The Ethics of Television, "Friends" Edition
Updated: Aug 29, 2022
Over here in my neck of the woods, or shall I say in my neck of the targeted news article and ads (thanks, Facebook!), I am reading about the famous, or infamous, situation comedy: Friends. This brings me to today’s episode. I mean blog post of Faith’s Takes: The Ethics of Television, Friends edition.
Today, Friends can be described as six incredibly privileged white people growing into semi-mature adults. But back in its heyday, the show could only be categorized as spectacular, and anyone who disliked the show would be flogged. I can only assume this last part, I wasn’t there, but anyone’s disdain about an over-glorified show can often await public shaming.
But, before I discuss any further, I must admit that I was once a Friends fanatic; in my defense, I was 12 years old, and it was 2013. However, this fact defines the show’s biggest flaw. The series should not have appealed to my immature humor; I was not their target demographic. But, because the show’s jokes punched down, it hit my level of sophistication. Meaning, that the physical and verbal jokes Friends made allowed for objectively wrong concepts like gender stereotypes, a solely white community, and mistreating transgender characters, ultimately perpetuating negative notions as acceptable. I believe that for a genuinely glorious show to be worthy, it needs to impact the world positively. How did Friends?
Before you say, “Faith, it was the times,” the times had nothing to do with it. Sitcoms ranging from the 40s to the 00s made substantial changes. Just compare Friends to: I Love Lucy, The Golden Girls, Will & Grace, and Living Single. The shows overlapping Friends are Will & Grace and Living Single. The four protagonists of Will & Grace are two white women and two white gay men. And while being white and having different types of privilege (monetary, gender, sexuality), all the characters overcome something: sexism or homophobia. The show drastically changed how society viewed the LGBTQ+ community by not making them the butt of a joke and by humanizing them. To best describe Living Single is to say it’s a better version of Friends. Based in Brooklyn, six black characters (and yes, black people can be on sitcoms) tell their stories and make jokes but don’t demean larger sectors of the human race. Sure, like every good friend group, they demean each other, but what else are friends for? (For more Living Single and Friends information, please look for details at the *.) But why am I writing about this now when I have been saying this for years?
Recently Martha Kaufman, one of the creators of Friends, has publicly admitted to regretting two main areas of Friends, the lack of people of color and the continual misidentification of Chandler’s transgender mother (on the show, they refer to her as Dad.) Kaufman donated $4 million to her alma mater’s African American Studies Department. But, Friends helped facilitate the facade that American society was creating of a more tolerant place. It allowed progressive shows inside and outside of the sitcom genre to thrive. But Friends’ success solely relied on diminishing that barrier. And, they made an even more disappointing action when they never talked about this during the Reunion.
While Kaufman speaks out about her mistakes and regrets about the show, it is too little too late. She states that George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement made her realize Friends’ Grand Canyon size gaps. Though she is saying this now in June 2022, the Reunion came out in 2021, and George Floyd’s murder occurred in 2020. This same year, David Schwimmer, the actor portraying Ross, stated that he was aware of his privilege and that Friends began in a “pre-woke” time, but that “there should be an all-Black Friends or an all-Asian Friends.” This statement doesn’t erase the fact that the show demeaned minorities and the existence of many racially diverse sitcoms of the era. It also demonstrates how privileged people, like Schwimmer, don’t understand the harm they sustain.
If Kaufman, Schwimmer, the other Friends co-creator, and the cast of Friends accurately wanted to show their activism, they should have collectively acknowledged their mistakes. Any cast member or creator could have brought up the lack of diversity at any time during the Reunion. Though action could never undo the harm they supported or acted in, it would have allowed a sense of maturity. For example, Disney has placed a disclaimer for hate speech when needed on some of their most beloved works; this acknowledges and stops the perpetuation of subconscious prejudice and hate. All white most influential Friends employees, from creators and executive producers to cast members, should take well thought out action about how they plan to act and state their regret.
So did Friends make positive changes? No. Friends misused their collective voice and spread hate within America by not representing minorities and mistreating the few minorities on screen. And now that we are in a more accepting age, they have mostly been silent. While the show might be over, the power and influence that the Friends casts, creators, and producers have yet to diminish. The ethics of television and media should be to create positive change throughout the world, and despite their global power, these key players mostly refuse to acknowledge their shortcomings.
*Please watch Amber Ruffin's Living Single opinion
*Read this film essay by Meghan Kennedy for more context.