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The picture that gave Instagram a meltdown

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 Yet for many the comedy is sexist, offensive and outdated.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. KeywordsDecade - Ten years.

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