Was 'Friends' culturally appropriate in the '90s?

"Welcome to the real world. It sucks. You’re going to love it," is one of the many gems ‘Friends’ left us with.
'Friends' has influenced a large part of the society
'Friends' has influenced a large part of the societyThe Bridge Chronicle

I’ve been wanting to write something special on Friends while the world was busy spiralling out of control for the ‘Friends: The Reunion’.

Premiered in 1994, it’s been more than 26 years and yet the love for six best friends on the sitcom has not passed. The nostalgia of their New York apartment, their love for coffee and the orange couch, the framed peephole, the duck and the chick, and the foosball table, among many many other countless things just remind me of the friends that were.

Even though Netflix, the online streaming giant which is currently streaming the sitcom, is pretty secretive with its data, many reports suggest that the show was one of the most-watched series on the platform in 2018-19. Consider this, that Netflix paid WarnerMedia (the programme’s owner) about $100m for the right to stream Friends for a year (12 months).

Like so many things we realise in our day-to-day conversations with people, I also realised that Friends was a widely and wildly loved US sitcom – not only internationally, but nationally too. Like many Indians, I was very young (about a two-year-old) when the sitcom first premiered. A few years later, when I premiered in India, still I was very young, and my idea of love was inspired by movies like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Even though a lot of my classmates were able to watch the series during their early teens, I got my hands on the show while I was pursuing my Bachelors – and it changed me forever.

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After watching the series, when I stepped into the Friend-verse and started talking to my friends about the series I realised I was already lagging a few years. I also realised that no matter when my friends first watched the sitcom, they still watched it. Further talking about it and discussing the characters with my contemporaries, I concluded that the reason the show is so popular (at least in India) is that it showed us a very different tomorrow.

In our country, our life trajectories were usually pre-determined, and we are taught to be pretty focused on achieving it. Even though our rom-com movies did reveal that we could run away from our weddings for ‘true love’, Friends taught us that it was okay to run away from marriages to find your purpose. In the series’ pilot episode, after Rachel – a runaway bride – enters the café to look for her school friend – Monica - and finally decides to stay with her, she embarks on a new journey to find herself. She even gets herself ‘one of those job things’.

For us Indians, the sitcom revealed that one could stay away from family, support themselves with jobs and still find time for friends and love. In the aftermath of the series, I got a job away from my parents, shared a three-room house with my collegemates, worked by the day and partied by the night, paid bills and cried when an amount was deducted from our salaries for Provident Fund (how FICA takes away some of Rachel’s salary, we get it back though), etc. While we all learnt or figured something from the show, I learnt responsibility – towards myself. Be it love, career, bills, house rent, taxes or anything else, I was responsible for myself and my happiness – not something actively taught in Indian households. That’s probably why we tried to make a Friends spin-off for the Indian audience – Hello Friends.

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Usually, a work of art is inspired by society, but in the case of Friends, the society was massively influenced by the sitcom, and I am not only talking about Indians but internationally, especially in the West. Starting with the theme song, ‘I’ll Be There for You’ which was everywhere. It soon became a go-to song for close groups of friends.

One of the things that became a rage during the initial seasons of the sitcom, was ‘The Rachel’ - Jennifer Aniston’s hairstyle. Even though the actress who carried the style, which took the world by storm, admitted that she hated it. The actress has never styled her hair in that fashion ever since.

The series also contributed to the common bank of phrases. Joey’s “How you doin’?” was picked up very quickly. Before dating apps and smartphones Matt LeBlanc’s – actor who played Joey – catchphrase became one of the most used pick-up lines. The show gave us another gem - Chandler’s sarcasm. With his observations manifesting in phrases that began with, “Could I/we BE more…”, you get the rift! And who could stop thinking about the episode titles? The fans instantly started copying the ‘The One With…’ phrase to describe things or to title things (like us, with the headline of the article!). The show also gave us a new perspective and a need to enjoy coffee in uselessly large mugs.

Some of the other catchphrases that became a rage were:

Oh. My. God!

Joey doesn’t share food!

We were on a break!

I know! (in Monica’s high pitched voice)

Hi… (in Ross’s overly depressing voice)

But ARE we all friends?

While many fans agree that there is, was, never will be anything like Friends (though many have tried to recreate the magic, and failed or have not succeeded as much), many also believe that such a show could have only been accepted and appreciated in the 1990s. If you are puzzled, then let me explain.

The series was aired in the 1990s when social media, hell, smart devices were not even in the picture. In fact, in one of the episodes – The One with the List – Chandler flaunts his new laptop, which was a rare entity then. Because of technological distance, things like homophobia and racism were conveniently overlooked.

Even if I don’t agree that the two - homophobia and racism - were prominently visible in the plotlines, it is hard to argue that it wasn’t there at all. Be it Ross’ ex-wife, Carol, and her partner Susan in ‘The One With the Lesbian Wedding’ or be it Chandler and Joey, who worried that people would (and in few episodes, did) think they were in a romantic relationship. In fact, if you’ve noticed in ‘The One With the Lesbian Wedding’ episode, there was no wedding kiss, there was a wedding dance but no kiss! It can, however, be argued that at least the show tried to push the boundaries of depiction and added same-sex marriage on TV as it was still very new in the US, then.

In regard to a lack in the depiction of a variety of races in New York was also vividly noticeable. Though the series faced backlash since the beginning, the makers and writers did not incorporate the variety actively. In this context as well, it can be argued that the makers did introduce Julie, Ross’s Asian girlfriend. But for the longest time she was the only actor who had depicted any other race, although, in Season 9, actor Aisha Tyler also guest-starred as Charlie on the show.

So, was the show homophobic and racist? Yes, to an extent. But in all fairness, the show aired during the time when the series and the writers could get through scrutiny over such issues. Friends rose to popularity and endured. It is being televised till today and people, the older (true blue fans) and younger, newer fans are also consuming the content with not-many-questions-asked.

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