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Image / Living / Culture

‘Friends’ co-creator opens up about the show’s lack of diversity


by Sarah Finnan
21st Jul 2021

Everett Collection

A generation-defining series, 'Friends' has been the topic of much conversation in recent weeks thanks largely to the reunion special that aired earlier this summer.

Originally planned to premiere in 2020, production was postponed due to the pandemic and anticipation only seemed to grow in the months that followed.  Rumours as to what the episode would involve, who would return for the collective cast meet up and whether any notable tea would be spilt began to circulate. But one topic kept coming up in conversation… and that was the series’ very notable lack of representation and diversity. 

Pointing fingers

Calling for the reunion to include more people of colour, it sadly didn’t deliver on that front and though fans were generally happy with the episode, there has still been much chatter about what the series lacks. While the topic was never addressed in the reunion itself, co-creator Marta Kauffman has since spoken out on the matter, acknowledging that she was definitely partially to blame.

“It was, to a certain extent, a product of the time period and of my own ignorance,” Kauffman said on an episode of CNN’s special History of a Sitcom. “There were Black shows and there were white shows. There weren’t a lot of shows that were interracial.”

“I guess at the time I was thinking, ‘This is what I know’”, she continued.

Not the first time that Kauffman has commented on the series’ foibles, she admitted to not having done enough to promote diversity on the show during an ATX TV panel last year. “I wish I knew then what I know today,” an emotional Kauffman said at the time, welling up before apologising and continuing, “I just wish I knew then what I know now. I would’ve made very different decisions.”

“We’ve always encouraged people of diversity in our company, but I didn’t do enough,” she continued. “And now all I can think about is, ‘What can I do?’

“It’s made me think, ‘What can I do differently? How can I run my show in a new way?’ And that’s something I not only wish I knew when I started showrunning, but I wish I knew all the way up through last year,” she finished.

Original… or reboot?

Many of the core cast members have also discussed the issues of diversity and representation on Friends with David Schwimmer (who played Ross) telling The Guardian that “it felt wrong that there was not enough representation on the show”. “Maybe there should be an all-black Friends or an all-Asian Friends,” Schwimmer said. “But I was well aware of the lack of diversity and I campaigned for years to have Ross date women of colour. One of the first girlfriends I had on the show was an Asian American woman, and later I dated African American women. That was a very conscious push on my part,” the actor said.

Unbeknownst to him, Schwimmer’s comments hit a nerve online though and Twitter was inundated with outraged fans pointing out that an all-Black Friends already existed in the form of Living Single.

A show that was also produced by Warner Brothers, it centred on six friends – three girls, their two male neighbours and another female friend. Starring Queen Latifah, Kim Coles, Kim Fields, Erika Alexander, T.C. Carson and John Henton, it’s long been thought that Friends was essentially a reboot of the original; Living Single.

Time capsule

A couple of months later, Lisa Kudrow (the famous Phoebe Buffay or Regina Phalange as she often chooses to go by), told The Sunday Times that the show would be “completely different” if it had been made today. “It would not be an all-white cast, for sure,” she said. “I’m not sure what else, but to me, it should be looked at as a time capsule, not for what they did wrong.”

The time capsule argument has been employed in relation to the show’s downfalls on multiple occasions and while it has certain credence, it is a bit of a surface-level cover-up… especially when considering that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Cosby Show (although very problematic in itself) were so popular at the time. Kauffman’s claims that very few interracial shows existed should have been enough to tell her that there was a gap in the market that she could fill.

Problematic moments

Which brings me to some of the show’s more problematic episodes. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m the biggest Friends fan – my party trick is being able to quote almost every episode line for line – but, even I can admit that it’s not without its shortcomings and several of the episodes are a little tongue-in-cheek, to say the least.

I think we all remember the episode where Ross has a freakout when his son Ben chooses a Barbie over an action man. Just one example of the fragile masculinity that the show often glossed over, this spread into many other areas of the show with the objectification of women personified in the overtly sexual character of Joey Tribbiani. “How you doin’?” was his catchphrase of choice and he could make just about anything sound dirty… including “Grandma’s chicken salad”, as he once demonstrated to a slightly unnerved Rachel.

There were of course more than a handful of jokes aimed at Carol and Susan, the series’ token lesbian couple – most of them directed by Joey who fetishised the idea of two women being together. Body shaming was also an issue lest we forget “Fat Monica”. Monica was continually fat-shamed throughout the series, with the insinuation being that she wasn’t of much interest until she lost weight.

The list goes on. From the reaction to Joey owning a unisex bag to Chandler’s grievances with his drag queen father, there are many moments that definitely wouldn’t have gotten the green light in 2021. And while yes, it’s definitely a product of the time, hindsight hasn’t been so kind to the show and many of the jokes just haven’t aged so well.

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