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The sitcom Friends, which aired on NBC from 1994 to 2004, was and remains a cultural phenomenon.  Over the course of ten seasons, it took us through the lives of six young New Yorkers, garnering huge audiences during its initial run, as well as its continuing syndication thereafter.  The show raked in enormous revenue for NBC and made the main cast members extremely rich.

I will acknowledge that, until recently, I was a huge fan of Friends, having viewed every single episode numerous times.  I always found it curious that I would continue to watch episodes over and over again,, even though I already knew their plots and could recite every joke by heart.  Certainly, the writing and comedic acting of the show are top-notch.  But there is more to the show’s enduring appeal.  There is something “cozy” about the show.  Such was its psychological genius that it consistently delivered a sense of comfort and made us feel as though we were a seventh friend to the six main characters.  

But approximately one year ago, I pulled the plug on Friends and, despite its ubiquity on TV, I have not tuned into it again since.  Why, you may ask, would I turn my back on such a seemingly harmless pleasure?  The reason is that there is something toxic about the show which I chose to overlook for way too long.

Marta Kauffman, a producer and writer for the show, has expressed her regret that the core group of six characters was not more diverse.  It is certainly true that all the main characters were straight White people (though, like the Friends crew, most social cliques back then probably were very homogenous).  Jennifer Aniston, who played spoiled girl turned independent career woman Rachel, recently criticized the show for its insensitivity, though she did not have the courage to specify to what aspect of the show she was referring.

The 800 lb. gorilla in the room is the show’s rank homophobia.  (I recognize that there may be others out there who have expressed this observation, in which case I will have to make due with merely adding my own take on the topic to theirs.)  Throughout the show, laughs are elicited by the male characters’ extreme discomfort over being perceived as gay.  An example of this might see Chandler and Joey nervously extricating themselves from a position that might mistakenly be seen as physically intimate by one of the other characters who caught them unaware.  And there are plenty of other jokes that play on the fear of being perceived as gay.  The plain message of such jokes is this: It is bad to be a gay man, and it is not ok to be perceived as one.  

The small number of LGBTQ characters on the show – all of whom are peripheral — also supports this observation.  The writers did write two lesbian characters into the show: Carol, Ross’s first wife, and her partner Susan.  However, while not always a model of progressive LGBTQ character portrayal, their treatment of Carol and Susan was much more sympathetic and certainly not as pejorative as the treatment of gay men.  Of course, the writers also portray Chandler’s father as a trans woman, but, as in the case with gay men, she was the butt of jokes, and the writers flubbed the opportunity to enlighten the audience a bit on proper terminology by using the wrong pronouns for her.

I have no doubt that the effect on a closeted gay person (particularly a young one) of presenting being gay in such a disparaging manner would be rather devastating and would certainly add a lot of weight to the pressures keeping them in the closet.  And for straight members of the audience, such portrayals only add to the homophobia (both explicit and implicit) at work in the larger culture.  I am not saying that the writers sought to oppress or harm gay people with their scripts, but they could not have created a more potent televised vehicle for perpetuating the homophobia in our society that does seek to oppress and ostracize gay people.  (How ironic it is that the show’s name is the same as that used by Quakers, adherents of an enormously tolerant and socially progressive sect, to refer to each other.) 

It is of course impossible to assess with any precision how much influence Friends has had on homophobia in America and in the other countries where it is shown.  No one could say definitively that the show prevented or delayed their coming out.  But so powerful a place has Friends occupied in our pop culture that it would be simply naïve to think that it is entirely innocent of adding to the homophobic malignancy that courses through our society.  It is incumbent on the show’s producers to do what they can to edit or remove the more offensive episodes from the show’s lineup wherever it appears.  As for me, I think I will do just fine without watching Ross and Rachel go on a “break” for the 16th time yet.