Golden oldie: Friends is teens’ favourite show

Best buds: The gang from left to right: Monica, Chandler, Rachel, Ross, Phoebe and Joey.

But is it wrong to watch it? A survey has found that Friends is the most popular show among young people in Britain — beating dozens of modern hits. But some have called the series offensive.

Friends is one of the best-loved sitcoms of all time. Over 50 million Americans tuned into to its finale in 2004 — the most watched episode of any series in the whole decade. And after its recent release on Netflix, a new generation has fallen in love with the show.

According to research by Childwise, it has become the most popular show in Britain among five to 16-year-olds.

The “focus on friendships and relationships is relatable to teens,” claim the researchers. And thanks to streaming, “they can watch it virtually whenever and wherever they like.”

However, not everyone is a fan of the show — in fact, some have labelled it as simply offensive.

Launched in 1994, the series follows Monica, Chandler, Rachel, Ross, Phoebe and Joey, as they navigate early adulthood in New York City. They are all white, straight and well off. But this has fuelled claims of a lack of diversity.

Then there are the jokes. In the very first episode, Ross’s marriage has broken down because his wife is a lesbian — a recurring source of humour. There is also Chandler’s constant fear of being mistaken for a gay man. For journalist Rebecca Reid this amounts to “staggering” homophobia.

Furthermore, jokes about Chandler’s transgender father, Charles (or Helena), have led to accusations of transphobia.

Others have criticised the show’s presentation of women. Joey is a serial womaniser who once compares women to ice cream. Furthermore, Monica is repeatedly teased for being overweight — one Twitter user claiming that this is fat-shaming.

But some think this criticism has gone too far. Hugo Rifkind has called the outcry “desperation to see a flaw in anything.”

Controversy like this has a long history. William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has been called “profoundly anti-Semitic” due to its portrayal of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender.

And old Tom and Jerry cartoons have been released with a disclaimer warning that they depict “racial prejudices” from when they were made.

Is it wrong to watch Friends?

Friends no more

Of course not, some say. It is a product of its time and a great way to judge how society has changed. Also, its humour is more nuanced than critics give it credit for. Often the squeamish homophobia of Ross or Joey’s juvenile sexism is played to make the characters themselves look ridiculous, helping to undermine similar prejudices that still persist in society.

It should be avoided, others respond. Life tends to imitate art. And a show that gleefully makes fun of gay, transgender and overweight people is hardly going to send out positive messages. Recognising context is one thing, but blithely spreading the prejudices of the past through “comedy” is quite another.

You Decide

  1. Is it harmful to watch Friends?
  2. Should works of art be censored if they encourage prejudice?

Activities

  1. What is your favourite book, film or television programme? Now imagine it is being watched or read 50 years in the future. Is there anything about the work which you think could offend that future audience?
  2. Read the Katie Stow and Hugo Rifkind articles in Become An Expert. Who do you most agree with? Why do you find their argument convincing? Give yourself 10 minutes to write a summary of your own opinion on the Friends debate.

Some People Say...

“If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be doing sitcoms.”

Roger Rees

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Friends ran for 236 episodes comprising 10 seasons, running between 1994-2004. During this time it was nominated for 62 Primetime Emmy Awards. In 2013, the Writers Guild of America ranked the show 24th on its list of the 101 best-written TV series of all time.
What do we not know?
There has long been speculation that the cast would reunite for further episodes, or perhaps a feature film. However, various statements from cast members suggest that this is now unlikely to happen. For example, in 2017 Matt LeBlanc (Joey), insisted that the characters have “gone their separate ways”. While Matthew Perry (Chandler) said that he would refuse to participate in further episodes.

Word Watch

Decade
It was also the fourth most-watched television series finale in US history.
Transphobia
Refers to the dislike of, or prejudice against, transgender people. To judge for yourself if Friends is guilty of this, see the first video under Become An Expert.
Fat-shaming
The act of mocking or humiliating somebody because of their weight. See the second video under Become An Expert to decide whether the show does this.
Profoundly anti-Semitic
The words of literary critic Harold Bloom, from Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.
Shylock
During the play, Shylock is called “the devil in the likeness of a Jew”, a “damned, execrable dog” and an “inhuman wretch”. Mostly, he is simply referred to as “the Jew”.
Racial prejudices
Accusations of racist stereotyping particularly centre around the depiction of a black maid in the series. For more information, see the final article in Become An Expert.

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