I ll Be There For You : Friends and the American Sitcom s Evolving Family

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1 1 NAME Professor Vander Zee ENGL April 2013 I ll Be There For You : Friends and the American Sitcom s Evolving Family In the 1950s, American audiences were glued to their TV screens to watch Lucy Arnaz s latest tactics to drive her husband, Ricky, absolutely insane. I Love Lucy, the precursor to several decades of sitcoms to follow, was a huge success amongst television viewers and still remains a classic to this day mainly for its groundbreaking components. Lucy, a strong headed and leading character, headlined the show and made women the center of the sitcom. However, in many ways, I Love Lucy reinforced traditional values of patriarchy to the American audience to accept as normal --and they did. Despite a strong female character being the main source of humor and making many of the jokes, Lucy was often portrayed as a joke herself.. Sitcoms are known to walk a fine line between emphasizing traditional values and challenging new ones; in the 1950 s, they were expected to enforce traditional ones. Decades later, American audiences were offered a revolutionary American family that was able to completely redefine and revalue gender norms in television. Rather than cast a single star or couple, Friends revolved around three men (Ross, Joey, and Chandler) and three women (Monica, Phoebe, and Rachel) in the 20s-30s. The show takes place in New York City, where the six friends struggle to make sense of their lives and find what they truly want. Despite its occasionally heavier episodes

2 2 (involving themes like death or heartbreak), the show is wildly popular for the hilarious and over the top scenarios characters often find themselves in. Yet in addition to its humor, throughout its ten seasons Friends began to reflect the idea of the evolving American family in the 1990s and early 2000s. The structure of men and women collaborating together on a level playing field in family, finance, and work gave rise to a unique dynamic amongst male and female characters in sitcoms. No longer were the men wearing the pants in relationships; in fact, much of the show s humor comes from strong attempts from the men to act more masculine than they naturally are. Further, Friends began to present atypical family lives as normal family lives. Rather than the stereotypical dad going to work while a mother stays home with the children, characters defied every expectation of them. In one example, Ross and Rachel have a child out of wedlock in addition to Ross s previous child from a former marriage with a lesbian. In other novel storylines, Phoebe carries her brother s triplets through surrogacy, Chandler and Monica exhibit reverse roles in who wears the pants in the relationship, and Joey (despite his womanizing ways) is the most sensitive of the six friends. Despite these distinctly progressive aspects of the sitcom, scholars often critique and argue as to whether or not Friends adhered to gender norms, or rather, created new ones to reflect the changing American audience. I will argue that evidence from the show and supporting critics agree that Friends is one of the first sitcoms to accurately depict the new idea of the American family. Specifically, through a close look at the relationship between Ross and Rachel, Friends devalues marriage and emphasizes the normalcy of a broken family. Through this function, the show reshaped gender norms and values in American television families to reflect its evolving audience.

3 3 During the final season of Friends in 2006, many critics and fans began to understand and value the importance of what the show was trying to underscore at the time. Christina McCarroll s "A 'family' Sitcom for Gen X -- 'Friends' Cast a New TV Mold attempts to look at Friends in a broad context and appreciate it for its value. Her article, published in the Christian Science Monitor, comments on the accomplishments of Friends prior to its season finale. Contrary to many critics who focus on patriarchal and feminist analysis in the show, McCarroll fully acknowledges the silliness of the sitcom and its at-times completely unrealistic elements. However, she never fails to accept the show for what it is: a situation comedy. Although it contains some of these unrealistic aspects, the show delivers more than its promised good laughs. One of these contributions was its ability to plumb contemporary topics and represent them in a normal manner. McCaroll claims that Friends created a new mold for TV that represents the American family as a changing dynamic that television is finally adapting to. Although the show has unrealistic qualities, its accomplishments exceed them. Before exploring Ross and Rachel s relationship more closely, it is important to understand what these accomplishments entailed. The article Political Implications of Prime-Time Drama and Sitcom Use, taken from the peer-reviewed Journal of Communication, gives an excellent sense on how Friends promoted positive ideas about gender norms. The contributors, Lance Holbert, Dhavan Shah, and Nokin Kwak conduct a study regarding whether or not prime-time entertainment television programming has a relationship with women s rights. The scholars hypothesize that The consumption of situation comedies will be positively related to liberal opinions concerning women s rights (49). One of their main focuses concentrates on the show Friends, and whether or

4 4 not it contributed to these opinions. A reason for this hypothesis was the situation comedy s longstanding ability to present what they term strong minded female characters (49). In Friends, the female characters Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe are career-driven and goal-oriented, and at no point do they allow their romantic lives or partners to interfere. Much of their freedom stems from their ability to openly discuss their sexuality and make their own sexual decisions. The critics agree that their ability to openly discuss sexuality and contraception (49) contributes positively to societal views on feminism. To prove their hypothesis, the conductors of the research used survey data, measures, and analysis on viewers of sitcoms. Their findings confirm their original hypothesi; when women watch shows such as Friends, they are invited to think positively about women s rights (and they often do). Not all critics acknowledge the positive relationship between women s rights and sitcom viewing. Naomi Rockler in "Be Your Own Windkeeper": Friends, Feminism, and Rhetorical Strategies of Depoliticization presents the argument that Friends depoliticizes feminist issues. Rockler finds the female characters of Friends to be contradictory and narcissistic in a feminist respect. Specifically, they tend to ignore the larger context of their problems and focus on themselves. In this respect, Rockler s understanding of the show would find that it is detrimental to the shaping of women s rights rather than progressive: The self-absorbed characters, she contends, do not exhibit a consciousness that their personal struggles with careers, relationships, and even issues such as single motherhood are part of a systemic, political context that transcend their own circumstances (245). Rockler would interpret situations such as Rachel s choice to raise a child on her own or Phoebe s brave decision to be a surrogate mother as

5 5 a failure to apply them to societal changes. She goes as far to state that, this rhetoric has material consequences, especially for young women, because it portrays political action as unnecessary and undesirable (244). While Friends may be revolutionary in its own context, Rockler finds that it fails to reach outside of its own bubble and apply itself to real women. However, I find this argument to be unconvincing. While Rockler s observations regarding the women s failure to be politically active is correct, it is hardly relevant in the context of the show. A character does not have to be an activist for their cause in order to stand for it; on the contrary, the characters don t feel the need to serve as activists for their circumstances because they find them ordinary. One of the best components of Friends is to make present these political issues as normal. To comply with Rockler s desires would be to strip the show of what it is valued for. To further the discussion of gender norms in television, Boston College s Kimberly Walsh, Elfriede Fürsich, and Bonnie Jefferson take the trope of beauty and the beast and apply it to the history of sitcoms to create a unique conversation about feminism in situation comedies. In their article "Beauty and the Patriarchal Beast: Gender Role Portrayals in Sitcoms Featuring Mismatched Couples" the critics discuss whether or not sitcoms generally adhere to messages of female empowerment or demote them. In this case, their findings conclude that sitcoms attempts to match a beautiful, intelligent woman with an undeserving and unintelligent man is intended to empower women, yet actually has the opposite effect. However, their conversation tends to exclude Friends from this formula. In fact, Friends never practices this idea. The men and women are often viewed at as equals, rather than displaying qualities that deem them less competent than each other: Some scholars, they argue, emphasize that characters such as Buffy,

6 6 Ally McBeal, or the female protagonists of Friends and Set and the City have the potential to unwrap past restrictive gender representations (125). Overall, Walsh, Fursich, and Jefferson define the qualities that present a situation comedy as restrictive to older traditional gender norms, yet Friends seems to possess none of these qualities. In fact, it has the power to create new gender norms and ideas of what women should represent in sitcoms. When appreciating Friends at its face value as Christina McCaroll s article does, it is clear that Friends never claimed to supersede gender norms or ideas of the American family. Instead, it just happens to. The previous sources create a dynamic conversation on how gender norms are represented in the American sitcom, and whether or not Friends adheres to the traditional form, or creates its own new mold. Through a close look at the utilization of marriage in Friends, it is clear that evidence supports the claim that the show creates its own rules to represent the American family and the roles men and women play within it. Specifically, the relationship between Ross and Rachel defy previous notions and stereotypes of how families and women should function in a sitcom. Ross, a self proclaimed nerd and Paleontologist, pined after the popular and beautiful Rachel throughout high school and never lost his feelings for her even through their adulthood. Years later in a classic underdog story, Rachel fell in love with Ross and the two began a rollercoaster relationship that puzzled and excited even the casual viewers of Friends for an entire decade. Yet throughout, this unconventional love developed an unconventional family and representation of normality in a relationship. The pilot episode begins with Rachel barging into the coffee house, having just left her fiancé at the altar. Ross begins the series married to a lesbian with which he fathers a

7 7 child. From the start of Ross and Rachel s relationship, they are already abnormal in sitcom s standards for stemming right away from a broken. Ross and Rachel break up immediately following Ross s drunken one-night-stand with another women, a situation which is all too common amongst couples but rarely depicted on television. Throughout the ten seasons, Ross and Rachel defy normal standards for a family by creating one to fit their own lifestyles. Their first defiance occurs when the two drunkenly get married in Vegas, and then divorce immediately after. Already, they have devalued the meaning of marriage and marital vows. Following their divorce, the two engage in a night of unforeseen sex which nine months later results in the birth of their daughter, Emma. Throughout her pregnancy, because she and Ross are not in a relationship, Rachel lives with her friend Joey (who, on a side-note, is in love with her during her pregnancyanother inappropriate relationship even by Friends standards). During this time, Joey suggests that Rachel and Ross live together despite the fact that they are not in a relationship. At this point, Rachel replies with a comment that seems to define their entire relationship: Living with the father of the baby? It s a little conventional for us. After the birth of their child, Rachel denies a proposal from Ross that they get married and the two continue to see other people despite their raising a child together under the same quarters. In the linear scheme that television shows normally present relationships (the couple dates, moves in together, gets married, and then has children) Ross and Rachel succeed in breaking this order in every sense. In the series finale, after 10 years, a combined 3 marriages (Ross marries several times) and two children, the couple famous for their differences rekindle their relationship. Through the conclusion, it is implied that this time it is intended to last forever.

8 8 Friends was not the first television show to revolve around broken families. In fact, several sitcoms featured atypical circumstances and families decades prior to the show. In the 1995 movie Now and Then (taking place in the early 1970 s), young Samantha confesses to her friend Teeny that her parents are getting divorced and states, I just wanted to have a normal family you know, like the Brady Bunch. To this, Teeny replies, Six kids sharing two bedrooms doesn't sound like fun to me. Besides, Mike and Carol are widowed. [In the Partridge family] Shirley Jones is a widow, Buffy and Jody are orphans Courtship of Eddie's Father, widower. My Three Sons, widower. Bonanza, widower. See, Sam? There are no perfect families. It s normal for things to be shitty. The two girls share certainty that their own broken home lives are justified by the same representation through television shows. In this case, how does Friends break a new mold from what these shows have already accomplished? The answer lies in the consequences of the characters actions. The situations characters such as Ross and Rachel find themselves in are direct results of their own mistakes: the two choose to engage in premarital sex, heavily drink and get married, and raise a child together. Writers of the show David Krane and Marta Kauffman never fail to present the faults of their characters. Prior to Friends, television rarely depicted such flaws in their characters. Even in The Brady Bunch, a classic show in which both Mike and Carol (with three children each) marry and combine families, Carol was originally meant to be divorced rather than a widow according to creator Sherwood Schwartz. However, ABC refused to allow such a character and therefore was vague surrounding the topic of Carol s previous marriage rather than admit that it had been a failed marriage (Encyclopedia Brady).

9 9 Friends takes the issue by the horns and celebrates that its characters are flawed, marriages are flawed, and families are flawed. Critics and audiences argue to this day as to whether Friends has truly accomplished as much as it has been given credit for. Regardless of their findings, Friends crafts a family that audiences were able to relate to more than ever before. For once, families were admitted to being broken- and it wasn t by death or by accident, but rather caused by flawed and human characters. Rachel, Phoebe, and Monica practiced healthy sex lives and balanced their own careers regardless of their marital status. They along with Joey, Chandler, and Ross, made mistakes in life (huge mistakes to say the least) and dealt with the consequences through the creation of a hybrid family: A family where mother and father aren t married, women work inside and outside of the home, and good friends replace the roles of siblings and parents. The construction of the normal family was no longer necessary or vital in the happiness of young adults lives in situation comedies. As James Poniewozik states in Time Magazine s article Reconsidering Friends, The message of Friends, in other words, is that there is no normal anymore and that Americans--at least the plurality needed to make a sitcom No. 1--accept that. Friends helped to evolve American sitcom television and create a dynamic where men and women were equal and everyone belonged, regardless of their broken backgrounds. The American sitcom, true to its shifting society, suggested that perhaps a stay at home mother and a working father was not so necessary in the structure of a television show anymore. Instead, importance could be placed on the hybrid family revolving around the shifting shapes of gender roles within that family. Today, following the lead of Friends, sitcoms continue to advance cultural understandings of societal

10 10 issues. Shows such as Modern Family feature a homosexual couple not as minor characters, but as a central focus. Other sitcoms continue to juggle issues of immigration, adoption, and even abortion. One could argue that the stable family was disappearing from American culture, and Friends helped demonstrate this for a decade through the 1990 s and 2000 s. After all, creating a new sense of normalcy and belonging are exactly what friends are for.

11 11 Works Cited Brady, David E. "Top 10 Questions About The Brady Bunch." Welcome to Encyclopedia Brady. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr <http://davidbrady.com/eb/welceb.html>. Holbert, R. Lance, Dhavan V. Shah, and Nojin Kwak. "Political Implications of Prime- Time Drama and Sitcom Use." Journal of Communication 53.1 (2003): n. pag. Academic Search Premier. Web. Loutfi, Martha Fetherolf. Women, Gender and Work: What Is Equality and How Do We Get There? Geneva: International Labour Office, Print. McCarroll, Christina. "A 'family' Sitcom for Gen X -- 'Friends' Cast a New TV Mold." Christian Science Monitor 6 May 2004: n. pag. Academic Search Complete. Web. Now and Then. Dir. Leslie L. Glatter. New Line Cinema, Poniewozik, James. "Reconsidering Friends." Time 4 Apr. 2004: n. pag. EBSCO. Web. Rockler, Naomi. R. Be Your Own Wind- keeper : Friends, Feminism, and Rhe- torical Strategies of Depoliticization. Women s Studies in Communication 29.2 (2006):

12 12 Stokoe, Elizabeth. "Dispreferred Actions and Other Interactional Breaches as Devices for Occasioning Audience Laughter in Television sitcoms." Social Semiotics 18.3 (2008): n. pag. Academic Search Premier. Web. Walsh, Kimberly R., Elfriede Fürsich, and Bonnie S. Jefferson. "Beauty and the Patriarchal Beast: Gender Role Portrayals in Sitcoms Featuring Mismatched Couples." Journal of Popular Film & Television 36.3 (2008): n. pag. Academic Search Premier. Web.