I switched on the television this weekend on a work trip and after skimming through a lot of shit, decided to watch F.R.I.E.N.D.S. reruns — yet again. I have watched that show way too many times, like most people of my generation, and have way too many memories and way too much merchandise. I have always laughed at the punchlines (which I have said aloud along with the characters) and have done way too many “which F.R.I.E.N.D.S character are you?” quizzes on way too many lazy weekends. But something was different about this weekend.
I had just come out of a week that saw social media being put to some good use. Andy Samberg’s masterpiece, Brooklyn Nine Nine, had been cancelled by Fox, and following a global uproar, it was renewed and picked up by NBC for another season. I feel Brooklyn Nine Nine is definitely the best sitcom we have right now and watching it get cancelled broke my heart — which is exactly why I wasn’t laughing along with Chandler and Joey’s antics anymore. The world has changed.
F.R.I.E.N.D.S has been criticised over the years for too many things — almost zero black representation (a shocking fact for a show that ran for ten years), homosexuality has always been the butt of jokes, intellectualism has been ridiculed, obesity has been mocked, there has been a lot of conversation about the incestuous nature of the gang and the show’s tendency to culturally appropriate whatever worked as a gag.
But for me, what strikes most unhealthy was the group dynamic these friends had. While they might have been the closest of friends, they revelled in bullying, making fun of and belittling each other. “Chandler is gay” was a beaten-to-death trope (and there’s something funny about that, apparently), Monica has been fat shamed and her crippling OCD has been taken advantage of, Ross has been demeaned for being cerebral, Rachel’s ditzy materialism has been exploited, Phoebe’s free-spirited worldviews have been constantly mocked and Joey was never allowed to evolve out of the dumb-pretty-blonde stereotype. There was constant snark and sarcasm being flung around. Chandler actually said that he could not advice you on the subject at hand, but would you be interested in a sarcastic comment? Which makes me wonder: just because you are the closest of friends, does that excuse bullying and ridicule?
I used to have a similar “gang” of friends, which I, quite recently, have shed. I realised that, after you spent a few years together, there is Alpha and Beta separation. Some members of the group take charge of the dynamic and become decision makers, planners, the where-are-we-going-to-party-tonighters. The rest comply. Soon, for the lack of constant engagement and entertainment, the Alpha starts picking on the Beta, making them fodder for their amusement. Eventually, it becomes a norm, a regular thing to do. Trying to one up each other, come up with a better dig or rebuttal or burn, becomes something of a common occupation. Sarcasm is celebrated. Nothing is off limits. And, all of that is “absolutely fine” because it is coming from the closest of friends. #FriendsLikeFamily.
For starters, it is not. Your closest of friends should be your safe zone. They should not thrive on making fun of you, even if it is “just us”. They should not be jealous, should not need to establish dominance, need to take charge, need to be Alpha. F.R.I.E.N.D.S has clear Alpha and Beta demarcations. Phoebe is perpetually alpha. She is the one who is most detached, shrewd and opportunistic (“dibs on the apartment” mere seconds after Monica and Chandler broke the news that they are moving? Really?) and she always makes sure that with her acidic humour, she always has the last laugh. Rachel is the ideal American woman — beautiful, sexually active, rich daddy, works at a fashion house and is the object of desire for two of the primary characters over all the seasons. While Joey might be portrayed as a dim bulb, his lack of intelligence is glossed over by the fact that he becomes a celebrity – rich, hot and famous – all aspirational qualities.
Monica, Chandler and Ross are perennially picked on. What is more heartbreaking is that none of the characters are allowed any growth. Why can Joey not become more intelligent? Why can the group not evolve into people who are interested in science, art and culture? Or become more sensitive towards Monica’s OCD (she legit needed help, people)? Or change their attitudes towards homosexuality even though Ben had two moms and Ross and Joey had the best nap of their lives together? Why did nobody ever ask Chandler about his father or help him repair that relationship? Why was his mother’s healthy sex life be a cause for embarrassment? When you sing “I’ll be there for you” does it only start and end with having dinners together in the same apartment? Is that all friendship is about – hanging out and being maids of honour in each other’s weddings (because evidently, we have alienated the whole world with our constant bitch fest and snarky hate)?
We live in the times of shows like Dear White People, Black-ish, Looking, GLOW, Love, Transparent and Jake Peralta and the Nine Nine, where gay men can be stoic and humourless, black body builders are tender, fatherly and yoghurt-loving, women can be soulless ass whoopers and number junkies and not be judged for being who they are.
Gina “Unicorn” Linetti is celebrated for her oddities and the hero is weak, cries, cannot do a pull up, laughs at himself and does not think it is un-macho to say “I love you”. Most importantly, there is nothing but warmth and positive vibes shared in the group, sans eye rolling and vitriol. This healthy atmosphere has allowed the characters to evolve in a positive direction – Jake has become responsible, Captain Holt has embraced his sense of humour, Terry finally got over his PTSD, Gina finished her degree and most importantly, Rosa fell in love. Like Gloria famously said in Modern Family, another extremely progressive show, ‘Your closest friends should be the wind beneath your wings, not spit on your face.’ Trust me, it sounds better in Spanish.