The picture that gave Instagram a meltdown

Debut: Jennifer Aniston’s Friends selfie attracted 116,000 followers in an hour. © Instagram

What is it about Friends? It took one selfie of the show’s main cast to spark such delirium yesterday that Instagram crashed. Yet for many the comedy is sexist, offensive and outdated.

Friends is one of the best-loved sitcoms of all time. Over 50 million Americans tuned in to its finale in 2004 — the most watched episode of any series in the whole decade. Now, 25 years after the series first aired, it is still winning over new fans.

According to research by Childwise earlier this year, it is 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. And this has fuelled claims of a lack of diversity.

Then, there are the jokes. In the very first episode, Ross’s marriage breaks 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 representation 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 claimed that this was fat-shaming.

But some think this criticism has gone too far. Journalist 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 first 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 credit. Often Ross’s squeamish homophobia or Joey’s juvenile sexism are played to make the characters themselves look ridiculous, helping to undermine similar prejudices that still persist in society.

Switch it off, 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 TV programme? Now, imagine it being read or watched 50 years in the future. Is there anything about the work which might offend a future audience?
  2. Read the Katie Stow and Hugo Rifkind articles in Become An Expert. Who is most convincing and why? 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 (1944-2015), Welsh actor

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Friends ran for 10 seasons between 1994-2004, made up of 236 episodes. 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. For example, in 2017, Matt LeBlanc (Joey) insisted that the characters had “gone their separate ways”. Meanwhile, Matthew Perry (Chandler) stated that he would refuse to appear in further episodes.

Word Watch

Decade
It was also the fourth most-watched television series finale in US history.
Transphobia
Prejudice towards transgender people. Judge if you think Friends is guilty by watching the first video under Become An Expert.
Fat-shaming
Mocking or humiliating somebody because of their weight. Watch the second Become An Expert video and decide.
Profoundly anti-Semitic
Racism against Jewish people, according to literary critic Harold Bloom.
Shylock
Shylock is called “the devil in the likeness of a Jew”; “damned, execrable dog”, and “inhuman wretch”. For most of the play, he is simply referred to as “the Jew”.
Racial prejudices
Accusations of racial stereotyping especially centre around the depiction of a black maid in the series. See final article in Become An Expert.
Blithely
In a casual, indifferent way.

Subjects

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