Monday, November 23, 2009

Film Review: TV sitcom FRIENDS (The one with all the hypermasculinity)

Film Review: TV Show FRIENDS
(The One with all the hypermasculinity)

The television show Friends is a program I grew up with and watched every week. I would recite one-liners with my friends on a daily basis and wanted the “Rachel” haircut the infamous hairdo that Jennifer Anniston’s character was known for in earlier seasons. This program depicts 6 close friends, 3 of them being male-identified, Ross, Chandler and Joey the other 3 female-identified, Monica, Rachel and Phoebe all of them being white, heterosexuals living in a trendy area in the village in New York City. Their world is like a Manhattan fairytale of rent controlled apartments, beautiful people, coffee houses, and finances that have a way of just working out. Friends depicted a white homogenous life in the exciting city of New York and had an impact on United States culture, being one of the most popular sitcoms of our time (the show ran from 1994-2004, 10 seasons) having catch phrases like, “How you doin?’” become part of our daily slang and with 52.5 million people watching the shows final episode, the serieshad a huge audience and fan base but what were people seeing (or not seeing) when they tuned in?

One thing viewers were not seeing were people of color. The show is predominantly white, with even the extras and background scenes scarcely representing any sort of diversity. Which raises a question, “Why don’t these characters have any minority “friends”’ as Kim Imdieke asks in her essay “A Critical Media Analyses of Friends”. Television is an influential source of media and with millions of viewers seeing no regular characters that are minorities and only handful of interracial relationships throughout a 10 years, “one can get the feeling that white dominance in American society is viewed as okay in today's world.” The shows characters come from mainly middle class homes, (with the exception of Phoebe whose eccentric past includes her being homeless, fatherless and having a mother who committed suicide, but refers to these instances in jocular form) and shows the “average” lifestyle of people in their mid 20s, this average lifestyle being focused on heterosexual intimate relationships, consumerism (except once again the wildcard Phoebe who is the token hippie, spiritual, vegetarian who attempts to go against the grain) our society’s gender dichotomy and the effects that had on their co-ed friendship, that often had a sexual undertone, along with the bond these 6 friends had over their similarities and their differences . While growing up many of these issues did not occur to me. It seemed normal that Ross and Rachel would fall in and out of love constantly, Joey would be the girl crazed playboy, the womyn are skinny and seemingly independent even though they are constantly having trouble with men, and no one ever works, they sit around and drink coffee. Over the ten years we did see Ross’s ex wife marry her lesbian lover, and how the 3 of them raised their son, Chandler’s father who was a drag queen in Vegas and how their father son bond was restored and discussion on the topics of safe sex, pregnancy, and . But these storylines were not constant and although a depiction of these lifestyles and choices is a good start, it could have gone a lot further and pushed past stereotypical depictions. Now after taking this course in masculinities and growing as a feminist, I see the jokes that I used to laugh at in a new light. I am starting to become more critical of ‘why’ I am laughing and what that laughter is reinforcing or affirming. I still laughed at many of the jokes like I did back in 8th grade, but found that some things just didn’t seem so funny anymore.

The One w/ the Free Porn (aka homosociality: Don't change that station!)

In this episode the roommates Chandler and Joey are ecstatic after stumbling across free porn and never change the channel, with the fear that they won’t get it back. The two men watch the sexual scenarios so consistently that Chandler is surprised when, “I was at the bank, and the sexy bank teller didn’t ask me to go do it with her in the vault!” The characters become so used to the porn constantly playing in the background that they become desensitized to it and reinforces that our society, “largely takes pornography as an uncontroversial part of contemporary culture. This is the normalization of mainstreaming pornography” (ML 381). Chandler’s comment shows how these depictions of womyn can lead some to believe that the situations depicted in pornography are what womyn really want sexually and that men have access and a right to a womyn’s sexuality to the extent that they can buy it in various forms (379). Also Chandler and Joey watch the porn together, as a symbol of male bonding, and masculinity. Joey shares the idea that he could not be “the guy who turned off free porn” because what kind of example would that be if he ever was a father, how could he tell his son that? So pornography is reinforced as an instrumental tool for creating manhood, friendship and the “norm” of heterosexuality, and this is the same experience Robert Jensen encountered at a young age, “So I was consciously becoming aware of sexuality, my first recognizable cultural lesson on the subject came in a male bonding ritual around men’s use of an objectified woman, who existed only to provide sexual excitement for us” (379).

The One w/ the Nap Partners (aka if two men take a nap together, better call “no homo”)

After Joey, Chandler and Ross watch the hypermasculine film Die Hard, Ross and Joey happen to fall asleep on the couch together and wake up in uncertainty as to what occurred. After realizing nothing “happened” the two of them decide to never discuss the fact that they took a nap together, act nervous around one another as if they had a one night stand, and then scream in unison, “Die Hard” to assert their manliness. It seemed the reason this storyline is so comical is due to the homoerotic nature between the two friends, and the fact that two straight men being physically close and enjoying it is laughable. “The suggestion of male bisexual behavior remains just that, a suggestion. The guys are just horsing around…Men and women both take great pains to ensure that male-male sex is a line that just isn’t crossed by “real” men, no matter how homoerotic the horseplay gets” (MSO 83). Ross and Joey attempt to have another secret nap session, but wake up to the rest of their friends staring at them in uncertainty and puzzlement. How does Joey respond? By asserting his masculinity, yelling “Dude what the hell are you doin?” to Ross and storming out of the room, depicting him as the mythical “100 percent “red-blooded heterosexual male”’ and distancing himself as much as possible from homosexuality and intimacy with a male friend. This depiction or hegemonic masculinity is common throughout the episode promoting, “limited emotionality and heterosexuality” and the idea that “homophobia is one of the founding principles of masculinity” (ML 54, 37).

The One with the Female Nanny (aka "You'll grow up to be a big girl... like daddy")

This episode was the most surprising to watch again, had the storyline blatantly dealing with masculinity, homophobia, sensitivity and the roles men are “suppose” to play in our society. Ross and Rachel are hiring a nanny, and mistakenly assume the applicant, Sandy, is a girl when in fact it is young man who enjoys childcare and is very much in tune with his emotions. Ross is very uncomfortable with the idea of a male nanny and immediately questions Sandy’s sexuality, “Are you gay?” “You gotta at least be bi?” and proceeds to become almost hypermasculine in response to his feeling uncomfortable. The issue of work and gender roles comes into play, with the comments about a man taking on the role of a caregiver being, “…weird, what kind of job is that for a man? That’s like if a womyn wanted to be…” and there is a dramatic pause waiting for the answer of what a womyn ‘shouldn’t’ be. Jeremy Adam Smith discusses the role of men as caregivers and how it is becoming more acceptable, “Thanks to feminism-which has tried to teach us to ride out the shockwave created by massive economic change-women now have more choices. So do men” (MSO 203). Ross then confronts his disapproval of Sandy’s career path, realizing that it stemmed from his fathers lack of sensitivity towards him as a child, and the acts of ‘tough love’ he was subjected to growing up. “Heterosexual fathers play a particularly central role in accomplishing their son’s masculinity and, in the process, reinforce their own as well. Their expressed motivations for that accomplishment work often involve personal endorsement of hegemonic masculinity” (ML 52). In the end Rachel reinforces the standards of sensitivity within men, by referring to Ross as girl because of his emotional display in front of Sandy.


carly mac said...

I agree that it is very interesting to watch shows that I had watched as a kid, such as Friends, with a new critical feminist eye. Being able to point out hypermasculinity, homophobia, heteronormativity, and white washing now when we could not as kids gives me a sense that I really have learned something significant in college. I appreciate your analysis of the episode where the boys nap together. At first glance, the show may seem "gay-friendly" because of Ross's lesbian ex-wife, but we can see from this episode how homophobic Friends truly is. This example also relates to the idea that it is okay for women to be homosexual because lesbianism is for men's enjoyment, but that male homosexuality is totally unacceptable and the boys must prove again and again that they are straight. No homo!!

Anita P. said...

I'm really glad you chose to analyze Friends for your film review. As you pointed out already, Friends has been such an iconic television series in American pop culture and, to this day, re-runs are aired on multiple channels several times a day, proving it's impact in television history. I, like you and Carly, also love re-examining shows or movies from my adolescence with a feminist perspective because I discover so many of the elements that we discussed in class (patriarchy, hyper-masculinity, hetero-normativity etc..) are often times a main theme of the show. This is a heartbreaking reality and due to the fact that Friends, like Seinfeld or Will & Grace, is such an idolized show with memorable characters in funny, light-hearted situations it's not hard to believe that the issues you've brought up were rarely addressed or commented on (in the mainstream) throughout the airing of the show.
At one point in my life, I really loved the episode with the male nanny and found it absolutely hilarious. However watching it now, with the knowledge i've gained through women's studies, I simply don't find the mockery of a heterosexual male nanny nearly as entertaining as I once did. I don't even see it as a funny situation, if anything, Ross' inability to comprehend a straight male nanny proves to be more of a mockery of himself than anything else!