When Friends was made available on Netflix late last year, a collective re-evaluation of the show took place. Many remarked that the clothes, image quality and set design were dated (not particularly remarkable given the show is over 20 years old). The real estate situation of the characters was very unrealistic, and most importantly, the script, humour and portrayals were very frequently sexist, homophobic and all-around problematic. It was also not as funny as many remembered (having grown up with Friends reruns, I feel duty bound to point out that it was not that funny then either). The idea of ‘problematic faves’ was discussed, which just means that we may enjoy films, TV shows and other forms of entertainment ‘from the past’ while being aware of how flawed they are in terms of attitudes towards oppressed and underrepresented groups. While useful as far as terminology goes, it does expect that a culture that is racist, sexist and homophobic will miraculously produce, fund and promote works that will be intersectionally progressive
in all the right, expected ways, which is not particularly realistic.
After the Friends debacle, I took it upon myself to rewatch another nineties fave, Sex and the City, and find out what, if anything, was still good about it (and what wasn’t). What genuinely surprised me was not the unrealistic portrayal of real estate or lifestyles presented in the show from a financial standpoint, but how, in a time of #MeToo, our societal attitudes towards abuse and sexism have been too lenient for so many years. Even a show that was dubbed at the time as being responsible for a feminist awakening, portrayed it in an almost casual manner. A show that was about the lives of 30 and 40-something professional single women in New York City was in its time groundbreaking. It offered frank portrayals of sex, love and the power dynamics within relationships, highlighting how social status and social expectations of women and men differ.
The main characters had constant conversations about their sex and love lives, engaging in topics such as female pleasure, power dynamics and masturbation. The show also explored how women can be sexually adventurous and not necessarily emotionally attached; how they are judged differently if they are; and their expectations, dreams and idiosyncrasies. Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte are complex, well-rounded and interesting characters, each initially presenting a stereotype of a single professional woman (Carrie as a hip, neurotic journalist with a hidden romantic side, Miranda a no-nonsense lawyer who is distrustful of men but has emotional vulnerabilities, Samantha an unapologetically sexually adventurous PR woman, and Charlotte an unabashedly romantic, occasionally naive but secretly wise art dealer) and chipping away at these as the show develops.
It also offers a heartfelt, sympathetic and honest take on female friendships, with the bonds never falling into the stereotypical tropes of women being catty or always jealous of their friends. No one sleeps with another’s boyfriend at any point, and in spite of substantial differences in personality they accept and support each other in funny and moving ways. The first #MeToo moment that jumps out of the screen is when we meet Susan Sharon, a friend of Carrie’s in season 2, who has a husband that routinely screams at her and calls her a ‘stupid bitch’, not only alone with her but also in front of her friends. Susan asks Carrie whether she should leave him, to which Carrie responds that she should. Susan ends up reuniting with her husband, and their toxic and disturbing relationship is treated lightly, as they laugh about ‘how strange can people’s relationships be’. There is a difference between people having strange arrangements and people having abusive dynamics, trust me. An acquaintance of my parents was shocked to find out that her friends, a couple of interior designers, had made their bathroom with two toilets opposite each other. The reason was apparently that they liked to go about their natural digestive processes holding each other’s hands. This is strange, Susan Sharon’s relationship unfortunately requires a much harsher adjective.
In an episode where Carrie and her friends discuss love at first sight, a woman in the street is seen saying “How can you believe in love at first sight in a city where people jerk off at you on the subway?” As well as being hilarious, this is where ‘problematic fave’ starts to make sense. What makes the sentence uncomfortably funny is not that disgusting men will harass women that way om public transport, but the jadedness and realism of the woman’s reaction. The fact that some (perhaps unrealistically) romantic ideas will lose currency when confronted with a world where heterosexual relations will reflect unequal social standing, with sexuality an arena where not only romance and desire play a role, but sadly also violence and power.
A third moment is when Charlotte meets the man of her dreams in a wedding held at the Plaza Hotel. He is handsome, funny and intelligent, has a good job and they get along incredibly well. He then introduces her to his parents, who are attending. Charlotte has a dance with his father, who grabs her behind. She screams and tells the son (her possible
future husband, she’d like to believe), who responds by telling Charlotte his parents have been together for 40 years and that his father would not risk that by grabbing “some young girl who’s wearing a slutty dress”. Charlotte wisely decides there and then that he will not be her future husband, and the viewers get to watch a very realistic portrayal of how people have generally reacted to women relating their experiences of sexual assault. These moments have stood out in ways that were probably not clear to the show’s makers when it was being produced, just the many other ones in the show’s six season arc.
The show has, however, badly aged in the way it deals with race, and has a very mixed track record when it comes to LGBT portrayals. Stanford is a gay character who portrays the difficulty gay men who do not fit the musclebound, rugged look, have in their community, while Samantha’s relationship with a woman had genuine emotional clout, ending not because Samantha missed men, but because Samantha was not ready to commit (the fact that Maria, her girlfriend, would break plates when angry did not help). But, when Samantha has neighbours who are trans sex workers, she routinely refers to them as ‘shemales’ or ‘trannies’, and so do other characters. There are very few appearances of people of colour as characters, and when Samantha dates a black man, it is implied that dating a black man is a result of Samantha’s sexual experimentation (instead of her being attracted to him because he is attractive) not because he is black and therefore ‘exotic’?. A show that takes place in New York would be a lot more realistic if it had better portrayed the city’s diversity.
The question, however, still stands: is it a problematic favourite? I think yes. As Carrie would probably say at the end of an episode; it has the features of every close but good relationship, where the best moments make up for the worst.