I, like many others, have spent the last few weeks rewatching Friends on Netflix. In reality, this watching has largely consisted of hate-watching, as it becomes increasingly apparent that the series is even less-progressive than first recalled. Much has been written about the rampant homophobia that runs throughout the series, with references to sexuality regularly serving as an insult or a punchline. Much too, has been written about the series’ questionable representation of women in general. What has become most apparent in this period of rewatching is the toxic, and abusive nature of the series’ central relationship: Ross and Rachel. The status of this relationship, despite its breakdown in season three, runs throughout the ten seasons. Characters regularly revisit its demise, with Ross frequently proclaiming ‘we were on a break’ as an eternal defensive catchphrase. Audiences held, and still do hold, this relationship in such high esteem, that it is often perceived as a litmus test for relationships. Many fans believe that the difficulties the pair experience somehow result in a fulfilling outcome when the pair are eventually reunited.
It is strange then, given the regard for this relationship, that the dynamics are so questionable. Ross, always a selfish and irritating character, becomes positively tyrannical in his claim for Rachel’s affections. For Ross, his love, stemming from a childhood affection, validates his ownership of Rachel. From the very beginning of their burgeoning relationship, he holds little regard for Rachel or her feelings, seemingly more in love with the idea of Rachel than her as an individual.
Leaving for China, Ross proclaims that he is hopelessly in love with Rachel, yet readily returns with Julie. His love for Rachel, supposedly so pure, quickly disperses when he is reunited with a woman who returns his propositions. Yet, we are led to believe that Ross’ love and care for Rachel should be held in such high regard, that it is only right that he enters into a relationship with Rachel.
When they do finally embark upon this relationship, it seems to be a matter of minutes before Ross commits an act that undermines Rachel’s self-esteem and sense of self by creating a list of pros and cons, comparing Rachel and Julie. Rather than simply profess his love for Rachel, who he regularly insists on being a source of constant fascination for a number of years, he decides to logically decide which woman he should continue to be with. While he apologises to Rachel and tries to make it up to her on multiple occasions, it is not long before Ross, believing that he has made suitable recompense for his misdemeanour, begins to question why Rachel has not forgiven him yet. Essentially, Ross is able to manipulate and emotionally blackmail Rachel into entering a relationship, as she forgives him after watching a home video.
After Rachel begins a job, which she is passionate about, Ross immediately demonstrates his jealousy and desire to control. It is notable that Rachel’s decision to further her career by quitting her waitressing role at the coffee shop is one that is prompted by Chandler, not her apparently loving and supportive boyfriend. Given that Rachel regularly states her dislike of her job, and shows no enthusiasm for her role, it becomes noticeable that Ross has never discussed her career with her. Rachel’s career progression, made possible by her friendship with future co-worker Mark, merely presents itself to Ross as a means through which he may lose Rachel.
When she begins her role, he goes to great lengths to reassert his dominance. When speaking to Mark he pointedly states his relationship and status, remarking that he is Ross ‘as in Ross and Rachel’ implying that Rachel should only be known in relation to him. Rachel remarks that she likes being a separate, individual at work, and enjoys the freedom this awards, yet Ross continually invades her own space, arriving at work unannounced, sending her a myriad of hyperbolic romantic tokens that take over her desk leaving her unable to work. It would appear that Ross preferred Rachel as a waitress when her job role left her easily accessible (with the group regularly visiting the coffee shop while Rachel is working), and less ambitious. Early on in their relationship, she discovers that he has already determined the trajectory of their relationship, right down to the number of children they will have and where they will live. At no point does Rachel’s personal ambitions feature, nor her feelings and thoughts on the idea. Ross’ concept of their relationship is not one that invites discourse or discussion, but rather is an opportunity for him to mould and create a relationship that satisfies him, particularly given his past relationship with Carol.
After Ross’ infidelity, and Rachel’s subsequent decision to end their relationship, it is not long before Ross refers to Rachel’s decision as being ‘crazy’. He may have apologised initially, but to Ross, this apology should be enough to erase his lack of care and consideration. It’s entirely questionable then, that this controlling, and damaging relationship, is one that is still viewed by audiences as being one to aspire to. Even at the series’ end, Rachel is still compelled to leave behind her career, one that she professes to feeling inspired and excited by, in order to reunite with Ross. Ross then eventually achieves his dream of having Rachel and a child with her. Yet Rachel has had to renege on her career aspirations and personal ambitions in order for Ross to achieve this. What is Rachel’s dream? Is this ever truly addressed, or considered? Viewers seemingly believe that Ross’ dream is Rachel’s too, but can any viewer really identify what her dream is?