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Friday, December 11, 2015

December 11, 2015: Circles of Friends: The Darker Sides of Friends

[December 12th will mark the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth, and since Sinatra was as well-known for his famous group of friends as for his individual achievements, I wanted to spend the week AmericanStudying such circles of friends. Leading up to a special weekend post on the Rat Pack!]
Let me start by saying that I’ve gotten a lot of pleasure out of Friends over the years; once they got into their rhythm, this was one of the better ensemble casts of any sitcom in history, and produced lots of very funny as well as many touching moments over the years. But at the same time, like so many hugely popular cultural works, this TV show also reflected and extended some of the darker elements in America’s collective psyche. Here are three such dark sides to the mega-successful comedy:
1)      Anti-Intellectualism: As Richard Hofstadter knew all too well, there’s been a longstanding, influential current of anti-intellectualism in American society. And in its consistently snarky and often downright nasty portrayal of Ross Geller (David Schwimmer)’s job as a college professor of paleontology, Friends unfortunately played into this current and to the stereotypes of eggheaded academics on which it has often relied. Each character’s work world was the subject of plenty of jokes, but I would argue that only Ross’s was so thoroughly tied to the character’s worst personality traits and tendencies, with virtually no attention to any other elements of the profession. Not smart, Friends.
2)      Homophobia: To be honest, there’s not much I can say about Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry)’s constant homophobia that wasn’t said already in this great Slate piece. But I would particularly single out the character of Chandler’s father, who is either a cross-dressing man or a transgendered woman (it’s never made quite clear, but the character is played by Kathleen Turner), and whom both Chandler and the show treat almost entirely as a combination of cringing embarrassment and shameful joke. Transparent or Grace and Frankie this most definitely isn’t, folks—and even for its own late 90s/early 00s moment, Friends was behind the curve.
3)      Diversity: None other than the great Ta-Nehisi Coates has referenced the thoroughgoing lack of racial diversity on Friends, as well as the careless way the show recycled the same plotline for its two prominent African American guest stars, Aisha Tyler and Gabrielle Union. But the show’s diversity problem was even broader and deeper than that: this was a show set in New York City in the late 20th century, and the only prominent Asian character was literally fresh off the plane from China; I can’t remember any significant Hispanic characters or indeed prominent characters of any non-white ethnicity other than the three I’ve mentioned (and that’s over ten seasons!). I’m not arguing that one of the six friends would have had to be non-white, necessarily—but if their turn of the 21st century American world is so completely white, well, that’s an indictment of either the characters or the show.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?

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