As generations come and go, each and every generation ultimately leaves something behind. That may be their beliefs, ideologies, fashion sense, or something as simple as their favorite piece of music. This means that those things fall into the hands of the new generation who will naturally have their own thoughts and opinions. In a society that has multiple layers of different generations, it is important to be aware of how these new generations interpret cultural expressions from an earlier time. Whether it is a case of old habits die hard, an interest in learning new things from the past, or perhaps a case of longing for a piece of nostalgia, we are constantly recycling things from the past. This theory of how the meaning of something from the past shifts depending on its cultural context is a form of resemiotization (Iedema, 2003). This paper will follow with a deep dive into something very well-known from the ’90s that has recently made a huge comeback with millennials all over the world – the popular TV show Friends.
The 90’s sitcom Friends premiered its debut episode on the 22nd of September 1994 and ran for an impressive ten years, with the actors taking their final bow in 2004. The popular TV show follows a friendship group of six twenty-somethings who live and work in New York City. Over the seasons their friendship grows as they try to navigate life together, whilst being faced with challenges and some themes that many people will recognize: falling in love, struggling to make a career, losing grandparents, getting married, getting divorced, or trying to start a family (IMDb, 2021). Directed by Marta Kauffman, David Crane, and Kevin S. Bright, Friends became one of the most popular TV shows of all time. Receiving 62 Primetime Emmy awards nominations and being ranked number 21 on the TV guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time are just two of many impressive examples of its success. The sitcom continued to receive such support right through to the end, with around 52.5 million Americans tuning in to watch the final episode, making it the 5th most watched finale in television history and the most-watched episode of the 2000s (Television Academy, 2022). Of course, this is no surprise with such a star-studded cast including Jennifer Anniston, Courteney Cox, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer.
Flash forward to now, the show has regained its popularity largely due to streaming platforms such as Netflix. With this surge of a fresh audience also comes a new wave of critique and opinions. Many of the current generation – who were too young to watch Friends when it originally aired – are finding that the show is not in line with today’s cultural values and norms. When the series hit Netflix, Twitter was alight with young adults outraged that a show so popular could have, what they deem as, offensive storylines, such as homophobia, transphobia, and fat shaming, as well as a lack of diversity (Shivangi, 2018). Examples of the online hate can be seen in Figure 1.
A case study on this sitcom is important now that younger generations are watching it, especially considering how much society has changed over the last decade. This begs the question, does a show from the ’90s really have a place in our current culture, or has the show become culturally outdated? This study, therefore, aims to look at the show from various generations of Western culture to answer the research question, ‘How does a contemporary audience deal with an older cultural expression?’
To answer this question I used my own knowledge of topics that highlight a huge cultural shift from when the show aired to today. I interviewed three people who watched Friends in the 90s and three people who are currently watching it for the first time. Their names have been changed for privacy reasons. These interviews took place in an informal setting with a conversational approach. There were no specific set questions in advance of the conversations, the respondents were simply asked how they feel about how the offensive themes were portrayed on Friends. Alongside this, desk-based research also took place to find out more information about the opinions of writers and actors, as expressed in interviews over the last decade.
The Ones With The Homophobia
First of all, Friends seems to portray the idea that it is deplorable to be a homosexual man. For example, Chandler is constantly bearing the brunt of homophobic jokes. It is a running gag that everyone thinks he is gay, for no real reason at all. The overwhelming cultural feeling in the 90s and into the 2000s was that making fun of people for being gay provided humor. Fast forward to current times and this is not the case. There has been a substantial cultural shift not only in the acceptance of diverse sexualities but also in the respect that needs to be shown to them.
On the other hand, when the show was airing, lesbians were viewed as borderline cool and unique in the show. At the time, this may have been seen as more progressive than it would nowadays. Firstly, any mention of female/female sexual action in the show is met with extreme approval from the male characters, perhaps suggesting that lesbians exist for the pleasure of men. An example of this can be found at the end of episode 19 of season 4. In this episode called ‘The One With All The Haste’, Joey and Chandler are both willing to give Rachel and Monica their apartment back, but only if the two women kiss each other for a minute. Secondly, the show makes the fact that Ross’ wife left him for a woman a joke like she became a lesbian because of his faults. For example, in episode 17 of season 7, in the episode named ‘The One With The Cheap Wedding Dress’ Joey says, “It just seems like Ross is the kind of guy who would marry a woman on the verge of being a lesbian and then push her over the edge.” When the interviewees were asked about their opinion on how the sitcom discusses sexuality, respondent Phillip replied, “Jokes such as these are less acceptable in today’s culture, it would likely be inappropriate to suggest that someone is gay at the fault of their partner. In today’s society, younger generations are encouraged to be open-minded and to learn that someone’s sexuality should not be used as a joke.”
The Ones With The Lack Of Ethnic Diversity
Even though the sitcom is based in New York City, a huge metropolis of superdiversity and multicultural backgrounds, some might say a lack of ethnic diversity is visible. It was actually David Schwimmer himself, who plays Ross Geller, who fought for his character to date a woman of color. In many interviews, he claims that there is no excuse for the poor lack of equal representation and that is why he campaigned for it (Bennett, 2020). Due to his efforts Ross Geller first dated an Asian-American woman, and later an African-American woman who also ended up dating Joey during her time on the show. Having said that, some respondents for this research claimed that the cultural representation in Friends is nowhere near where it should have been, considering it was a groundbreaking hit series on a global scale. However, others argued against this by suggesting that the show was being realistic instead of intentionally racist since six friends who are middle class in Manhattan would most likely be white.
Comparing it to nowadays, there are not many shows with only a handful of people of color. Especially in recent years, events and movements like Black Lives Matter have caused a surge in awareness for the black community (Black Lives Matter, 2022). As a consequence of people being more informed and educated on why representation is so important for people of black ethnicity, more and more shows are progressing. We are living in a super diverse world with globalization continuing to intertwine more and more cultures together. This can also be labeled as the process of cultural blending, meaning that characteristics that originated in different cultures are merged (Backus, 2021).
The Ones With The Fat Shaming
Throughout the whole ten seasons of the show, one particular narrative that could be seen as shameful by today’s cultural ideology is the fat shaming of Monica Geller. As we see her, Monica is very slim, but the audience is constantly reminded via jokes and insults that as a young person she was overweight. For example, when watching an old home video in the 14th episode of season 2, Monica’s friends mock her weight. She replies “shut up, the camera adds ten pounds,” to which she’s asked, “so how many cameras are actually on you?” Similarly, in episode 3 of season 8, Monica’s brother Ross says, “I grew up with Monica. If you didn’t eat fast you didn’t eat.” When respondent Philip, who watched the show when it originally aired, was asked about this specific episode he said, “oh, it was funny. Monica would laugh too so what’s the harm?” Conversely, when asked the same, Amy said “jokes like that don’t take into consideration the audience who is watching. It is insensitive and offensive to people who may struggle with weight issues themself. In 2021, it’s not okay to fat shame.” These direct quotes show how culture has changed and how those watching the shows react to their storylines and jokes based on their cultural views. These cheap laughs based on body weight were deemed culturally acceptable at the time, and so it became a narrative thread throughout the entire series. In today’s culture, a storyline about weight loss would be looked at from a different perspective, focusing on health and the inspiration to improve one’s self, rather than being the focus of many jokes.
The Ones With The Sexism
For this issue, there are two main examples that come to mind. First is the episode called ‘The One With Joey’s Bag’ in season 5 episode 13, where Joey starts taking a bag with him everywhere he goes because he thinks it looks stylish. His friends, however, ridicule him for it by making jokes about how the bag makes him look too feminine. In today’s culture, there are loads of men who wear bags around their chests. This can be seen when looking at different clothing stores which now supply bags specifically designed for men. Even though the design of these bags is different from what a woman would carry with her, it still seems more acceptable for men to wear a bag in today’s society.
However, as this episode proves, this was not the case in the ’90s. Men’s fashion made no space for male bags and it was not cool for a guy to have one – which is why they make fun of Joey. “In the 90s men didn’t have bags unless they were manly sports bags and that was definitely reflected on the show. That was the culture then though, but these days it’s fine and normal for men to have bags. If Friends was on now, Ross would definitely have a man bag,” Ed declared, who watched the show when it first aired.
The second example of this issue is episode 6 of season 9, ‘The One With The Male Nanny’. The name speaks for itself; the scenes focus on Ross and Rachel who are looking to hire a nanny for their baby Emma. They interview a bunch of possible candidates but fail to be successful until they meet Sandy. As soon as the couple opens the door to him, Ross makes fun of his name because he was expecting a woman. Rachel immediately is fond of Sandy and sees how good he is with Emma. However, Ross suggests that he must be gay, or bisexual at least. He even tells Sandy face-to-face that he is not comfortable with a male nanny in the house. Naturally, by today’s standards, it is not acceptable to decline someone purely based on their gender. However, this was not the case in the ’90s. When Philip was asked about the idea of Friends raising problematic issues regarding the theme of sexism he said that “society back then still had traditional values that meant men should work and only the women were supposed to look after the children.”
The Ones With The Transphobia
As mentioned, throughout the show, Chandler expresses embarrassment at having a “gay dad.” Three seasons in, it is revealed Chandler’s dad is a burlesque entertainer who performs in drag. However, later in the series, it is suggested that Charles presents as a woman 24/7, rather than just during a performance. In this case, Charles would be a transwoman. This is something Friends never makes clear – and most likely not for a mysterious plot. Rather, the writers used the device of making Charles sometimes a drag artist and other times a woman in order to make laughs and jokes. For example, in episode 24 of season 7 Charles’ ex-wife says, “don’t you have a little bit too much penis to be wearing a dress like that?” In today’s culture, this language may be seen as unacceptable. It is transphobic and suggests that trans people are ‘not normal’ and for that reason, it is acceptable to disrespect them. When talking about this during the interviews, Martin said “it was funny back then,” going on to explain that “it was a different time. What’s acceptable has changed and okay they wouldn’t make it now, but it was funny back then.” Interestingly, even one of the show writers is aware that some of the jokes they made then are not appropriate in today’s culture. On transphobia specifically, the director Martha Kauffman said: “I think we didn’t have the knowledge about transgender people back then, so I’m not sure if we used the appropriate terms” (Pollock, 2021).
Friends and the problem of diversity
As can be seen above, a consequence of media is that it will always portray the era in which it was created. Simply put, Friends was made in the 90s and early 2000s when cultural boundaries were different from what they are now. The outrage expressed on Twitter when the show hit Netflix is proof of this. Many have argued that the show’s behavior is inexcusable regardless of the time period – wrong is wrong no matter what, as seen in the beforementioned Figure 1. However as can be seen by the respondents – most people realize it is wrong but still manage to enjoy the show because they remind themselves that it is a matter of difference in cultural beliefs. Understandably, cultures are changing so fast nowadays that it is natural that shows may become culturally inappropriate and outdated. On top of this, it is also important to take circulation into account. When ideas and concepts flow around the world through globalization, they circulate (Backus, 2021). Consequently, this can lead to people responding differently to the same ideas or concepts, simply because they also get a local expression that can influence people’s thoughts or opinions. This also means that culture is dynamic and therefore ideas and concepts can change and move from one place to another.
The actor David Schwimmer supported this in an interview where he claimed he felt “that a lot of the problem today, in so many areas, is that so little is taken in context. You have to look at it from the point of view of what the show was trying to do at the time. I’m the first person to say that maybe something was inappropriate or insensitive, but I feel like my barometer was pretty good at that time” (Vivinetto, 2020). On top of the actors’ perspective, writer Marta Kauffman claims hindsight is a funny thing and with the cultural knowledge she has now, she would not write those same jokes as she did back then. She included those jokes at the time because they were considered culturally acceptable then (Kupfer, 2019).
Having looked at the respondent’s answers, it can be concluded that most interviewees believe that risky themes or jokes that almost cross social boundaries are part of a comedy sitcom like Friends. As can be seen in the findings above, when asked about the potentially problematic themes most of them understood the issue behind it and how it could be offensive or harmful to someone. However, they also expressed that sometimes the role of comedy can be to get people talking about a topic that is taboo (Phillips, 2017). When analyzing the pros and cons of whether the show is still culturally appropriate, it is important to consider that maybe the writers of the sitcom included risky themes that they did in order to get their audience to talk and think about topics that were previously off limits. This could then be seen by some as revolutionary, instead of damaging to society.
After having briefly introduced the sitcom, and discussed the main issue, the most prominent themes were dissected. When highlighting the problematic things, they were analyzed into two categories: why it was acceptable in the 90s and why it is viewed as unacceptable in the present day. Having made this analysis it can be summed up that popular belief is that a tv show should not be punished for its past, or judged by today’s standards. Friends broke records and is without a doubt still one of the most popular tv shows so it should not have any repercussions now. Findings from this research have shown that the respondents believe it is vital to remember to not apply the standards from the 90s to the current day and enjoy the show for what it is, accepting the fact that it was made in a time when society was different to what it is now. For that reason, viewers should have the pleasure of enjoying Friends while still carefully considering the critical issues and the time frame of when the show was created.