Janice, a girl he dates plenty of times, but who he actually openly loathes. He plays with her during years, breaking up with her and then taking her back whenever he decides to. Besides, Chandler demonstrates his cowardice when he is unable to end up their relationship. In the 15th episode of the fourth season, he even goes as far as pretending he has to move out to Yemen in order to avoid telling Janice he does not want to be with her anymore. Janice, out of love for him, accompanies him to the airport and wants to spend a last moment with him, until the very last minute. Chandler is therefore forced to buy a ticket and actually fly to Yemen. Of course, it would have been much easier just to tell her the truth, but it seems that it was just better for Chandler to pay 2100 dollars on a fly ticket he does not need rather than be honest with Janice. A season later, Ross has an affair with Janice, who asks the group of friends not to judge her because “Chandler is in Yemen. [She] is a young woman, [she has] needs, [she] can’t wait forever” (Season 5, episode 12, 10:40-10:50). Thus, Chandler came back from Yemen and then went on with his life without caring that, months later, Janice would still be waiting for him. In addition to this, the other characters do not seem to care much about Chandler treating Janice very badly; would we actually let our friends act so disrespectfully? Janice might have a very annoying voice and an even worse laugh, but that does not excuse the way Chandler behaves towards her throughout the seasons. Similarly to Joey who treats women as sexual objects, Chandler treats Janice as a toy he can play with when he feels like and drop it whenever he wants.

As for Ross, he is also accused of sexist behaviour in his relationship with Rachel, often appearing as the one who decides what is right for her, like the time she is close to forget the idea to have the tattoo she really wants to have because Ross does not want her skin to be marked for life (Season 2, Episode 16). Hopefully, Phoebe is there to remind her that she is her own boss and that she cannot let her boyfriend decide for her. Another episode during which Ross’ behaviour is very irritating is when he puts a spoke in Rachel’s wheel when she is focusing on her career. In The One with All the Jealousy, Rachel finally got the job of her dreams, but her boyfriend Ross, jealous and possessive, cannot bear that his girlfriend is working with a guy. To “mark his territory” (12:27), as Rachel herself says, he sends her lots of ridiculous love gifts at her office, which was humiliating and could have compromise Rachel’s first week of work. Later in the season, he even comes at Rachel’s office with food, wine and candles to celebrate their anniversary while Rachel had made clear she could not go out with him that night because she was in a rush for a very important project. It seems that Ross cannot bear he is not the only important thing in Rachel’s life, as if a girl should devote her entire time to her boyfriend. As she says, she finally found something she is good at and loves to do, and Ross cannot tolerate he is not part of it. Most viewers agreed on saying that Ross is very selfish in that scene, almost asking Rachel to quit her job so that she could spend more time with him. However, it is important to notice that Rachel does not remain passive in front of her boyfriend’s selfishness, and eventually breaks up with him at the end of the episode.

Independent women

It should be underlined that, although we can argue the three men have sexist behaviours towards women, Friends also portrays three independent female characters. Indeed, the three girls “did not rely on men to pay their way through life” (Marshall 2007: 102). Even if their jobs might seem a bit stereotypical – that is Phoebe is a masseuse, Monica works as a chef in a restaurant and Rachel works in fashion – they are always represented as independent, the three of them providing for themselves. The most striking example is certainly Rachel. Indeed, in the very first scene of the show, we discover Rachel after she ran away from her wedding. She had been about to marry Barry, a dentist, but escaped after realizing how boring her life with him was going to be. Indeed, daughter of a rich man and used to money, she was only going to marry Barry for his incomes. Yet, when she arrives in the city and starts to live with Monica, she decides to stop living off her parents and symbolically cuts her credit cards. She takes control of her life, starts to look for a job and learns how to live without the help of a man. She first starts as a waitress in Central Perk and then goes from rags to riches and starts working as a business woman in fashion. Therefore, although some of the characters have a problematic behaviour towards the opposite gender, the three female characters do not remain passive in front of it (at least not when it is about themselves). Phoebe makes it clear that Rachel could not let Ross be the boss of her, Rachel breaks up with him after he acted as an obstacle in her career, and the three women are always presented as independent from the very first episode to the very last one, which is something important to take into account in our analysis of the show’s sexism.

Toxic masculinity

However, another important part of the show can be regarded as problematic in terms of gender treatment. Indeed, it is striking how often during the ten seasons we get to see scenes which humor is based on men acting a bit ‘too feminine’. A strong idea of what can be referred to as toxic masculinity is conveyed through Friends, the three leading male characters being obsessed by being perceived as ‘real men’. The idea of toxic masculinity suggests that men who do not do the typical things society expects them to do can get rid of their ‘man card’. In other words, toxic masculinity suggests an exaggeration of traditional masculine traits, like being strong, unemotional or sexually aggressive in order to ‘be a real man’. Friends perpetuates this idea by representing male characters who “rejected any self-notion of femininity and had to make up for it by being overly masculine, which created humor” (Marshall 2007: 93).  Indeed, during ten years, men performing feminine traits were used as the basis of humor in the sitcom, the male characters being made fun of whenever they act a little bit ‘too feminine’. There would be countless examples to illustrate this, one of them being the idea that men are not supposed to cry. For instance, Chandler is made fun of by Ross and Joey because he was moved by Ross’ cute gift to Phoebe who had never had the chance to have her first bike when she was a kid. When Monica heard what Ross did for Phoebe, she was moved too, but it does not seem to be a problem in her case because she is not a man:

Monica: Ross! That is so sweet of you to get Phoebe that bike! When I heard the story, I almost cried.

Joey: Almost cried huh? Hear that Chandler? Almost cried!

Chandler: Hey, you cry every time somebody talks about Titanic!

Joey: (about to cry) Those two only had each other! (Season 7, episode 9, 9:00-9:20)

Moreover, Joey is also made fun of when he wants to look good for an audition and seeks advice from Rachel who dresses him with a nice outfit, and adds a shoulder man’s bag to it. Joey’s first reaction is to say that “it looks like a woman’s purse”, but then he is convinced by Rachel who shows him in the catalogue that it is a man’s bag. Later, Joey takes the bag with him to the coffee house where he meets his friends, who directly start making jokes about the fact he is wearing “a woman’s purse”:

Chandler: Wow! You look just like your son Mrs. Tribbiani!

Joey: What? Are you referring to my man’s bag? At first, I thought it just looked good, but it’s practical too. Check it out! It’s got compartments for all your stuff! Your wallet! Your keys! Your address book!

Ross: Your make-up! (Season 5, episode 13, 7:15-7:35)

Ross even asks him if the part he is auditioning for is called “Anti-man” (8:00). In another episode, Joey asks if it is weird for a guy to have his eyebrows waxed, to which Phoebe answers that it depends “on how far he is in the sex change process!” (Season 9, Episode 13, 3:00), which shows that people think that as soon as a man adopts a characteristic traditionally associated with women he stops being a man. Plus, as Marshall suggests, the laugh track that accompanies “Joey’s deviations from hegemonic masculinity shows that they were unacceptable” (2007: 87).  

As a result of this, male characters in Friends are constantly showing their fear of being perceived as too feminine, and feels the way to reassert their masculinity. An episode which is particularly relevant to illustrate this fear men have to be too feminine is The One With Ross’s Teeth, in which Chandler cannot bear that his friends are doing ‘girly things’ around him: he yells “Oh my god! Where are all the men?” (12:18) when he sees Ross putting make-up on his face, calls Joey “Josephine” (12:07) when he sees him knitting, and cannot bear Joey is letting his new roommate put some of her stuff in the flat (which actually does not look very different):

Chandler: Oh my God. What is th… it’s like a guy never lived in here. Look, you’ve got to be careful. This girl thing is dangerous. (Looking around the living room.) It’s spreading already.

Joey: (Looking around the room.) It is???

Chandler: (Picking up a pillow.) Yeah, is this your pretty pink pillow on the couch?

Joey: No.

Chandler: (Pointing to the table and picking up the box.) Is that your tiny little box, that’s too small to put anything in?

Joey: No.

Chandler: No! Ok, this is not good. You are a guy. Ok? This is a guys place. If you let this go, you’re going to be sitting around with your fingers soaking in stuff.

Joey: (With Big Eyes.) All right, you’re right. I’ll talk to her.

Chandler: Yes talk to her. Be a man.

Joey: I’m a man.

Chandler: Defend yourself.

Joey: (Grunting) Hmm (Season 6, Episode 8, 0:30-1:10).

In the same episode, Chandler also feels the need to do ‘man stuff’ because he spent too much time with his girlfriend doing ‘girls’ things’:

Chandler: Yes, but I feel like I’ve really gotten in touch with my feminine side enough today. You know. In fact I think we’re two sachets away from becoming a lesbian couple.
Monica: You know what? This has been kind of a girlie day. You’re right, I’m sorry.
Chandler: Nah, Nah, it’s okay. I feel like I need to be in guy place. You know, do kind of like a man thing.
Monica: Yeah. Go over to Joey’s. Go over to Joey’s and drink some beer and hammer up some drywall (Season 6, Episode 8, 11:17-11:40).

As a result of this masculine anxiety, men feel the need to do something ‘manly’ to compensate with their ‘feminine moments’. Thus, Chandler only thinks it is acceptable for him to take a relaxing bath if he takes a plastic navy ship with him so that “it’s a boy bath” (Season 8, episode 13, 6:20). He says:  “I like the flowery smell, which is okay because I have my boat!” (Season 8, episode 13, 6:50-6:55). Another example is Ross, who feels the need to correct Rachel when she says he had to replace her as the bridesmaid, saying he was a “bridesboy” (Season 7, episode 2, 1:30).

But the two most striking scenes in this respect are certainly the scene with the barbie (Season 3, episode 4) and the scene with the male-nanny (Season 9, episode 6), both of them being very good examples of how Ross can be said to be the mouthpiece for conformity. Both scenes have been very criticized for their sexist and homophobic content, and are representative of this anxiety about men not living up to society’s opinion of masculinity. In the third season, Ross has his son coming over to spend the day with him. When he comes in with his two moms, Ross automatically notices the toy his son is holding: “What is my boy doing with a barbie?” (5:00). While Susan and Carol explain it is Ben’s favourite toy and that there is absolutely no problem with that, Ross spends the entire episode trying to make his son play with ‘boy’s toys’ because he cannot handle the fact Ben is playing with a stereotypical ‘girl’s toy’. This shows Ross’ fear his son could grow up not to be as manly as he should be: not ‘a real man’ according to society’s expectations.

Ross is even more hateful in The One with the Male Nanny, which is by far one of the most criticized episodes of the entire series. Rachel hires a nanny for their daughter Emma, but Ross cannot accept the fact that the nanny is a man. He acts in a very sexist and homophobic way during the interview, asking the guy if he is gay only because he is doing a traditional female job. When he sees how sensitive the male nanny is Ross even says “You gotta be at least bi!” (13:25). Rachel, on the contrary, is fond of the male-nanny and asks Ross to give her one good reason not to engage him since he is a smart and qualified person, to which Ross answers:

Ross: Because, it’s weird!

Rachel: Why?

Ross: What kind of job is that for a man? A nanny? I-It’s like if a woman wanted to be…

Rachel: (she’s got that « yeah, try to say it » look on her face) Yes? (Season 9, Episode 6, 12:20-12:45).

What stereotypical ‘male job’ he was about to say we will never know, but that shows how Ross cannot bear people not living up to society’s expectations. He goes one step further asking “what kind of a guy make delicate french cookies? They’re not even… butch, manly cookies” (18:38-18:48). For all this, Ross decides to fire Sandy, saying that he is not comfortable with a guy being too sensitive like him. In the discussion, we learn that Ross suffered a lot in his childhood from his father saying he was not a ‘real boy’ because of his sensitivity, which shows that, although he suffers from this idea of toxic masculinity, he keeps perpetuating it.

This scene shows how sexism and homophobia are linked. Indeed, we can say that one of the consequences of toxic masculinity is homophobia. As Kimmel said:

Never dress that way. Never talk or walk that way. Never show your feelings or get emotional. Always be prepared to demonstrate sexual interest in women that you meer, so it is impossible for any woman to get the wrong idea about you. In this sense, homophobia, the fear of being perceived as gay, as not a real man, keeps men exaggerating all the traditional rules of masculinity, including sexual predation with women. Homophobia and sexism go hand in hand (1994: 66).

Indeed, this need the male characters of Friends have to reassure their masculinity as much as possible, and their fear to be perceived as feminine is also linked to their fear of being perceived as gay. We’ll deal with this third topic in Part III, The One with the Homophobe !

Please share your point of view on the topic and let me know what you think!



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