Friends was an American situational comedy created by David Crane and Marta Kauffman. Its 10 seasons were aired on NBC from September 22, 1994 to May 6, 2004 and has garnered multiple Primetime Emmy Award nominations and wins. It stars the ensemble cast of Jennifer Aniston as Rachel, Courtney Cox as Monica, Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe, Matt LeBlanc as Joey, Matthew Perry as Chandler, and David Schwimmer as Ross.
The story revolves around the six characters whose lives are intertwined with each other and interact with each other on a daily basis. Monica and Ross are siblings, Chandler and Ross are college friends, Monica and Rachel are childhood friends. Those who just recently became friends are Joey and Chandler, who are roommates that live across fellow roommates Monica and Rachel. Phoebe used to be Monica’s roommate until she moved out but she has been a longtime friend of theirs so she’s remains a part of their circle. The story is set in New York.
The main cast is comprised of six straight, white Americans so applying the LGBT/ SOGIE analysis would pose as a challenge. We can apply it, however, to secondary characters. Ross was originally married to a woman named Carol and naturally in any marriage, they conceived and had a child. The trouble here lies with the fact that Carol, while pregnant, realized that she was interested in women, particularly with Susan Bunch, a friend she met at the gym. Due to her daily trips there, they’ve gotten close up to a point where she decided that she wanted a divorce with Ross to be with Susan. Despite their marriage falling out, Ross and Carol were able to maintain a good, friendly relationship with each other. His relationship with Susan, however, is quite the opposite. Ross undermines Susan, thinking that she can never fully satisfy the wants and needs of Carol and presumably thinking that only he can provide them. But Susan isn’t weak and she fights back. She loves Carol and knows that she is capable of taking care of her during and after the pregnancy. It is apparent in the episode, “The One With The Two Parts”. Carol, Susan, and Ross have been attending Lamaze classes to practice and ease Carol’s natural birth process. Carol had to miss one session so Ross and Susan were forced to work together this time. Ross automatically assumed that Susan was going to take Carol’s position, of the woman giving birth, but Susan argues him by saying, “Look, I don’t see why I have to miss out on the coaching training just because I’m a woman.” And with a coin toss, Ross loses and takes on the mom role, with Susan supporting him as the coach.
Here we can see a discussion of Monique Wittig’s discourse in her book, The Straight Mind. Wittig discusses how the minds of heterosexual beings develop a totalizing interpretation of history, social reality, and culture, and at the same time, this heterosexual ideology oppresses all those who attempt to conceive of themselves otherwise. So as we can observe, heterosexual beings such as Ross have generalized the process of pregnancy and childbirth. That is why the presence of Susan became such a nuisance for him; it was unnatural because this was not the norm. We can see in the Lamaze class that it was full of couples, only to be contested by the presence of Susan, Carol, and Ross. What I like about Ross, however, is that his antagonism towards Susan is not because she’s a lesbian but because he feels jealous about Carol loving someone else that isn’t him.
An issue that also shook things up was the censorship of the same-sex marriage scene in the episode, “The One With The Lesbian Wedding”, by the NBC affiliates in Port Arthur, Texas and Lima, Ohio. The station managers defended their move by saying that they “do not believe the episode of Friends meets the prevailing standards of good taste in our community.” The episode merely showed the beginning of the wedding. No vows or ring exchanges were shown and the episode didn’t even contain any scandalous or malicious scenes. But seeing as it was filmed in 1996, it might have been a radical move, knowing that it is still a sensitive topic especially on broadcast television. Like in Gay Theory and Criticism, it is discussed through the History of Sexuality that the past constructions of sexuality cannot be understood in ‘their’ terms and ours because sexuality is socially constructed. The societies in Texas and Ohio are highly different from that of New York, and 1996 might still have been a very conservative time in America. In terms of Lesbian Feminist Theory and Criticism, I also think that the episode did its job as a response to the heterosexism of mainstream culture and the sexism of male-dominated Gay Liberation Movement. Susan and Carol’s marriage, a union of two lesbians, challenged the dominance of heterosexism on TV without having a scandalous presentation.
Another LGBT character presented in the show was Chandler Bing’s father, Charles Bing who was a gay trans woman. Chandler’s parents decided to get a divorce when Charles finally came out and admitted that he liked men. He was mentioned only every now and then to build Chandler’s backstory of having a gay father. It wasn’t until 2001, in the show’s 7th season, that his character was brought to life by actress, Kathleen Turner. We see that Charles has undergone physical changes, and dresses and identifies himself as a woman named Helena Handbasket, who works as a drag star in Las Vegas. In the episode, “The One With Chandler’s Dad”, we can see that it is still something irregular, with Monica being shocked as she saw who and how Chandler’s father was. But what I liked about this episode was that there was an acceptance of the gays and of trans women. We can see that the audience was mostly biologically male, even if it wasn’t disclosed if they were gay. And more importantly, there was an acceptance of the father by his son, despite their estranged relationship, despite Charles’ sexual orientation. It happened a year after the turn of to the second millennium and as we can see, there has been an improvement in the way society viewed the LGBT community.
Even the location is important in Lesbian, Gay, and Queer Criticism. Friends is set in New York, one of the pioneer American cities for the Gay Liberation Movement, with the Stonewall Riot event in 1969. The episode, “The One With The Lesbian Wedding” was aired in 1996, a pretty radical move for the creators of Friends to make and for NBC to air. We already see the presence of Heterosexism, as discussed by Selden in 1997, one year after the episode was aired.
The sitcom does operate with heterosexist values because the cast is comprised of six white, straight, American characters. Their dominant views dictate the flow of the program. However, it does give light to the struggles of the LGBT community, specifically in the cases of Susan Bunch and Charles Bing. Susan, with Ross undermining her strength and capabilities to love Carol as he did, as a man does; and Charles, with his estranged relationship with his son because of his sexuality as a trans woman and his flashy job as a Las Vegas drag star. As Jeffrey Weeks put it, “desire cannot be reduced to primeval biological urges, beyond human control, nor can it be seen as a product of conscious willing and planning”. Carol and Charles had been in their own respective marriages, unions tied by vows, and they were having children of their own. In the end, they broke them off in the realization that they were attracted to the same sex. So there is that realization that this is beyond them and their control. But being the lighthearted sitcom that Friends is, it showed the acceptance of the LGBT community with such a positive treatment of the characters and the situations they find themselves in.
Friends. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2014 from Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friends>
“GLAAD condemns censorship of Friends episode.” GLAAD. Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, 18 January 1996. Web. 20 October 2014. <http://web.archive.org/web/20050907050225/http://www.glaad.org/media/archive_detail.php?id=231>
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