It’s easy to rag on the TV sitcom Friends these days. In fact, it’s become a hobby for a lot of columnists over the years. For instance, why did Joey and Chandler who both confess to loving the movie Die Hard but say nothing when Bruce Willis, the actor who portrayed John Mclane in the movie, started dating Rachel? And how did Monica afford that luxury apartment when she was unemployed? Even with the hastily ret-conned excuse of ‘rent control’ in the last few seconds of the show? With the benefit of hindsight it’s also easy to point out its homophobia (a male Nanny must be gay after all), transphobia (Chandler’s trans father is a source of scorn and disgust) and latent racism (not a lot of non-white people in New York in the 90s it seemed) but, as fans point out, this misses its ‘good intentions’ along the way. You know, those same “awesome intentions” like the ones Sia had when making a film about an autistic character without bothering to talk to or hire any autistic people to help with depictions of a hugely under-represented group on screen. As the saying goes: “the road to hell…” etc
Friends’ idea of ‘doing the right thing’, on the other hand, is to show how Friends look out for each other, and, even though they make mistakes, they’ll be there fooooor yoooou. But often what these ‘mistakes’ amount to is everyday stuff, common to your average suburbanite let alone your average New Yorker. For instance Chandler is a smoker early on in the show, a fact that disgusts the friend group to the point of Rachel pulling cigarettes from his mouth. Now don’t get me wrong, smoking is a filthy habit, it’s unsociable and it’ll kill you, however, in real life if someone is dumb enough to want to smoke you let them, just don’t come near me and do it. Reprimanding them and attempting to control someone’s habits is NOT a good way to make Friends. Alcohol is treated much the same. Rachel is equally as disgusted by Monica arriving home drunk one day as she was by Chandler smoking. And the group pressure “Fun Bobby” to stop drinking, ditching him when he ceases to be “Fun” without the booze anymore. Also, be careful, you might end up getting married while drunk. Combine all that with the numerous instances where words like ‘Slut’ or ‘Tramp’ are used for women who have perfectly healthy sexual appetites but Joey, who has a new partner every week, is just your average guy, and you can kind of see what the show’s ‘good intentions’ really were: Puritanical ones.
The Puritans, as the name suggests, were a group of Protestants who sought to ‘purify’ the English Church of its Catholic indulgences after the dissolution of the monasteries and the separation from Rome (all because the horny King wanted a divorce, remember). Puritans were Calvinist thinkers who believed in ‘Covenant Theology’ which translates to a perfect obedience to God and his word i.e. the Bible. And we all know how contradictory and strange that book can be. It is notable, then, that this bunch of deeply repressed weirdos were among the first settlers in the New World of America and had a significant role in the English Civil War (Oliver Cromwell was a puritan). This was a group that encouraged a pure lifestyle, devoid of indulgences, considering anyone who, y’know, enjoyed life, a sinner. It should be noted then, what the prevalence of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage really means in the US.
With this understanding, we can see Friends as a form of contemporary Puritanism that extols the virtues of a small community of majority white people moulding each other against their will into conforming to an out of date doctrine that punishes any form of indulgence (remember how gluttonous ‘Fat Monica’ was a subject of such scorn?). Now I don’t know if you’ve been to NYC but that isn’t the New York I know and love. And even for the 90s this wasn’t an accurate portrayal. Friends is still a funny show but it has dated badly and not just in the more egregious ways most other articles point out, its ideology is out of date too. So keep that in mind on your 10th rewatch of the entire show or when social media recommends you another ‘Joey doesn’t share food’ meme.