Janki Desai and Theodore Kim
When the hit TV show Friends came out in the late 90s, it was seen as groundbreaking for many reasons. It is seen by media critics to have shaped the sitcom landscape as well as being the one of the first shows to openly talk about casual sex. During the ten seasons it was on air, each of the main six characters experience love, heartbreak, marriage, and becoming a parent in comedic ways. Because the show is about adults in their late twenties/early thirties figuring their lives out, many people are able to relate to it. This relatable aspect that has given Friends the notoriety it has is founded on white, hegemonic ideals of what it means to be a 20 something man or woman in America. It presents the three main women, Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe, as strong, independent women, but their characters still conform to the post-feminist ideals that society has placed on women. Moreover, while each man in the show has his own personality and gimmick, they are still portrayed to feel superior to the women. The sitcom Friends uses gender roles to create comedy and conflict without ever addressing the issue on a larger scale.
The friend group in Friends consists of Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, Ross, and Joey. The three women all are unique in their own ways, but they all have been somehow subjected into conforming with post-feminist ideals. Each woman has her own career and wants to excel in it. Before the post-feminist movement, “women have traditionally been depicted to three well-defined stereotypes” that are still existing today in mainstream media (Roca-Sales and Lopez-Garcia 190). The remnants of the stereotypes of “wife-mother-housewife, superwoman, and woman as object of desire” can all still be seen in each of the three main women in Friends (Roca-Sales and Lopez-Garcia 190). In post-feminist media, women are independent, and career driven, yet they are still defined by idealized body image and are complacent with how much equality women have achieved.
Monica Geller’s personality consists of being an insane clean freak, a chef, a friend, and a sister. She starts off the show as a single chef who as the show goes on gets married to Chandler Bing and becomes head chef at a prestigious restaurant in New York. She is seen as an independent, strong woman who built a successful career for herself. Despite this, the backstory of how she got there isn’t quite as glamorous. Before Monica moved to her iconic purple apartment in the heart of New York City, she was obese. Her weight was often the butt of the jokes, she was seen as unappealing to men, and she was seen as Rachel’s dorky friend. It’s when she loses her weight that Monica is seen as a beautiful, desirable woman. This further pushes the idea that “possession of a sexy body is presented as women’s key source of identity” (Gill 149). Instead of being seen just as a strong woman with ideas and passions, Monica becomes another victim to the male gaze. In addition, her character has no issue with the fact that when she was overweight, she was seen as undesirable. She accepted it and even lost her weight to impress Chandler, which is shown in the Thanksgiving episode in season 5. This further perpetuates the notion of women being complacent in their roles and equality because they’ve been given the bare minimum by the government and society.
Out of all of the friends, Rachel Green lived the most privileged life. She comes from a rich family and has never really had to struggle for anything in her life. She didn’t receive her first paycheck until she decided to runout on her wedding and live her life for herself. This notion of running out on a wedding wouldn’t have been accepted or even thought of before that time. Women were expected to suffer in silence and live out their days living for their husband and kids. Rachel’s character in Friends is a good example of “the paradoxical intersection between feminine objectification and feminine empowerment” (Roca-Sales and Lopez-Garcia 190). Rachel is often an overlooked character for female empowerment. She leaves her rich family and soon to be husband for a life of her own. Rachel starts off as a waitress and works her way up to her dream job working in fashion. Moreover, she is shown as a single mother who didn’t marry because it’s the “right thing to do”. This can be seen as empowering and is one of the things that sets Friends apart from many other sitcoms of the 90s. Rachel still falls victim of post-feminist tropes of complacency of the freedoms achieved through second wave feminism. Rachel’s character is depicted in the post-feminist trope of “women outgrowing independence and becoming happily co-dependent through heterosexual romance” (Gills and Waters 18). This is shown in the series finale of the show when Rachel takes a prestigious job in fashion in Paris doing exactly what she has always dreamed to do and gives it up for a relationship with Ross. By throwing her dreams away, the writers show that despite the autonomy she has, she won’t achieve true happiness without a heterosexual romantic relationship.
Phoebe Buffay is shown as the most independent and eccentric of all of the characters. She has an unusual and sad upbringing that is used to define her weird character traits. In the first few seasons, she is shown as a hippie, anti-capitalist, loves everybody type character that dies down as the seasons go on. Phoebe’s anti-capitalist, feminist character becomes more diluted as the seasons go on and she becomes more like Rachel and Monica. Even though she is self-sufficient, she “perpetuate[s] a narrative of supposedly liberated women desiring romance—longing for a man to complete her” (Genz 2009 as cited in Hamad 2018). Despite the odd nature of Phoebe, there is still a notion of “normative life stages for women” placed on Phoebe (Hamad 2018). She still searches for heterosexual love and wants to get married while she is still relatively young. Her search for a domestic life with a man by her side shows that despite everything women have achieved, the media still preaches nuclear families being the norm.
Phoebe, Monica, and Rachel are able to express emphasized femininity for being straight, white able-bodied women. The same can apply to the boys in the group but through a different term. Hegemonic Masculinity is how the media perceives a lot of men, whether that is from television or film, and creates this idea that men are aligned to be muscular, independent minded, straight white middle-class people. In addition, “hegemonic masculinity is based on practice that permits men’s collective dominance over women to continue” (R. W. Connell and James W. Messerschmidt 840). This type of masculinity leads to men being more dominant in the relationship but doesn’t always lead to physical violence towards the other gender. In fact, it could lead men to being the provider of the house and develop a father type role. However it is worth noting that many boys at a young age create “practical relationships to collective images of models of masculinity, rather than simple reflections of them, that is central to understanding gendered consequences in violence, health, and education” (R. W. Connell and James W. Messerschmidt 841). Besides the images and gender norms it pushes, hegemonic masculinity has led to other issues such as being hierarchical to not only women but to other men who don’t align to their standards. Watching Friends, the sitcom tends to generalize white men to only having these characteristics but also brings in new ideas of what masculinity can be.
Although many view Ross as the emotional one in the group who goes through three different divorces, it is easy to look at this character through the lens of hegemonic masculinity. For one, he is a doctor in paleontology who is able to afford an apartment all to himself in New York and has a lean, athletic build as do Joey and Chandler. And although confidence is not a key component to his personality, Ross is able to reinforce himself and others to his version of masculinity. In the fourth episode of season three, Ross gets in a conflict with Ben, his son who enjoys playing with a Barbie doll. Ross is worried about it and believes that it could lead Ben to acting differently growing up. Although “girls have been given dolls as toys for centuries, there is little direct evidence that the doll play does increase the nurturance they show to younger children” (Blakemore and Centers 14). Later in the episode, Ross tries to shift his interest to more “masculine” toys such as G.I. Joe and dinosaurs. Ironically, it is revealed from Monica that Ross was just like Ben growing up. When he was little, Ross dressed up as a lady and hosted his own tea parties. There are many episodes like this where characters contradict themselves, leaving hints from the writers of the show that not everyone aligns with their gender performativity. There are times when character development does take place. Yet, many of the main characters in Friends still ridicule new concepts and bring hegemonic masculinity and gender norms back to the table. Ross continues to exert wealth and intelligence, since he is a doctor, over Rachel and his other relationships. In later seasons, Ross argues with Rachel on hiring a male nanny named “Sandy,” believing that he must be gay and that men shouldn’t be nannies.
Out of the three, Joey is a character who brings in a lot of laughs for having a goofy personality but also emphasizing his role as the one who sleeps with a lot of women compared to Ross and Chandler. For a guy who grew up around seven sisters, Joey establishes a lot of male dominance in the group and doesn’t care about hurting one’s feelings after a one night stand. He mostly views women as sexual objects and makes this projection fun to laugh at. However because he has a child like mind, Joey is viewed more lightly when committing these sexual, male oriented acts. Many view Joey’s antics comedic and the situations he gets into relates a lot to his male ego such as finishing Monica’s turkey and trying not to enjoy the nap he had with Ross.
Having his wife wear the “pants” most of the time in their marriage, Chandler ignores being the traditional husband and instead creates an open, honest relationship between him and Monica. However, there are occurrences where Chandler considers himself to be the caretaker and that Monica shouldn’t be responsible for taking care of themselves financially. Throughout the show, the one thing that Chandler was most embarrassed about was his drag queen father. Although his father left him and his mom for a poolboy, Chandler had a hard time accepting his father for wanting to be his true self. He didn’t understand why his father wasn’t able to be “normal” or follow the gender norms that he, Joey, and Ross followed from time to time. While the show perfected its ability to mash comedy with hegemonic masculinity, it leads their characters to sometimes react to situations immaturely and not accept others for who they are. Chandler’s mom jokes about how having a penis doesn’t equate to wearing a dress. Joey ridicules Ross for wearing a pink “girly” shirt. Chandler and Ross get made fun of for reading The Lord of the Rings in high school instead of having sex. Overall, the media strengthens hegemonic masculinity by setting an agenda of what men, typically white males, should look or act like which creates a hierarchy over men of color and the LGBTQ community, two groups who have been marginalized throughout media. It is easy to approach Friends nonchalantly but when thinking about it through gender and media culture, it can easily be interpreted as a show that lacked diversity and strengthened pre-established gender roles through its main characters.
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Connell, R., & Messerschmidt, J. (2005). Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept. Gender and Society, 19(6), 829-859. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27640853
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