What Friends taught women about dating...10 years later
It’s exactly 10 years since we saw Monica’s apartment in the dark before the credits rolled for the very last time.
I might be in my twenties now, but I still can’t ignore the impact Friends has on my behaviour, the manner in which I conduct my relationships and the way I fix a snack. (Cheers, Joey.) For a generation of Millennials, it was our guide to being grown up.
And even as a fan, I know Friends was flawed, and I’m finally clear eyed enough to be horrified by the way the show failed to portray non-white core characters, their occasional failure to properly show and respect the gay community (Video editor Tijana Mamula documented the frequent, awful instances of homophobia in Friends) and the lack of responsible realism.
Even in the nineties, most of the characters could never have covered the rent on a central Manhattan apartment on the money their paltry salaries paid. Their bitchy, bad behaviour often went unpunished, and it was sometimes rewarded. I had a big argument with my Dad about one episode (The One Where No-one’s Ready, if you’re as nerdy about it as I am) in which Ross is giving a speech at the museum and the rest of the Friends conspire to make him late because of their thoughtlessness and bratty behaviour. “It’s not funny! It’s just 20 minutes of horrible people being horribly selfish!” cried Dad. It’s taken a few years but I’m starting to see his point.
However, Friends had so much merit. It was the first programme I saw that seemed to address what I might become one day. Living in a shared flat, going through a series of crappy jobs and even crappier boyfriends and girlfriends might be the twenty something norm now, but it was the first time I’d seen that lifestyle on TV. Women were usually wives and mothers. The only other cool, relatable girl going was Elaine in Seinfeld, but as the sole woman in the ensemble, her lifestyle seemed a bit flukey and kooky. Anyway, nineties terrestrial scheduling meant you’d only ever see Seinfeld once every three months at midnight on BBC2. In contrast, the Friends were in your sitting room with your family every Friday after dinner.
Though Friends doesn’t have a great track record in the way it discusses gay people, it was the first show I saw that attempted to portray a gay relationship in an interesting and honest way. To my everlasting shame and horror, the word ‘lesbian’ was, pre-Friends, an insult I heard and used in the playground. Then we met Ross’s smart, gorgeous gay, ex-wife Carol and the equally striking Susan. And they were raising Ross’s baby, Ben, together. There have been a number of brilliant shows that have had a far greater positive effect on the LGBT community, but putting compelling gay characters on one of the most popular mainstream shows going forced pupils at my all girls school to start calling each other out on their casual homophobia.
And Friends passed the Bechdel test - probably more easily than Sex And The City. Monica, Phoebe and Rachel constantly had conversations about their lives, jobs and families that were not about relationships with men. That was the part of the programme that felt the most real. It proved, endlessly and effortlessly, that writing women for TV and making them interesting, funny and engaging is no harder than writing men.
It was also the first time I saw men and women focusing on maintaining a friendship with each other instead of pursuing each other sexually. It was the perfect programme to watch as I emerged from my “boys are smelly” phase. Ross, Chandler and Joey showed me some men were sex obsessed, some were nerdy, some were nervous, but they would also turn out to be sweet, smart, funny and worth getting to know platonically.
It made me consider the sexual fluidity within friendships, and addressed the evolution of relationships. Dating threatened to destroy Ross and Rachel, yet it brought Monica and Chandler a happy ending. But you never felt any of the characters were getting it wrong, they were just trying their hardest. Watching Monica and Richard’s break-up was particularly painful. Other sitcom couples screamed at each other, but those two just had to acknowledge that they wanted entirely different futures and had to end it all while they were still in love. Typing that makes my eyes prickle a little. There was no real answer, resolution or message beyond “life sucks sometimes”.
The hug and roll will stay with me for the rest of my life, but so will all the sex positive parts. Monica and Rachel fighting over the last condom; Rachel initiating a sexual fantasy conversation with Ross; Monica’s magnificent touch by numbers aural sex guide. It made viewers address their own issues and boundaries.
Yes, the Ross and Rachel “we were on a break” storyline was remote control hurlingly irritating, but it meant that every adolescent I know grew up with very strong ideas about cheating and boundaries.
The show influenced our behaviour in positive and negative ways, but it also generated a lot of important conversations between friends and family that may not have happened otherwise. Your Mum probably knows about Phoebe’s lobster theory. Thanks to a decade of repeats, my youngest sisters, who were a year old when the show started, know all the words to ‘Smelly Cat’.
Everything we watch now borrows heavily from Friends. Teenage Girls fans may find the sentimentality of the programme uncomfortably cloying in places, but there might not be a space for a programme about female relationships on TV if Jennifer Aniston and her colleagues hadn’t cleared a path for it. Happy Endings, a heartbreakingly underrated ABC sitcom that got cancelled last year parodied parts of Friends magnificently, but it always honoured the spirit of the original, and I suspect its writers would be the first to admit that the gag rate of the first version could not be improved upon. Whether I like it or not, Friends will stay with me forever. In 10 years time, my own friends will still know exactly what I mean when I say “How you doin’?!” in a Joey drawl or “Could this be any more annoying?” or “Demi Moore is not a ‘he’!”
Friends was a deconstructed fairytale - it started with Rachel, the princess, escaping the castle and rejecting everything she had been told to want. And growing up alongside it allowed a generation of young women to challenge their existing role models and question the paths that previous generations had carved out for us. Friends turned me into a more confident, inquisitive and sociable woman than I otherwise might have been. And no matter how old I get or how cool I pretend to be, I will always, always clap along with those four beats when I hear the theme tune start.