Is Friends Offensive? | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Is Friends Offensive?

Since the arrival of the popular 90s/early 2000s sitcom to a new audience via Netflix UK, TV's Niamh Brennan asks if Friends is as innocent as it seems?

With Friends being released onto Netflix once more, a new wave of viewers have begun to question the social politics of the plotlines and character-arcs throughout the ten-season span of the show.

The problematic nature of Friends can be seen most obviously in the clear lack of racial diversity throughout the show. The inclusion of only one significant black character, Ross’ girlfriend Charlie, does not reflect well on the importance of including a variety of people from different racial backgrounds for the creators at the time. Not only does the show restrict racial representation, but also the representation of gender, sexuality and relationships in New York, one of the most diverse cities in America, is far from diverse. This attitude can be summed up most aptly in the characterisation of Ross.

Whilst he was a fan favourite for many, much of Ross’ central plot lines revolve around his undoubtedly sexist and regressive gender attitudes. He has an emotional crisis when his son Ben wants to play with a doll instead of a ‘manly’ GI Joe, and rejects his male nanny, as he doesn’t believe it is an appropriate ‘masculine’ career. In addition, his rejection of his ex-wife Carol’s lesbian relationship from the very offset of the series connotes an almost homophobic attitude. Carol and Susan’s relationship is an unnecessary punch line for many of the ‘friends’, but Ross specifically degrades the couple on the basis of their lesbian relationship. It is unsettling to say the least, and evidently Ross should have been examining his own controlling and manipulative presence in relationships instead of the personal relationship of his ex-wife.

The depiction of Chandler’s father as a transgender woman was clearly only introduced to be another way to mock Chandler
Chandler is another popular character with a very problematic anti-homosexual determination to not be viewed as gay. Chandler problematises the idea of being gay, rejecting the common perception people have of him as gay in a very derogatory manner. Of course it’s natural to deny being something that you are not, but his relentless mocking and disgust when it is mentioned is a tasteless way of approaching the subject. It rejects an entire sexuality for the sole purpose of self-assurance. In addition, the depiction of Chandler’s father as a transgender woman was clearly only introduced to be another way to mock Chandler. What should be a sensitive subject is disrespected on many levels; the pinnacle of which being Rachel’s ‘A-man-duh’ reference, denying the legitimacy of a transgender identity. Evidently the Friends writers were not interested in tackling such a sensitive subject with a respect that the transgender community deserved.

At the surface level Phoebe is the only character that is not overtly problematic
The other ‘friends’ all bring their own questionable elements to the table. Young Monica is relentlessly fat shamed; Joey is often mocked for appearing to be feminine, whilst treating females like objects made for his pleasure; and Rachel does nothing for feminism in hiring Tag purely based on his looks whilst denying other well-qualified women the job. At the surface level Phoebe is the only character that is not overtly problematic, but I have no doubt that to delve deep enough into her character would bring up something questionable in her presentation too.

Friends is a product of its time
Clearly Friends is problematic, however to say that it is offensive would be to merit the viewpoints that run through the show with a level of relevance that they certainly no longer have. Friends is a product of its time. Running from 1994 until 2004, a lot of the issues discussed above that we now regard as central to societal thinking and representation in the media were not central concerns at the time it was made. Whilst it would be excellent to re-watch Friends and have no issue with its presentation of society, it would be unreasonable to assume that it would reflect such ideologies that did not permeate popular thought at the time. In fact, it would be difficult to examine any TV show from almost 15 years ago and find it to be up to that level.

Undoubtedly if Friends was made in 2018, it would handle issues of sexism, sexuality and race in a way that reflects society now, if not, we would not see it on our screens. Just looking at more recent sitcoms such as Brooklyn 99 shows just how far societal awareness in comedy TV has changed in fourteen years. Yes, these issues were just as important in 1994, but they weren’t part of a critical conversation that was widely occurring. Perhaps now is OK for us to simply watch Friends from a more educated point of view and reflect on where it misses the mark. Instead of debating over whether Friends is offensive or not, or boycotting the show altogether, we can take the show at its face entertainment value, identify where the problems lie and be glad our values have come so far since then.


27th February 2018 at 9:00 am

Images from

NME and Digital Spy