Friends and the representation of women

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Friends has arguably dated, and dated poorly. The series, released on Netflix this month, has once again attracted discussion regarding its representation of homosexuality in particular. While this subject has, quite rightly, attracted much discussion, the representation of gender, especially women, has not received the same attention. This discussion is entirely warranted, and needed, given the objective influence of the series. Such is the hyperreality of the series that viewers regularly view themselves through the lens of the characters, questioning which character they most resemble, or using the narrative of the series to influence the manner in which they interact within their own relationships.

When teaching English Language A Level, there was a specific clip from the series which was regularly used to demonstrate the supposed differences between gender and language. The clip regularly garnered both laughter, and recognition from students, with students genuinely believing that the clip represented an accurate depiction of the manner in which men and women interact, as well as view pivotal moments in relationships. While this may be true for some, the fact that the clip is often the starting point, rather then merely a reflection for the majority is concerning. Many viewers of a particular generation grew up watching the series, and indeed, viewed these gendered interactions and assumptions about relationships before they were in relationships themselves. Subsequently, then, the series has been viewed as a learning tool, encouraging the viewer to use the myriad of relationship difficulties depicted in the series as a model through which they can position their own.

This in itself is questionable enough, but the very depiction of the women in the series, particularly the three female leads, must be questioned. Each woman, despite her own identified independence, is ultimately diminished by the men around her. Each, forging their own successful career, is compelled to compromise both their original ideals and their own concept of their career.

Rachel for example, proving herself to be so successful within the fashion industry is offered a job in Paris. A role that she readily describes as both exciting and scary. Despite the potential of this role, she is, once propositioned by long-term romantic interest Ross, quick to return to New York. There is then little mention of her career prospects, suggestive that ultimately, it is family that is the ultimate goal.

This idea of family as being the true measure of success is echoed in both Monica and Phoebe. Monica’s life is deemed complete once she is able to adopt two babies. Her previous lack of success in conceiving a child with her husband is, seemingly for Monica, some marker that highlights her as lacking. The topic, of the difficulty in conceiving, is given little rumination and all suggestion of difficulty is quickly forgotten once the prospect of adoption is proffered. In earlier episodes Monica is regularly seen at work, forging a career as a successful chef, but as the series continues, these insights into her work seem more sporadic, suggesting that this is no longer important to Monica’s character development.

Similarly, Phoebe heralded as the quirky and eccentric member of the group who disdains convention becomes utterly conventional. In marrying Mike, Phoebe shows that her attempts at kookiness were entirely superficial. Her lifestyle, previously a defining feature of her character, is entirely uprooted. She struggles with spending money on her wedding and considers donating it to charity in order to help people who have had similar experiences to her. Rather rapidly, however, she is willing to use this money for her own means, decrying it as deserving considering her previous life. It is surely at this moment that Phoebe has consciously rejected her own nature, and instead, freely submits herself to convention and married life.

Each character, when comparing the first series to the last, is entirely unrecognisable. Of course, character change over the duration of a series, particularly one that has the duration of Friends but these characters have not merely naturally progressed, but rather rejected past incarnations of themselves arguably in order to submit to the men around them.

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