Friends Part 1: An Exploration of Misandry.

Posted: October 10, 2015 in Uncategorized

So, I should probably start off this blog entry with a couple of apologies. Firstly, I’ve gone well over a month, again, without writing anything. Sorry about that. Not that you’re waiting with baited breath or anything but it’s pretty strange for me not to write at least one entry a month. Truth is, the start of the school year is at the beginning of September and this year has been a bit more hectic than most. Secondly, I mentioned at the end of my last blog post (which was way back in August) that I would be writing an entry that explored why modern men were/are so angry. That is still definitely on the to-do-list it’s just become something much bigger than I had anticipated. It will be finished, but once I actually started putting it together I realised it’s actually a pretty big topic so I want to get it right!

Whilst that entry has been put on the backburner, for now, there have been others that have squeezed their way to the front. Today I want to look at something that has been on my mind for a couple of weeks. It started off innocuously enough, I found an article about the character Ross Gellar on the TV show Friends that simply followed the ‘someone has come up with an alternate theory’ path which was quite interesting. However, it was an article that was linked within that article that really made me laugh. And I wasn’t laughing because it was funny, I was laughing because it was just such a ridiculous article.

The first article I read actually wasn’t too bad. It was a theory on why Ben, Ross’ son, doesn’t appear much towards the end of the series. It all centres on Ross’ increasingly erratic behaviour and suggests he lost custody due to this. It’s here if you want to read it:

http://www.closeronline.co.uk/2015/09/is-this-the-devastating-reason-ross-son-disappeared-from-friends

It’s not a bad theory but there are a few holes in it. However, alternate theories that don’t quite fit into the mythos of the series aren’t totally unusual so I was willing to let it go. However, I then noticed something interesting. The article posits the idea that Ross is actually an MRA. Normally I would gloss over something like that, but in my wisdom I decided to click it.

Needless to say, it’s such poor journalism from a supposed Friends fan that I can’t take it seriously. Normally I wouldn’t put so much effort into defending a fictional TV character but being a rather large Friends fan myself, I decided I’d at least take a cursory look.

This blog initially started just as a rebuttal about this article but then I started to think about Friends as a whole. For all the complaints about Ross Gellar made in the article I’ll be looking at I began to realise that they are character traits shared by most of the other main characters, even the women. I figured if I could compare Ross’ character to the female character it’d be a good way of highlighting just how daft it is to apply real world labels to fictional characters. Ultimately, if Ross is an MRA then the other characters are as well.

This blog grew so big that I’m splitting it in two. This first half will deal with some of the more unsavoury aspects of the series, mostly the misandry present in the first few series and then the emotional manipulation of Ross by Rachel throughout much of the show’s 10 series run. The second will deal with a direct rebuttal to the article claiming Ross is an MRA. Ultimately my intention is not to rag on Friends too much, it’s simply to highlight the fact that all of the characters have unsavoury traits to them and singling out Ross is just plain weird.

To put this out there straight away, my least favourite character is Rachel. In much the same way this article tries to paint Ross under one specific label, I’m going to tear Rachel to shreds and show that the cherry picked arguments used to show how Ross isn’t actually a ‘nice guy’ can also be used against Rachel and, to a lesser degree, the other two female characters, Monica and Phoebe.

Now, I’m not one to go around defending MRAs, I have as little time for them as I do for feminists, but this isn’t about defending Ross as an MRA, it’s about exploring arbitrary labelling of TV characters and how easy it is to do if you are willing to cherry pick and manipulate the traits you select.

If you want to skip this first bit and go straight to the refutation of the article claiming Ross is an MRA then just go to the sidebar and you’ll find it there.

So, onto the show itself. Where to start? Well, how about the fact that the 3 main male characters were all sexually assaulted at some point in their lives? That seems like as good a place as any.

Ross’ sexual assault is a little bit more contentious as it’s never made clear how old he is. In the episode that guest starred Brad Pitt it’s revealed that Ross once kissed the 50 year old librarian of his school. When asked how he could do it, he replies with ‘she didn’t look 50.’ In response to this, Chandler says ‘did she look 16.’ It could be argued that this also meant Ross was 16 as well. That would legally mean he was old enough to consent. However, it still doesn’t account for the fact that she, as a member of staff at a school, was in a position of power and authority and, as far as I’m aware, still not allowed to make out with students, 16 or not. Maybe an American can back me up on that one. He doesn’t seem too traumatised by the ordeal, but it’s still an odd subject to broach in the name of comedy.

Chandler’s assault comes in the episode where he goes to Joey’s tailor. While measuring his trousers, the tailor gropes Chandler’s genitals, something that is then played for comedy later on. It turns out both Joey and his dad have been sexually assaulted by this man but, typically, it is played off as an awkward experience and nothing really comes of it.

Joey’s is slightly more sinister – he was raped as a teenager. Quite aside from being repeatedly assaulted by his tailor, a throwaway comment in a later series suggests he was taken advantage of when he was in school. I made a post about this on my Facebook page but it bears repeating here. In series 8, Monica gets a bad review in the restaurant she works in. To help re-inflate her ego, she takes a beginners cooking course, with Joey in tow. After they leave the course, Joey says how much he enjoyed it, that he got to eat great food and got an A for the first time since 7th grade “and I didn’t have to sleep with the teacher this time.” Now, we can argue semantics on this one and say that he’s simply saying he didn’t have to sleep with the teacher to get a grade, unlike the time he slept with the reporter who he did a Reader’s Digest interview with in order to stop her from publishing disparaging comments he made about soap viewers. That would be acceptable if the quote simply said ‘I didn’t have to sleep with the teacher’. But it doesn’t, it ends with ‘this time’. The implication is very clear: he did sleep with the teacher the last time it happened. 7th grade would make him early teens. That’s definitely statutory rape at the very least and probably falls under some kind of emotional manipulation. Joey is known throughout the series for being promiscuous. Well, do we now have a reason for that? Maybe. It’s a throwaway line intended to simply reference Joey’s penchant for sleeping with women, however it’s worded incredibly badly for a joke and actually lets us into a very dark secret about Joey’s past.

So that’s one thing to consider, all three main male characters experience some form of sexual assault throughout their fictional lives and each one of them is treated as nothing more the comic fodder to laugh at. There are no deeper conversations, they simply move on with their life and that’s it. None of them seem overly, outwardly affected by it, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t.

One thing that really bugs me is the way male characters in general are treated in the first 4 or 5 series. The secondary characters get the short end of the stick: Gunther is just as hopelessly in love with Rachel as Ross is and is shown to be utterly socially inept when around her. Just another example of a man barely being able to function when around an attractive women. Fun Bobby is an alcoholic who becomes boring when he goes teetotal. Rodger the psychiatrist is intrusive and judgmental. The three firefighters (from an episode when the girl’s attempts at ‘exorcising’ past relationship torments fails badly) are shown to be serial adulterers ad all round narcissistic morons. Paul ‘the wine guy’ guilts Monica into sleeping with him by using a cheap pickup line that, it turns out, he’s used on numerous women. The football player that Rachel dates after breaking up with Ross is a moron who steals from her.

And the main characters are just as bad:

Chandler is a whinging loser when it comes to women. He even goes on a self-pitying rant after he and Kathy break up, declaring he ‘moans about their not being any decent women then drives away the ones that dare to get close to him’ (I’m paraphrasing slightly). Monica’s response is to basically exclaim ‘you’re a guy’ after her and Rachel have had their own little self-pitying ‘you’ve just described every guy we’ve ever been out with’ speech. He’s utterly inept around attractive women and is shown to be shallow and needy. He’s my favourite character but that doesn’t mean I don’t find his development to be somewhat stunted and one dimensional. His insecurities ruin his relationship with Kathy and he expects him and Monica to break up after their first big fight because he’s so unable to function in a relationship. He’s constantly being told what to do and how to fix his mistakes and, at some points, is even abused by Monica.

Joey is a simpleton whose life revolves around food and women. He’s an average actor who sleeps his way on to the role of Dr. Drake Ramoray. The earlier series actually present him of somewhat average intelligence, but that disappears by about series 4 and he’s shown to be utterly moronic. It seems his trade off for being good with women is that he can barely look after himself, relying on Chandler to pay the bills and Monica to provide food. Because, apparently, a man can’t be good with women and intelligent. He has his moments of clarity, but these are comically played up as out of the ordinary.

Ross is obsessed with Rachel to the point it borders on a hindrance to his everyday life. He is treated terribly by Susan and Carol when it comes to the birth of his son, Susan effectively muscling her way into the debate and trying to claim that Ben is just as much her baby as it is Carol and Ross’. He’s presented as whiney and judgmental and completely paralysed by the memories of him and Carol’s relationship. On a slighter more sinister note, he’s emotionally manipulated by Rachel for pretty much the whole 10 year run, but more of that later.

That’s not to say that all male characters are treated badly: Ethan is a really good character (manipulating Monica into bed aside), Gary the policeman is devoted and loving, Mike and David provide likeable partners for Phoebe and, of course, Richard is shown as loyal, noble and wise. However, a few good characters doesn’t mean we can overlook the poor portrayal of other male characters.

The thing that, in my opinion, really casts a shadow over the whole series is Rachel and Ross’ relationship. I don’t really like Rachel as a character, she’s narcissistic, overly whiney, entitled and just really, really annoying, I know it’s supposedly a cornerstone of the series, the whole ‘will they/won’t they’ thing, but to me Rachel comes across and manipulative and controlling. I’ll talk more about Rachel in the second half of this blog entry but this is specifically focusing on her actions.

I’ll see if I can explain without rambling on too much:

He spends most of series 1 pining after her, not much she can do about it as she doesn’t know so this isn’t really her fault. However, it’s at the end of series 1 she finds out he loves her and, rather quickly, she realises she quite likes him, too. She goes to the airport to surprise him with flowers, only to see him with Julie. That’s where series 2, and her manipulations, really begin.

She does everything she can to ruin his relationship with Julie, from trying to delay them having sex to lying to Phoebe about which famous person Julie wants her hair like. Ultimately, she send Ross a drunken message telling him she’s over him. This despite the fact she knows he’s about to take a big step with Julie and get a pet. This ends up with him dumping Julie, making the infamous ‘list’ and then not talking to him because of it. I’m not saying that’s deliberate, but her message sends Ross into a maelstrom of uncertainty which leads him to ruin things with both Julie and Rachel.

Then they get together and their relationship actually seems to be going pretty well. That is until the beginning of series three when she shows herself to be a spoilt, selfish little victim. In The One Where No-one’s Ready she throws a huge strop and decides she’s ‘not going’ to Ross’ important event because he ‘humiliated’ her. This is despite the fact the whole episode’s premise is that Ross needs to leave at a certain time and he needs everyone to be ready. He eventually loses his cool at the whole group but it’s Rachel who decides to act like an utter cunt. He does shout at her, but that’s only after she faffs about with what to wear (something you think she’d already have picked out considering she must have known about this in advance). She then gets changed into her pyjamas and threatens not to go. In the end, it’s actually Ross who apologises and grovels for Rachel to forgive him. She manages to make herself a victim despite the fact Ross had a simple request that she chose not to follow. I always hated her for that.

Then they break up. For me, it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. I’ll talk about it more during part 2 but Rachel is not completely blameless in the ordeal. However, it’s after they break up that her manipulation really shines. There’s an episode where Ross is supposed to be on TV. Rachel hurts her ribs in a fall and essentially guilts Ross into being with her all night, to the extent that he misses his TV gig. Ross is still in love with Rachel at this point and it shows he will still do anything to be with her.

Then there’s the end of series 3 where she breaks up his relationship with Bonnie by telling him she still loves him. This is after convincing Bonnie to shave her head again as she knew Ross wouldn’t like it, thereby enhancing her chances of getting back with him. The whole deal with the letter asks Ross to accept the blame for what happened to their relationship.

At the beginning of series 4 they break up again, this time for good, apparently. She then decides that she can’t cope with Ross’ budding relationship with Emily so tries to push Joshua into a relationship as she can’t bear to see him happy. Then, she decides she still loves him (surprise, surprise) and flies to London just before he’s about to get married to tell him she still loves him! Ultimately she doesn’t tell him, but she messes with his head enough for him to say the wrong name at the altar and pretty much ruin his marriage before it begins. Then, she decides to go with Ross on his honeymoon. Actually, I’m not sure she can really be blamed for that, but it was still a stupid thing to do.

After that her meddling doesn’t seem as sinister but it’s still there. She and Ross kiss just after Monica and Chandler announce their engagement. Again, not sure you can really blame her as it’s Ross suggestion to have ‘that one night’ where ex couples get together again. However, she still decides to tell him she loves him, even though she knows he’s working through his issues with Emily.

Then, she seduces him using the ‘I went backpacking across Europe’ story. Then, while pregnant, tells him she doesn’t want him dating anyone else. Then, throughout the pregnancy, she effectively gets in the way of his relationship with Mona. Then, the final episode finally reveals that Ross wants to be with her (surprise surprise) and sees him chasing after her to the airport. Ultimately, they reunite and it’s all hunky dory.

There are some parts of that that Rachel can’t really be blamed for and large portions of the series that show Ross seeming to cope fine on his own. However, the point I’m making is that Rachel knows Ross still loves her and she uses that to her advantage. She never allows him to forget how much he loves her, even when he’s trying to move on with his life. She’s always there, just waiting to claw him back and keep him thinking that there might be a chance, no matter how small, that they will get back together. She ruins at least 3 of his established relationships, 4 if you include Mona (though that’s harsh on her as she was pregnant) and 5 if you include the possible relationship with Kate that Rachel nixes almost immediately.

I dunno, like I say I don’t like Rachel so maybe this is all a little unfair and exaggerated in my head, but there doesn’t seem to be another arc that seems quite as meddling as Rachel’s.

So yeah, after all that it’s really up to you to make your own mind up. Friends is one of my favourite sitcoms and probably one of the only American sitcoms I can watch regularly. I quite like 2 and a Half Men and Rules of Engagement can be quite funny sometimes but even those shows have rather negative portrayals of men.

I’m not saying you have to dislike Friends, I’m just saying that for all its merits and for all the top quality comic moments it contains it is still very limited and stereotypical in its portrayal of not just the main characters, but a whole plethora of supporting and guest male characters.

I’m sure someone can write a blog entry detailing how the show is limited in its portrayal of female characters. To that I say go right ahead, nobody’s stopping you. I’d love to read it!

So that’s it. Ultimately you can come to the conclusion that Friends is full of misandry and negative, stereotyped portrayals of men, or you can see it for the comedy it is and any negative portrayals are simply there to enhance the comedy of the show. It’s really up to you.

If you want to read the article on Ross being compared to an MRA, check out part 2. For now though, I’m off to watch some of Chandler’s best moments on Youtube! If you want an idea of what I’m like as a person, Chandler’s a pretty good model.

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Comments
  1. The Ghost says:

    John,
    I thank you for your posts. I not trying to be pedantic here but if your posts become more widely read, some will take issue over phrases or words you use to try and bring you down. I include this snippet for your edification.

    Bated breath

    Q From Steve Gearhart: Where does the term baited breath come from, as in: ‘I am waiting with baited breath for your answer’?

    A The correct spelling is actually bated breath but it’s so common these days to see it written as baited breath that there’s every chance that it will soon become the usual form, to the disgust of conservative speakers and the confusion of dictionary writers. Examples in newspapers and magazines are legion; this one appeared in the Daily Mirror on 12 April 2003: “She hasn’t responded yet but Michael is waiting with baited breath”.

    It’s easy to mock, but there’s a real problem here. Bated and baited sound the same and we no longer use bated (let alone the verb to bate), outside this one set phrase, which has become an idiom. Confusion is almost inevitable. Bated here is a contraction of abated through loss of the unstressed first vowel (a process called aphesis); it means “reduced, lessened, lowered in force”. So bated breath refers to a state in which you almost stop breathing as a result of some strong emotion, such as terror or awe.

    Shakespeare is the first writer known to use it, in The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock says to Antonio: “Shall I bend low and, in a bondman’s key, / With bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness, / Say this …”. Nearly three centuries later, Mark Twain employed it in Tom Sawyer: “Every eye fixed itself upon him; with parted lips and bated breath the audience hung upon his words, taking no note of time, rapt in the ghastly fascinations of the tale”.

    For those who know the older spelling or who stop to consider the matter, baited breath evokes an incongruous image; Geoffrey Taylor humorously (and consciously) captured it in verse in his poem Cruel Clever Cat:

    Sally, having swallowed cheese,
    Directs down holes the scented breeze,
    Enticing thus with baited breath
    Nice mice to an untimely death.

    [I’m indebted to Rainer Thonnes for telling me about this little ditty, which appears in an anthology called Catscript, edited by Marie Angel. However, it was first published in 1933 in a limited edition of Geoffrey Taylor’s poems entitled A Dash of Garlic.]

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