The One With All The Problematic Content

At the tender age of eleven, I fell into a world of endless cups of coffee and a temporal space where problems were solved in thirty minutes or less. I am, of course, talking about Friends. Every night at 5pm, my brother and I would whack on E4 and sit slap-bang in front of the telly, eyes glued to today’s shenanigans. We laughed and we cried right alongside them, and the show will always hold a special place in my heart for providing comfort during my turbulent teen years.
However, I began to grow and change over the years. Feminism was no longer a ‘dirty word’ or a misconstrued idea, but an ideology I embraced and deployed in all areas of my life. Media was one of them. As my views on gender expanded and began to hold substance, my consumption of entertainment changed. Casual jokes took on a sinister tone and the show’s problematic assumptions about gender and sexuality went unquestioned while the laughter track chattered away. A sinking feeling of dissonance joined me on the sofa when “I’ll Be There For You” blared out of the speakers. As I grew more confident in my beliefs and how to express them, I posed my theories to my father and brother regarding Friends. My, my, did it kick off, “HE’S A GOOD MAN, SARAH, STOP TRYING TO TWIST EVERYTHING TO YOUR FEMINIST AGENDA.”
How I wish that exchange was fictitious.
This altercation reflects a great worry of mine, how society passively absorbs and indoctrinates media messages without any critical thought. Subconsciously or not, we shape our lives around the sociological models presented in our favourite books, films and television shows. We blindly believe what media companies spew out, without peeking behind that curtain and wondering why they present certain behaviours as normal and healthy.  Concentration of media ownership means very few people make very large profits from their output; indeed, 90% of media is owned by only six companies (“These 6 Corporations Control 90% Of The Media In America”). They want to produce content to keep the underlings pacified and docile. For people not to question their situation, it must be presented as the norm – what better way to do this than through a comedy show, an innocuous medium?
This is, of course, the most cynical way to look at the situation. Perhaps there are no insidious orchestrations by the production company, and the writers are simply ignorant, products of a system where problematic and oppressive behaviours are glorified. They have simply regurgitated what they consider normal. Regardless, they are producing content which reinforces oppressive norms. I will be focusing on the sexist implications of Friends, but understand the erasure of people of colour in New York and the uncomfortable jokes about weight and homosexuality are equally important.
There are six leads in Friends who, at first glance, appear to be decent people. Yes, they are flawed and damaged, but nothing a two-to-three minute conversation before a commercial break can’t remedy. There is one character, however, whose behaviour perturbs me deeply. You ladies out there might know him, in fact; he is the nicest boy you could ever hope to meet.
But he harbours a dark, dirty little secret. He is consumed by a burning desire.
For who?
For you, my dear! Yes, he longs to call you ‘his’, but is terrified of rejection, and therefore never dreams of telling you.
So, what are his options? Confront his issues, overcome his fear and face the consequences, i.e. the unthinkable; or, play a game of stealth.
Night after night, he will be there for you.
Selflessly.
He will make you feel like only he understands you, and he will wait for you to realise that. He may even speed the process along by berating your partners, how they’re never good enough for you.
You come to depend on him. His snare has you well and truly caught.
In a moment of weakness, in a moment of sadness, you give in.

Guessed yet?
Mr Ross Geller, prepare to become intimately acquainted with my scathing tongue…

Even as a child, Ross was my least favourite character on the show, but I could never fully put my finger on why. As time worse on and my little mind widened, it became abundantly clear.
Ross is an awful human being. As a friend, father and lover, his ego and desperate attempts to bolster his masculinity and perceived authority poison his behaviour. He reeks of ‘Mr Nice Guy’, a sadly all too common troupe in entertainment. The man simpers and pines over an ‘unobtainable’ sweetheart – here one Miss Rachel Green – who he neglects to directly express his feelings to. Besides one off-the-cuff remark in the closing moments of the first episode, Ross never reveals his feelings to her. He believes his friendship is enough, that she will eventually stop wasting her time with the Barry’s and Paolo’s of the world, and turn to the ‘only boy who understands her’. This stealthy approach relies on subtle coercion and manipulation, a terrible foundation for any relationship.
It is clear that Ross has a severe fear of rejection, which is explored in the show – in the fourth season Monica makes comments about Ross never worrying about his partners cheating on him before Carol, his first wife, left him for another woman.
Here’s where things get tricky. Reality demands that we confront our issues, or they linger and fester until they destroy all that’s left of us. This concept is vaguely explored in Season Five, where Ross suffers a nervous breakdown at work, screaming bloody murder over a sandwich. It appears promising at first – his boss requests that he sees a counsellor, and we expect to see explored this in coming episodes. It would be progressive for a comedy to openly talk about trauma, how to recover from it and refuse to let it define your life.
Alas, my hopes were too high. Throughout the whole series, Ross does not show a modicum of character development. His obsessive desire is a staple of the show and bookends its run. The most notable example is when he refuses to get an annulment from Rachel after a drunken marital mishap in Las Vegas in Season Five. Interactions between Ross and Phoebe clearly reveal that he is still in love with Rachel. Again, he plots to box her into a corner and then prey on her in a moment of weakness to get what he wants. This grotesque situation is heighted by their co-habitation. Despite this emotional manipulation, Ross is still portrayed as being Rachel’s equal, worthy of her love and companionship.
This is worrying. The relationship they share is deeply dysfunctional, built on coercion, manipulation and distrust, but is lauded as a classic modern romance. Jealously and paranoia run rampant throughout the couple’s first attempt at dating in Seasons Two and Three, where Ross believes Rachel’s co-worker Mark is trying to seduce her. He sabotages their friendship, stops them from spending time together and passive aggressively (not to mention childishly) marks his territory around Rachel through excessive gifts. At first glance, I can somewhat condone this kind of behaviour – irrational, foolish decisions are common where love is concerned, and it is a human thing to do. However, for it to avoid being problematic, either the character responsible must show signs of recognition and growth, or the show itself must make it clear that this behaviour is an issue, otherwise the action is merely unhealthy and producing a toxic atmosphere. Flaws and mistakes are a part of life, but Friends ignores the fact that learning, developing and improving your behaviour is too. Instead, it glorifies an emotionally abusive relationship and presents it as perfect love.
Rachel Green undergoes the most character development during the show. She arrives a spoilt, suburban brat relying on daddy’s bank cards, and leaves a high-flying career woman thriving as a single mother. She walks away from a life of privilege to pursue a life that will truly be hers, and when the opportunity came to build her career in fashion, she seizes it with both hands and never looks back – these were bold, brave moves in attaining her goals. The writers want us to characterise Rachel as shallow, self-centred and spoilt – even Ross believes this of her, noting it down on his infamous list – but her actions belie this interpretation: she attends her ex-fiancé’s wedding despite fears he will humiliate her for playing the runaway bride, refuses to upstage Monica on her wedding day with news of her pregnancy, and is best friends with Monica during high school, despite their vastly different popularity levels. None of these actions are in-keeping with the assertion that Rachel is an entitled, selfish person.
Rachel earns disparaging labels for the pure virtue of being a woman. Ross has many petty, selfish moments, but not once is he ever labelled as such. When he disrespectfully argues with Phoebe about her beliefs on evolution and refuses to let the matter lie, he is merely sent away with his tail between his legs, and not branded petty; it is important to note that this is a repeated behaviour, as he acts in a similar manner when Phoebe believes she has found her mother in cat form. He also has no problem sabotaging Rachel’s career on more than one occasion to get what he wants. At the beginning of Rachel’s career, she is required to work long hours to make her bones in the fashion world, and cannot make her anniversary dinner with Ross, having to complete a large order. Despite possessing a PHD and therefore knowing the importance of knuckling down at the right time, he chooses to ignore Rachel’s reasonable request and violates her workspace, making her feel guilty for diligently building a career. The end of the show is capped off in a similar manner. Ross decides once again that he wants Rachel to himself, and asks her to stay with him in America instead of relocating to Paris. By her own admission, Rachel has achieved all she can in New York, and is excited to work in one of the world’s fashion capitals. Ross appears to take this into consideration, encouraging her to go, but in the final episode, chases after Rachel and asks her to give up her a chance of a lifetime for him, just as she is about to board the plane.
These behaviours are the very height of entitlement, and yet his character is never damned the same way that Rachel’s is. This is displaying a common norm in our society, where women are often viewed as ‘bitches’ if they are assertive and make their own decisions, instead of deferring to male authority. As this is a threat to patriarchy – a system that relies on women being meek and submissive – the perception of female strength is warped and portrayed as negative. Friends adheres to this skewed gender model by having characters directly refer to Rachel as selfish and entitled, while her actions state otherwise, and fails to characterise Ross’s entitlement, instead dubbing him as a kind, genuine man, while his manipulative actions contradict this.
Ross’s entitlement extends to his perceived right to invade women’s spaces and bodies, something he does continuously throughout the series. In the Season 3 Episode “The One with Frank Jr”, Isabella Rossellini stumbles upon Central Perk just as Ross completes his list of female celebrities he’s allowed to bed. Seeing Rossellini, he leaps at the chance to brag that she is on his list, and that she –she – is allowed to sleep with him. Objectification and entitlement (again) run rampant, and yet the whole scene is treated as a joke; Rossellini even appears flattered until she discovers she has been bumped in favour of a local celebrity. In the Season Two episode, “”The One Where Eddie Moves In”, he imposes himself upon Monica, constantly staying at her apartment and deliberating irritating her. This could be seen as typical sibling behaviour – I’m sure my brother and I will still be bickering over whose turn it is to make the tea when we’re both sporting artificial hips and no teeth. The resolution to this scene is where the issue becomes concrete – Ross doesn’t realise the impact of his actions. When Monica calls him out on his inappropriate behaviour, he is shocked, merely thinking it a bit of fun; Monica swiftly tears into him, but reverts back to the old favourite of “oh, you: you’re so annoying, but I love you.” His behaviour is again swept under the rug and excused in the face of his ‘redeeming’ qualities. As I mentioned earlier when describing Rachel’s character, actions speak louder than words. Ross’s actions do not belie a man worthy of forgiveness. He needs to be held accountable; otherwise, what is this telling the audience? That they can chance their arm with misogynistic pick-up lines and invasions of privacy without any serious consequences? Media needs to do better.
Perhaps the most worrying episode of the saga involves Ross’s son, Ben. Still a toddler, he chooses a Barbie doll from the toy store and happily plays with it. This is a great teaching moment, where toxic gender stereotypes can be knocked down and healthy attitudes can be instilled. Ross, however, is horrified, and spends the entire episode trying to impose hyper-masculine ideals on his child by taking the doll away and making him play with a GI Joe.
This sequence sticks in my craw due to personal experiences. As a child, I loathed anything remotely girly, even going as far as colouring in the tiny flowers on the back of my school shoes with permanent marker. I was lucky enough to have parents who never cared about my lack of adherence to the gender binary, but my father had his limits. Only a few years ago, he attempted to force me to wear a dress to a wedding, against my wishes, and refused to go unless I complied. His reasoning? “Girls have to wear dresses at weddings.”
The toy situation is born from the same thought process, that there are coded gender behaviours that, if broken, deserve to be punished. I appreciate that the show means it to be comic and we are meant to laugh at Ross’s pathetic adherence to gender stereotypes. He is a buffoon who we laugh at, not with. This additional layer creates satire, which causes a problem; true satire is meant to punch up and poke fun at the problematic and oppressive power structures in place. When this is flipped, it merely mocks the underclass who already carry a great burden. The “joke” in this episode reinforces hyper-masculinity as the only acceptable state of being for a boy, who is still a toddler. Femininity being embraced by men is looked upon with scorn and derision, and is actively mocked and discouraged. Even Ross’s comeuppance is tainted by this unhealthy acceptance of problematic behaviour – Monica mentions that as a child, Ross enjoyed wearing his mother’s dresses and pearls. To me, this is very uncomfortable – the only way that Ross can be punished for his vehement dislike of Ben embracing femininity is by mocking it once again. The joke comes full circle, without any criticism of enforcing this dangerous stereotype. The scene is engineered to present the situation as something worthy of mocking, and the passive audience absorbs this.
To state that any form of media, even comedy, is simply for entertainment purposes is wrong. There is always a dual purpose, to inform and entertain, but the former is often overlooked. Problematic behaviour that is endemic in our society is played back at us from our TVs day in and day out, a reflection of our own world. Unless we begin to produce critically engaging media and encourage audiences to critically engage with it, we will be stuck in this vicious cycle of problematic and oppressive behaviour, its projection onto society via entertainment, and our internalising of its messages. My engineering flatmate often tells me that the study of literature is simply “reading too much into things.” That kind of attitude from a university student is poison in the water. The change needs to start somewhere, and it is not going to come from our darling mogul overlords. Creators must accept this dual duty, and do it justice.

Works Cited
Lutz, Ashley. “These 6 Corporations Control 90% Of The Media In America”. Business Insider. June 14th 2012. Web. January 11th 2016. http://www.businessinsider.com/these-    6-corporations-           control-90-of-the-media-in-america-2012-6?IR=T.

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