Comedy Central is bringing the ‘Friends’ experience to London. From Wednesday to Sunday anyone who can pick up a ticket (from a tout, as it’s now sold out) will be able to get a coffee in a  ‘Central Perk-inspired café’ or have a look through Monica’s drawers in a replica of her apartment. In honour of the event, @unseenflirt breaks down how Ross’s dating experiences throughout the series relate to marginalized viewers.

by Jeffrey Boakye

 

So I’m sat with my wife, watching a string of Friends episodes (recently purchased box set, second-hand). We’re currently in the midst of season 2, and Ross has just kissed Rachel. Naturally, we chose this moment to turn the commentary on and, of course, the writers are discussing the difficulties in setting up the Ross/ Rachel relationship that underpins the entire series, at an emotional level.

Now, over the past 72 hours or so, I’ve come to appreciate the subtle craft at work in Friends. And I’ve also been scrutinising the series from a 21st century perspective, thinking carefully about the social -isms at play in late 90s white mainstream America. In ‘The One With the List’, one episode after Ross and Rachel kiss for the first time, Julie, Ross’ non-Rachel girlfriend, has been unceremoniously dumped. Which, as it turns out, doesn’t really matter.

This got me thinking. Why doesn’t Julie matter? Should she matter? Why would her part be difficult to write? And most importantly, why isn’t she white? Then a lightbulb flashed above my head and I explained to my wife what I’m about to explain to you. (Cue thunder)

Julie is ‘Asian’ (as the Americans put it) and this is a fact that goes unannounced by the Friends friends. The relevance of this is simple: Julie had to be different. She had to be ‘other’. Think about it: if Julie was as white and mainstream as Rachel, she couldn’t survive as a character, conceptually. She would be too normal to be anything other than a viable competitor for Ross’ affections, which would, therefore, make her a figure of pure hatred for loyal viewers. This unfiltered hatred for the hypothetical white non-Rachel would sour the viewer’s experience of the show to such a warped extent that it would be unwatchable.

See, on one level, Friends exploits modern liberal ideals in order to allow emotionally devastating interactions to take place, affecting its core characters. Julie, is just about different enough to not really matter as a character, but we are fond of her because liberal sensibilities demand that of us. I have no idea if this is a deliberate move on the part of the writers, but I can see the logic in casting someone racially different in a role that could garner spite if she was ‘equal’ to Rachel.

The same thing can be said of Charlie, the Afro-American palaeontologist who eventually becomes Ross’ love interest in season whatever. She is absolutely normal and attuned to the social rules of the Friends friends, but, crucially, she is not-white. So, again, the viewer’s liberal sensibilities act as a buffer to any accidental hatred that might tea-stain the purity of the Friends experience.

Going back a season to the very beginning of the series, let’s examine Ross’ first love interest – Carol. She really should be a figure of pure disdain. Her decision to abandon marriage with Ross kick-starts the whole will-they-won’t-they saga with Rachel, but, of course, she is ‘different’ too, insofar as being gay is being different. The ‘otherness’ of her character forces us to soften our feelings towards her. In fact, the writers inadvertently invite us to self-congratulate ourselves on how accepting we are, because we, (like Rachel) welcome Carol into the fold in her role of Ben’s mum.

There’s more. Season something or other sees the introduction of Emily, a love interest that pushes Ross so far away from Rachel that he (very nearly) gets married – potentially levelling the will-they-won’t-they seesaw for good. Now, Emily is indeed white and she is also straight, but she just happens to be… non-American. Accidental? Perhaps, but her otherness is in keeping with the theory I’m outlining in this article. Emily, to avoid being a figure of derision, cannot be from the same socio-cultural universe as Rachel.

Interestingly, Ross’ various girlfriends also do a lot to endear him to us. His insistence on pairing up with all creeds, colours and sexualities of woman paint him as not so much forward-thinking as socially naive. Much is made of his inexperience with women (Carol was the only woman he had slept with before Julie). It is almost as though he doesn’t realise that he should be with the Rachels of this world. If you consider that Friends was/is the defining text of 90s mainstream white America, Ross’ choice of weird women — gay, Asian, British, Black — was him being separated from the homogenised Alpha male status.

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Jeffrey Boakye (@unseenflirt) is Head of English at a London-based secondary school. He runs a blog focussing on teaching, pedagogy and ‘Hiphop Education’, intersecting critical analysis and popular culture.

 

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6 thoughts on “‘Otherness’ in Friends, or Why Ross’ Girlfriends Had To Be Ethnic, Different or Weird

  1. Hey, your analysis of the characterisation of Carol is WAY off. Her homosexuality is not just presented as ‘other’ or weird and therefore something liberals should get on board with, it’s usualised throughout the seasons. Arguments are consistently made for her logical right to have a same sex relationship and raise her child in a safe, loving home even if that home isn’t what middle America would support. Ross is made to look a fool every time he doesn’t get this. Carol leaving Ross in the first season is what sets us up to root for him. Not because she’s weird but because he’s heartbroken and (perhaps crucially) faultless in this.

    These are the moments when Ross is endeared to us, when he’s well intentioned, does little wrong but still loses. The emotionally devastating moments constructed in Friends are the ones where Ross (someone we get to know as a good guy) becomes the bad guy e.g. the whole we were on a break thing.

    I’d argue Emily is also characterised purposefully in a way that makes it easy to greet with derision. In a lot of American drama British characters are often the baddies. Emily fits right into this. The will-they-won’t-they thing isn’t about rooting for both Rachel and Ross as a couple, it’s more about rooting for Ross. The nerd finally gets the cheerleader.

    A question to consider is why was Phoebe (i.e. the weird one) never with a non-white guy?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ooh, great post. I also agree with how carefully crafted Friends is, and it makes the racial (and class) politics of the show super interesting (and scary!) because you always feel that it was *never* not deliberate and carefully considered.

    You missed out the girlfriend who is one of his students, though! Which I think is the most telling of them all: she is overtly not-really-legitimate as a love interest by virtue of her age and the fact that Ross was her professor, in the same way that the other characters are non-overtly not-really-legitimate by virtue of their ethnic backgrounds or nationalities. I think it is important that Charley leaves Ross for another white man. If her old boyfriend was black, it would make her blackness – and by extension, the core cast’s whiteness – way too visible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very true re: Charley’s post-Ross partner. I’m starting to realise that with Friends, it’s all about what isn’t said and what doesn’t happen. An ongoing balancing act of liberal ideals and cultural tensions, perhaps.

      Like

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