Danielle Mustarde on what TV sitcom Friends got right for lez/bi women

BY DANIELLE MUSTARDE

This year, American mega-sitcom Friends celebrated its 25th anniversary. Like many western millennials, I grew up watching the series, both as it happened, as well as the constant re-runs over (and over) again. Even now, I can still recall the lines to an worrying majority of all 236 episodes – and I know I’m not the only one.

On a completely personal, non-critical level, Friends functions as something of a time capsule. Me and the elder of my two younger sisters, Emily, bingewatched it before bingewatching was even a thing. We’d sneak into my youngest uncle’s bedroom in my grandparents house, where we’d often spend the weekend, and “steal” his boxsets, before sitting completely and utterly transfixed, indulging in episode after episode (much to our grandad’s disdain). 

The show takes me back to a place of comfort and simplicity – to childhood, really. These characters were our friends away from friends, and their predictable personalities and shenanigans a source of stability and familiarity readily available on tap.

Of course, as the show’s silver anniversary came to pass, plenty of lighthearted articles, cultural think pieces and cinema screenings took place to ceremoniously mark the date in the western, pop culture calendar. But not everyone was happy. And out of those everyones, many were queer. One such critic, Samantha Riedel, wrote in queer culture magazine, Them: “Make no mistake – Friends is a terrible show about cruel people who tear others down because of their perceived queerness.” Yikes –  what does that say about me and other queer fans?

Thing is, for all the really quite terrible gay jokes and the treatment of Chandler’s dad, which many argue was transphobic, Friends was also the first time I ever saw someone like Helena Handbag – to give her her chosen stage name – on TV. It was also the very first time I ever saw a lez/bi wedding represented anywhere. The same can be said for the functioning same-sex-come-multi-parent family that followed in the shape of Carol Willick, Susan Bunch and Ross Geller. 

Carol and Susan might have been created as a vehicle for getting our lols at Ross’ failed masculinity, but I think the mere fact that these queer characters existed on mainstream, pre-watershed television in the early 90s shouldn’t be dismissed. While watching Friends with my grandparents, I don’t ever remember hearing any negative remarks about the same-sex couple on the screen in front of us. And that, in itself, sent an important message to a young and already (unknowingly) queer me. And like trans writer and editor Mey Rude says of Chandler’s dad/Helena Handbag, she was, for many, “better than nothing”.

Friends Actors Jane Sibbett and Jessica Hecht, who played Carol and Susan, reflected on The One With The Lesbian Wedding – which first aired in the US in 1996 – while in London recently. “Maybe we would get a kiss out of the wedding [today],” Jane, who played Carol, told the Metro. “We weren’t allowed to kiss and we were disappointed by that. It wasn’t not allowed, it just wasn’t filmed, that segment of the wedding.” “[Today] they would have them have sex,” Jessica added. “It’s such the norm.”

Yet, despite the kiss scene not being included, the episode – banned by at least two US television stations in Texas and Ohio at the time – remains a pseudo-political one. “It was a little bit political,” explains Jessica. “Quite a famous conservative politician named Newt Gingrich, his sister Candace officiated the wedding. She was the polar opposite of her brother politically, and she officiated the wedding in the episode as a political statement.”

Not only did Gingrich officiate Carol and Susan’s wedding, but Orange Is The New Black’sLea DeLaria also made a guest appearance as a wedding guest. “It felt very groundbreaking; everybody was talking about it,” the former DIVA cover star since remarked. “Any jokes that were made were all at the expense of people who thought there was something wrong with being gay. Then just to top it all off they let my character pick Phoebe up at a lesbian wedding. It was awesome. She walks away with me! I got her!”

In a recent piece for Vox, Kelsey Miller captures the sentiment of that episode well when she writes that it featured both “envelope-pushing” and elements of “gay panic”. “On the envelope-pushing side, you’ve got two women walking down the aisle and pledging vows to one another. Their not-yet-legal union is officiated by Candace Gingrich, the LGBTQI rights activist and sibling of Newt Gingrich… On the gay-panic side, everything else about the wedding is carefully curated to be as cautious and heteronormative as possible: The brides are walked down the aisle by men, wearing long, pastel gowns.”

Samantha Riedel goes a step further in her critique: “It’s certainly true that any semi-respectful portrayal of lesbian love in 1990s television was rare at best, but that doesn’t mean Susan and Carol’s plot line was good. As supporting characters, their relationship is constructed primarily to make Ross uncomfortable and emasculated by appearing to trump his fragile masculinity.”

Though, of course, there’s a whole heap of heteronormativity served during the episode (the kiss being cut out, the “gay panic”-shaped cherry on top), I don’t agree that Carol and Susan aren’t “good”. Though supporting characters, they are well rounded and developed in their own right and, crucially, fully confident in their identities. 

Susan, for one, doesn’t take any of Ross’ shit and, at the end of the Wedding episode, it’s she who approaches Ross and asks him to dance – a glimpse of the potential she holds as a three-dimensional queer character. In fact, to me, her “I’ll let you lead,” comment is entirely at Ross’ expense and the dancing scene, actually quite lovely.

Whatever was behind the the initial decision to include Carol and Susan in the series, it’s Ross and Chandler who are the butt of the joke in The One With The Lesbian Wedding – something that becomes more and more obvious as the years go by. You don’t have to have a degree in gender studies to be able to see that, actually, the show’s six, leading characters in Friends are clowns. They live on as caricatures of a mainstream, fictionalised version of the 90s and 00s – gender roles and all.   

“From what I could tell, Friends was a show about Straight People Antics mainly consisting of bad romantic communication, slavish devotion to gender roles, and a shiny veneer of mid-twenties promiscuity,” Riedel summarises, and I completely agree –that’s precisely what it is. But on those days where the 2019-shaped world all gets a little bit much, the solace that Friends provides is enough for me. 

And as Kelsey Miller writes: “Was Friends homophobic and way too white? Yes. But arguing about the show is healthy. Forget the Rachel haircut; I think Friends’ ability to polarise is the show’s true legacy. It has become a way for us to look at (and argue about) enormous societal issues – racism, misogyny, homophobia – through the lens of a sitcom.”

The show got many things wrong, yes, but the (albeit imperfect) representation of a female, same-sex couple that it did provide makes it worth its place in lez/bi cultural herstory, as far as I’m concerned. I mean, could Carol and Susan be anymore lez/biconic?

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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