When was the last time you saw Blazing Saddles? I hope that if it’s been a few years, at least, the reason for this is that you realized how racist, misogynist and homophobic a film it is and therefore made the decision never to watch it again. It’s been said that a movie like Blazing Saddles could never be made these days and that this fact is supposed to be a sign that we’ve become a more uptight and overly sensitive culture, that political correctness has been allowed to ruin comedy in the name of keeping a few perpetually aggrieved parties happy. This is, of course bunk. True, online social justice activism has been successful at policing offensive and intolerant humor, but this is a good thing; also, activism and comedy can not only co-exist peacefully but often go hand-in-hand. Some of the funniest people I know are dedicated crusaders for social justice causes. For example, I heard this joke just the other day: “Knock knock.” (“Who’s there?”) “The Campus Feminist Alliance, come to shut down your school-sanctioned rape factory and burn all of fraternity row to the ground, oppressor.”
See what I mean?
But just because we have a robust sense of humor doesn’t mean we should be expected to look the other way when it comes to comedy that demeans already subjugated groups and which furthers the patriarchy and kyriarchy. It’s easy to look at something like Blazing Saddles and see the threat it poses, but it’s the humor that masquerades as harmless that we need to be extra vigilant in calling out, particularly humor from less-enlightened times. Like, say, 1994 through 2004. This is why it’s imperative that we take a second look, using the hindsight we now have and the desire for adherence to strict cultural standards we should demand, at one of the most popular comedy shows of the last 20 years. The show I’m talking about is, of course, Friends, and when we revisit it on Netflix now that all ten seasons are available to stream, it’s plain to see that the show was and is, I’m sorry to say, deeply problematic.
To be fair, I’m not the first person to realize the issues with Friends that were always there but which can only be noticed when viewed through today’s more socially just lens. While the journalistic excellence we’ve come to expect from Salon showed itself by the site’s aggregation of some of the more “damning” evidence against the classic sitcom, those individual criticisms deserve to be pointed out and praised. First there’s Slate, which peeled back the smiling, wise-cracking face of the beloved Chandler character to expose the rotten, bigoted, potential Elliot Rodger-esque time bomb of sexual violence lurking underneath. “Chandler’s treatment of his gay father, a Vegas drag queen played by Kathleen Turner, is especially appalling, and it’s not clear the show knows it,” writes Ruth Graham. “It’s one thing for Chandler to recall being embarrassed as a kid, but he is actively resentful and mocking of his loving, involved father right up until his own wedding (to which his father is initially not invited!) … His continuing discomfort now reads as jarringly out of place for a supposedly hip New York thirtysomething — let alone a supposedly good person, period… When it comes to women, Chandler turns out to be just as retrograde as Joey, but his lust comes with an undercurrent of the kind of bitter desperation that I now recognize as not only gross, but potentially menacing.”
Only now do we realize that we were just moments away from seeing an episode entitled, “The One Where Chandler Sexually Assaults Jill Goodacre in an ATM Vestibule.”
Meanwhile, a women’s lifestyle site called Refinery 29 noticed the way Monica’s weight was played for laughs. “In the show’s storyline, Monica loses weight in college after overhearing Chandler make fun of her size. [Ed. Note: Chandler behaving appallingly, again.] Shamed into thinness, Fat Monica becomes just Monica — desirable and (finally) human. Monica is many things: funny, uptight, loving, competitive. Fat Monica is just fat… and always hungry.” Again we see the positive impact that just a little more than a decade has had on our willingness to tolerate laughing at images and jokes no decent person should ever have been laughing at. As recently as the mid-00s were dark times indeed, my friends. Only now do we fully appreciate that there’s nothing funny about sizeism and fat shaming, particularly from a group of characters who perfectly represent the tyranny of the white cishetriarchy.
Speaking of which, The Globe & Mail not only lambasted Friends‘s sadly retrograde identity politics, it posited that our current nostalgia for the show may be a case of wanting to return to a time of white privilege. “The issues of race and ‘white privilege’ make some Americans deeply uncomfortable,” says John Doyle. “Maybe, at a time when mainstream U.S. TV is finally airing shows with ensemble casts that look like the ensemble that is America, and after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and after the shooting and rioting in Ferguson, Mo., and all the attendant questions raised, there’s an instinctive need on the part of some to return to the bubble of white-bread America that is epitomized by ‘Friends.’” There’s no maybe about it. The need for the dwindling white power structure to plug itself back in to a time when white privilege alone would guarantee one a huge apartment in New York City simply can’t be denied. Also, let’s not forget the white male gaze-centric nerd power fantasy that was Ross’s relationship with Rachel. Really, Friends expected us to believe that someone like Rachel would really want to be with someone like Ross. Please.
There are other issues with Friends that only now become clear, most notably related to the show’s unwillingness to create a lengthy story arc in which Ross’s ex-wife, Carol, sits the entire gang down at Central Perk and explains to them in great detail the oppression she feels as a lesbian living in a cruel, heteronormative world and educates Gunther as to the necessity of serving only fair-trade coffee. Also, Ross’s leather pants and his disgraceful keeping of a small capuchin monkey as a pet represent a slap in the face to vegans across America and there was obviously always something wrong with “smelly cat” that could have been solved by setting him loose at a free-range cat shelter. And don’t even get me started on the show’s unforgivable *trans erasure problem.
As Salon writes, it’s of course still okay to enjoy Friends — thankfully, you’ve been given Salon‘s permission — but it’s important to do so with a “grain of salt.” Vulture lays it out even more bluntly “You can still love ‘Friends,’ but why would you want to love it like you did before? Love it the way you see it now, with the things you know now and the values you have now,” Margaret Lyons says. “I love ‘Friends,’ but I do not love its body or queer politics. Those things can be true at the same time.”
See? Who says our modern social justice activists suck all the joy out of everything? Who says a sensitivity to any and all potential offenses can’t be funny? I don’t know about you, but to me nothing screams belly-laugh like a sentence that contains the words “body or queer politics” in a discussion about a comedy show. That right there — pure gold.