It’s my schtick to say “there’s too many white/straight/skinny/gentile/neurotypical etc. people” in almost every TV review I write because, well, it’s often true. Despite watching more than my fair share of TV, there’s no character or show I can think of, off the top of my head, that makes me feel seen. There’s nobody that I can point to and say “that’s me,” even if we look alike on the outside. If I don’t feel seen up there, I know hardly anybody else does.
The problem isn’t just that representation eludes minorities and marginalized people. Sometimes there are people that look like us on screen, but they aren’t people we are proud of. So I don’t actively seek out shows when I hear there might be a character whose identity overlaps with mine; if anything, I run from them. Often, this representation hurts more than no representation at all.
It’s often the most iconic shows, loved and rewatched by the masses long after the series finale airs, that have the worst representation. Some argue they’re a product of their time, but regardless, they have an impact on the present. Take “Friends” — while it may be a funny, familiar place to come home to for many TV watchers, it is problematic representations galore, especially with representations of any non-white, straight or skinny characters that appear.
There is a missed opportunity every time the younger version of Monica (Courteney Cox, “Cougar Town”) is shown in a fat suit. This version of the character subverts what could have been body-positive representation into an extremely damaging caricature. When Joey (Matt LeBlanc, “Man with a Plan”) first sees younger Monica on video, he asks who “ate Monica.” Young Monica is a punchline, nothing more, and the Monica represented in the present constantly sees her worth tied to her “new and improved” body. Unless plus-sized characters are played by plus-sized actors and treated appropriately and respectfully, they do more harm than good — that is certainly not the case with “Friends” and Young Monica.
There’s another aspect of Monica’s character that’s deeply upsetting to me — her OCD. “Friends” reduces her disorder to her 17 towel categories, her dislike of crumbs and stains and a penchant for cleaning. Meanwhile, OCD comes in many forms — most of which have absolutely nothing to do with cleaning. Although it’s never named in official terms, much less dealt with that way, Monica’s OCD is the butt of the joke, and simultaneously framed as a characteristic that makes her unbearable.
“Friends” makes the same argument that I hear repeated so often in my own life — that Monica’s OCD is a burden for those around her. As someone with contamination OCD living through a pandemic, I can break this down for you firsthand. Waking up in the morning means constant conflicts with my ritual; I am always faced with the dilemma of submitting to my OCD’s desires or fighting them. Somehow, either way, I feel like I’m losing. I promise you, whatever inconvenience or discomfort OCD brings the people around me is nothing in comparison to my torment.
I do see myself in Monica, and I hate it. The writers of “Friends” made sure of that. So when people tell me they hate Monica, even though they know nothing of my struggle and certainly don’t mean to hurt me, it’s hard not to take it personally. It’s even harder not to blame “Friends” for my pain.
The “Friends” treatment of the LGBTQ+ community is also deeply embarrassing at best and horrifying at worst. Carol (Jane Sibbett, “Winter Wedding”) and Susan (Jessica Hecht, “Special”) are high on my list of favorite characters on the show, but Carol’s sexual orientation is used most often to undermine Ross’s (David Schwimmer, “Intelligence”) masculinity. When Carol comes up in conversation amongst the tight group of friends, it’s not because she’s the mother of Ross’s child but because she’s an easy target for their lazy, homophobic jokes. Ross further belittles their relationship by refusing to accept that the two are lovers and life partners, deigning to refer to them only as “friends.”
The casual homophobia of “Friends” goes further than Carol and Susan. In a later season of the show, Ross and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston, “The Morning Show”) hire a male nanny, something Ross never becomes comfortable with. Ross insists that due to his occupation and sensitive nature, their nanny MUST be gay — which is unacceptable to the point that he insists Rachel fire him. When Carol and Susan are eventually allowed to marry, they’re robbed of the quintessential post-vows kiss that all the straight couples on “Friends” get to enjoy. When homophobia isn’t part of the plot, it’s part of the mundane conversation: Chandler (Matthew Perry, “ReMastered: The Lion’s Share”) is constantly made fun of because people often assume he’s gay. I spent most of my life in the closet, and all of the various jabs about queer people in “Friends” and media in general played for laughs had a hand in that. These kinds of jokes are certainly part of the reason that the first reaction I ever got to coming out was “Are you sure? I wish you would reconsider.”
Worse still is how Chandler’s parent, who goes by the stage name Helena Handbasket (Kathleen Turner, “The Kominsky Method”) is represented. For one thing, people complain that the character caused confusion outside the trans community by blurring the line so strongly between drag queens and trans women, when the two are incredibly distinct. For another, the character (a trans woman, though “Friends” never admitted it while it was on the air) is played by a cis woman. For the record, Turner says she wouldn’t take the role now, but to Turner and to “Friends” I say: too little, too late. The character is constantly deadnamed and misgendered by all, but most often by Chandler. Moreover, Chandler frequently channels his frustration around the divorce and the rough parts of his childhood into transphobic digs at Helena. Dear Chandler: Come for the person’s actions that harmed you, but don’t come for their identity. It’s uncalled for and you hurt more than your target — you do immeasurable damage to the many others who share that identity. The comments ensure that trans people are never part of the group that gets to watch “Friends” for comfort, damage their self-image if they dare to watch and shape the behavior of everyone who interacts with them.
Accordingly, Chandler’s attitude towards Helena sets the tone for other characters in the show. At Chandler and Monica’s wedding, Chandler’s mother Nora Bing (Morgan Fairchild, “My Perfect Romance”) remarks to her ex, “Don’t you have a little too much penis to wear a dress like that?” Genitalia does not equal gender, but the suggestion that it does is part of the dangerous ideologies that “Friends” buys into. The trans community is constantly under attack, especially now, and media representations such as that of Helena are complicit in the harm that trans people, particularly trans women of color, suffer every day.
Media representation fails us and the people we love, time and time again. These characters and plotlines may be created in the name of visibility, but they perpetuate harm regardless of intention — and the intention, too, is often lacking. We’ve been burned so many times that I often wish we had been left out of the picture entirely; because bad representation is worse than no representation.
Daily Arts Writer Emmy Snyder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.