Friends (Warner Brothers, 1994-2004) has a problematic history. Its prescience today, attributable to the rise of streaming, also indicates that Western culture hasn’t moved on from the patriarchal values that Friends romanticizes through humor. The 2021 Friends reunion special, streaming on HBO Max, shows the hunger of Western culture and wider Friends’ viewership for American nostalgia with entrenched bias that disguises itself as progressivism.
Ross Geller (David Schwimmer), a member of the show’s leading six-part ensemble, exhibits a dangerous patriarchal instinct. He uses pity to get forgiveness. In Season 2, Episode 8 (“The One with the List”) Rachel (Jenifer Aniston) catches him making a list of pros and cons to help him choose a partner: either Rachel herself or his current girlfriend Julie (Lauren Tom). Rachel sees “Spoiled” written about herself under “cons”.
Whittling qualities for potential partners down to a list represents how men often view relationships as transactional. The emotional truth is an afterthought. “She’s not Rachel,” Ross writes as a con for Julie, too late to salvage his relationship with Rachel. But he’d win her back yet. The pity party was only just beginning.
Two seasons later, the infamous “We were on a break,” debacle occurred. This is a fight many couples have. Partners dispute infidelity because they were not “technically” together at a given time. This fight also represents men’s view of relationships as transactional. Ross exhibits the belief that his partner should withhold heartbreak because of a contracted stipulation, however, it doesn’t matter that they were on a break. It matters what he did.
Sure, you could argue that, because of a technicality, Rachel should have gotten back with Ross — or at least tried her best to forgive him. But Ross slept with another woman the same night he and Rachel decided to go on a break (Season 3, Episode 15: “The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break”). It wouldn’t be fair for Ross to expect Rachel to excuse the pain he caused her because his actions were “technically” allowed.
Throughout the show, Ross clings to the “We were on a break” mantra. When the couple briefly reunites at the beginning of Season 4, the relationship falls apart when, once again, and Ross can’t help but invoke his tired claim (Season 4, Episode 1: “The One with the Jellyfish”). When he bellowed his famous one-liner, in a deep, echoing baritone, it struck a chord with audiences because of its universality.
Friends is not a unique show. Themes of white heteronormativity abide in this pre-9/11 American golden age sitcom that attempts to be progressive while romanticizing the gender stereotypes that dominated the 20th century. It attracts audiences by making them feel like an intimate part of the desired American norm: prosperous, hardworking (although of course, the work occurs off-screen), attractive, and gender normative. David Crane, the show’s producer, says the show’s one-line pitch is: “It’s about that time in life when your friends are your family.” Friends balanced its glorification of traditional values with the supposed independence of its 20-something characters.
People cling to Friends because it makes them feel belonging — not just in a friend group, but in a culture. However, any form of cultural indoctrination must address the positive and negative aspects of a culture. A sitcom is the perfect Trojan Horse for negative aspects of the patriarchy.
The line “We were on a break” is famous for more than Schwimmer’s comedic timing. The writers present a commonplace argument in a comedic package that romanticizes the toxic masculinity at its heart. Therefore, viewers have no reason to question the status quo. Any misgivings about society’s failings can be reprieved by digesting them in a comedic form. That’s why viewers seek out this show 25 years later — it assuages their guilt and fear about society’s imperfections. Through humor, the show enables audiences to ignore these doubts.
The frequency of Joey’s (Matt LeBlanc) romantic, one-time endeavors is a running joke throughout the show. “I’ll let you play with my duck,” he tells the stripper at Ross’s bachelor party before she stays the night (Season 4, Episode 22: “The One with the Worst Best Man Ever”). (This occurred, of course, during the time when Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Joey had a pet duck.)
Conversely, in Season 2, Episode 10 (“The One Where Dr. Ramoray Dies”), Monica’s (Courtney Cox) body count becomes a joke from a different comedic angle. Instead of affably laughing about the number of Monica’s romantic encounters (as is done for Joey), the Friends writers created a punchline for Monica’s sex life involving taboo. She is afraid to tell her boyfriend Richard (Tom Selleck) the number of romantic partners she has had.
The patriarchy teaches non-men to feel more shame for sexual activity than men. When Monica expresses that shame, the audience of Friends laughs at her reticence. Patriarchal norms are so ingrained in American society that audiences believed Monica’s timidity was innate — not evidence of patriarchal hypocrisy. If Monica had instead expressed pride in sexual promiscuity, as Joey does for comedic effect, audiences would have heaped even more shame upon her.
The differing punchlines surrounding characters’ sex lives in Friends represent the different ways patriarchal society evaluates men and women’s sex lives. Throughout the show, foiling Joey, punchlines imply Chandler doesn’t have enough sexual partners. His love interest, the persistent Janice (Maggie Wheeler) reminds the audience of Chandler’s inability to move on. A lacking sex life (relative to Joey’s) emasculates Chandler. Although the show’s theme song professes its characters’ love lives are “D.O.A.”, it upholds the patriarchal norm that within the context of their sex lives, boys are “just having fun”, while non-men face shame.
The mantra “We were on a break” romanticizes this aspect of the patriarchy. Audiences love to hate Ross. They hate him because, like a lawyer, he clings to a technicality that he believes should exonerate him. But people find this quality endearing too. Wouldn’t it be nice to live a life based on a set of technicalities, instead of messy feelings?
Here’s how the patriarchy copes with messy feelings: by not only assigning the expression of them to women but blaming women for the existence of them. This way, men only have to think about technicalities. Whenever Ross shouts “We were on a break!” he’s reassuring every man watching that they don’t have to worry about feelings — just stick to the technicalities and it will all work out. For Ross, it did. In the series finalé (Season 17, Episode 24: “The Last One”), Ross and Rachel wound up together.
Rachel could have been a great independent character if she didn’t exist in a sitcom. She refuses marriage twice. She starts raising Emma as a single mother in the city. The show begins with her leaving a man at the altar. But in the last episode, Ross stopped her from going to Paris to start her dream job because he “has loved her all along.”
Shouldn’t he have spoken up sooner? Why do we reward men who bottle up their feelings? Although Ross’ feelings may have been authentic, he deployed them to obtain the desired outcome when his inaction had produced undesirable consequences.
Ross could have followed Rachel to Paris instead of persuading her to stay in New York. But that would have gone against patriarchal gender norms, which dictate that men aren’t supposed to give their lives up for women, women are supposed to give up their lives for men.
Think of The Little Mermaid (Disney, 1989). That film has a place in American culture because we admire the “courage” Ariel (Jodi Benson) displayed in giving up her identity as a mermaid to be with Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes). Essentially, Ariel gives up the essence of who she is to be with a man. Rachel gave up her dream job in Paris to be with Ross.
Giving the timing of Friends, Rachel could have watched The Little Mermaid during her formative years. Well, maybe not until college. But her life mirrored that story, either way.
Ariel’s identity as a mermaid is a stand-in for the many ways women have historically sacrificed their individuality to preserve a family or a relationship with a man. Unfortunately, Rachel did the same. Going to Paris was the mermaid’s tail she gave up to be with Ross.
Now that Rachel is unemployed, Ross will inevitably beg her to move to the suburbs with Monica and Chandler. But that was the life Rachel originally gave up when she left Barry at the altar in season one. The writers undid all of Rachel’s character development when she got off the plane to Paris and stayed with Ross New York. Is that what friends do? I’ll be there for you…? They took that one too far.
Berger, Rod. “Why Do Men Treat Women Like a Love Transaction?” The Normal Male by Dr. Rod. 10 February 2010.
Garber, Megan. “On Chandler Bing’s Job.” The Atlantic. 13 September 2019.
Garber, Megan. “The ‘Friends’ Mythology Has Come Full Circle.” The Atlantic. 27 May 2021.
Klein, Gavi, et al. “Tools of the Patriarchy: The Weaponization of Sexual Freedom.” Ms. Magazine. 13 August 2020.
Larson, Vicki. “The Subtle Thing You’re Doing That May Cause Divorce.” HuffPost. 27 March 2014.
Levine, Nick. “Why It’s Still Okay to Like Friends, According to Lisa Kudrow.” Lisa Kudrow Says Friends Was Progressive At The Time. Refinery 29. 17 May 2020.
Morris, Wesley. “’Friends’ Is Turning 25. Here’s Why We Can’t Stop Watching It.” The New York Times. 5 September 2019.
Sternbergh, Adam. “Is Friends Still the Most Popular Show on TV?” Vulture. 17 September 2019.
“The Rembrandts – I’ll Be There for You.” Genius.
Tranter, Nikki. “Friends – The Complete Series Collection, PopMatters.” PopMatters. 14 December 2006.
Wong, Brittany. “Does ‘Taking A Break’ Ever End Well? Here’s What Experts Say.” HuffPost. 29 March 2016.