8 Ways that NBC’s Friends Helped to Normalize Gender and Sexually Diverse Identities

Although Friends has been over for almost 11 years now, it has remained a popular “re-run” show, especially since it has made its debut on Netflix. Friends has been known for being very witty with jokes that some critics would argue are borderline inappropriate. Throughout its 10-year run, Friends has also been able to comment on a lot of the social events that happened in the recent past. In many episodes, the show challenges gender stereotypes, gender roles, and sexual identities in a light, playful manner which is consistent with the overall hilarity of the show. Throughout the years, their persistence has helped to normalize these various gender and sexually diverse identities which lie outside of the very rigid gender binary. Here are 8 of the most important points in Friends history which reflects that.

1. The One with Phoebe’s Husband (S2E4)

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In Season 2, we learn that Phoebe had married Duncan, a gay, Canadian ice dancer, so that he could get his green card. Although Phoebe was in love with Duncan when they got married, she knew nothing would ever come of their marriage because he was gay.

In the episode, Duncan meets with Phoebe to ask her for a divorce. Duncan had recently realized that he was straight and fell in love with a woman.

The scene between Phoebe and Duncan in the episode is reminiscent of a ‘coming out’ scene, except for the fact that Duncan is coming out as straight which is the opposite of Phoebe’s original expectation. While the scene pokes fun at the coming out process, it makes viewers evaluate the challenges that some people, especially GSD-identified individuals, face when they ‘come out’ as non-conforming to social, family, or friend stereotypes and assumptions.

2. The One with Chandler’s Dad (S7E22)

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Nora Bing & Charles Bing

Early on in the series, Chandler reveals that his dad had an affair with the pool boy when he was a child and subsequently divorced his mother. In Season 7, it is revealed that Chandler’s father is transgender. The show takes advantage of the opportunity to address a demographic that is often left out of mainstream media while adding a light, comical spin to it. Chandler’s father is also a Las Vegas drag performer with the stage name Helena Handbasket.

In another episode, Chandler’s mom meets Jack Geller, Monica and Ross’ father. He asks Chandler’s mom: “So which one are you? The mother or the father.” Judy Geller, his wife, rebukes him for asking such an inappropriate question. This aspect of the show also teaches viewers a little bit about etiquette in learning what is appropriate and what is not appropriate when speaking with GSD-identified individuals while giving a voice to some transgender issues.

3. The One with Joey’s Bag (S5E13)

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In several episodes, the Friends team challenges gender stereotypes. In one episode, Joey is given a purse for which he develops a really strong liking and wears it everywhere. This episode challenges men’s use of traditionally feminine accessories.

Another fashion example is when Rachel purchases a shirt for Ross for a date with a woman. Rachel mixes up her bags with his and Ross ends up wearing a woman’s shirt to the date. Prior to the date, Joey told Ross that the shirt was a woman’s shirt, but Ross didn’t believe him. This episode challenges viewers to think more critically about what we consider men’s clothes and women’s clothes, which is often an arbitrary distinction.

4. The One with the Sonogram at the End (S1E2)

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The whole first season of Friends is focused on Ross’ divorce from Carol who recently came out as a lesbian. The first part of the season focuses on the impact that the divorce has had on Ross and how complicated it will be now that they’re going to be having a son. This aspect of the series really focuses on the impact that coming out, especially later in life, can have on the traditional, nuclear family.

Later in the series, it is revealed to be a good thing. This non-traditional family is even stronger than it would have been if Ross and Carol stayed together from the start. Carol and Susan truly love each other. Ross was able to find his true love, Rachel. And Ben has three parents (perhaps four if we count Rachel) who love him more than anything! When Ben is born, Phoebe allows viewers to reflect on this point in saying that she had no parents growing up. She became really emotional to see that Ben’s parents are “fighting over who’s going to love him the most” and she called him the luckiest kid in the world because of it.

Finally, Friends does a ‘what if’ episode where they revert a number of changes to show what life would have been like if certain things did not change. One of these things is what if Ross and Carol had not gotten a divorce. It was clear that both Carol and Ross would not have been happy if things continued.

5. The One with Rachel’s Big Kiss (S7E20)

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In Season 7, we learn that Rachel had kissed one of her friends when they were in College. Rachel and her friend had kissed partly because they were both drunk and partly because her friend, Melissa, was secretly crushing on Rachel. This episode challenges viewers to re-evaluate the concept of ‘experimenting’ and that there is nothing wrong with experimenting with different identities and activities in hopes of realizing your true self. It also shows viewers that just because Rachel kissed a girl, it does not suggest that she will necessarily identify henceforth as a lesbian. This reflection is important in helping viewers to see that sexuality and gender identity is fluid and not always clear cut.

6. The One with Ross and Monica’s Cousin (S7E19)

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In this episode, Ross and Chandler experience a lot of sexual feelings towards Ross and Monica’s cousin, played by Denise Richard. At the end of the episode, Phoebe starts to develop the same sexual feelings towards their cousin. This episode points again to the aspect of the fluidity of gender and sexuality.

7. The One with the Jellyfish (S4E1)

At the beginning of Season 4, we learn that Phoebe’s parents were in a polyamorous relationship: Lily, Phoebe Sr., and Frank. The discussion of this polyamorous relationship allows viewers to reflect on the diverse range of sexual identities that exist and bring this into mainstream media.

8. The One with the Lesbian Wedding (S2E11)

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The One with the Lesbian Wedding is undoubtedly the most important episode in Friends when it comes to their portrayal of GSD individuals.

Major public discussion about same-sex marriage in the USA is considered to have started in 1993. The One with the Lesbian Wedding aired in 1996 in Friends’ second season. It is quite incredible that a relatively new show would take such a strong stance in favour of same-sex marriage about 3 years after the national movement began. Rather than this episode negatively impacting the show, Friends saw no considerable dip in their ratings after this episode.

The way in which Carol and Susan’s wedding is portrayed signifies that it is no different from a ‘straight wedding’ except for the fact that it is two women getting married.

Ross was originally not okay with Carol and Susan getting married. The way that they portrayed it in the show was that he was not okay with his ex-wife getting married moreso than the fact that it was a gay wedding. This has two levels. For people who don’t think twice about same-sex marriage, the episode probably came across as Ross coming to terms with his ex-wife getting re-married. For others, the episode probably came across as Ross coming to terms with a lesbian wedding. Eventually, throughout the episode, he came to show his love and support for Carol and Susan, which teaches acceptance to viewers.

This episode plays a significant role in the normalization of same-sex marriage in fostering viewers towards acceptance and perhaps even support of Carol and Susan as their relationship blossoms and grows beyond their wedding.

– Dillon

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