“And you never knew she was a lesbian…” Joey says about two and a half minutes into the first ever episode of Friends.
The inflection – the unnecessary emphasis on the LES, a slightly questioning lift at the end – is one queer women know all too well. From drunken men, to schoolboys at the back of busses, to bigoted mums out with their children, that inflection says “I don’t really believe in your identity but I’m still uncomfortable with it”.
In the same vein, any queer person who went to school in the late 00s will recognise the angry, panicked bark that comes out every time Chandler says the word “gay”. I’m not one of you, he’s telling us. And I’d hate to be one of you, because there’s something wrong with you.
As Friends comes to Netflix UK, no one is arguing that the show isn’t homophobic. As this brilliant 51-minute montage demonstrates, it’s littered with the kind of anti-gay jokes that we now find both offensive and incredibly boring.
But there is a question about whether the show employed homophobia as a creepy straight person in-joke, or whether it was genuinely trying to broach difficult issues and start a discussion about LGBT identity.
There’s lots of evidence for the latter. Look at the One With the Lesbian Wedding, which was so far ahead of its time that it was censored by several networks in the U.S. Or remember all the times that Ross and Chandler’s cheap homophobia is challenged (albeit half-heartedly) by Monica, Rachel or Phoebe.
As the show’s gay writer and producer, David Crane, argues, Friends may not always have gotten it right, but it was a good-faith attempt. And besides, most of it is really funny and has nothing to do with homophobia.
But watching the show again this week, I’m just not buying it. From that very first scene, Friends is about six straight people defining themselves against a threatening queer other.
While interviewing a male nanny, Ross aggressively asks if he’s gay. Monica repeatedly judges Chandler for knowing songs from musicals. Joey complains about queer women not sleeping with him. Rachel makes out with a university friend [Winona Ryder], then pities her for thinking that might indicate romantic interest.
“We’re straight,” the Friends basically yell at us at every opportunity.
And disturbingly, it’s the characters with gay family — Chandler and Ross — who are most disgusted by queerness.
It’s incredibly cruel for Ross to freak out about about Ben playing with a Barbie in front of his queer co-parents, essentially telling them that he doesn’t accept their identity and doesn’t want his son to be like them
(Note: if we fast-forward twenty years, there’s no way that woke twenty-something Ben is still talking to Ross.)
Even worse is Chandler’s dehumanising contempt for his queer father, which mutates into a loathing of any kind of effeminacy or gender nonconformity, in himself or anyone else. Plenty of people will tell you that this gay panic was “of it’s time”, but frankly that only makes it more sinister. When Friends first aired in 1994, the AIDS death toll among gay men hit its peak.
What’s more, these characters lived in Manhattan. We hear plenty about their implausibly nice apartments, but it’s equally ridiculous that six young New Yorkers in the nineties could have no queer people or people of colour in their lives.
In other words, the show’s creators decided to construct a white, heterosexual norm and to present any divergence from that norm as threatening.
And while you might argue that they had little choice given the views and prejudices of their audience, ultimately I don’t care. Because Friends started when I was six and the final episode aired on my sixteenth birthday.
And while my adult self can watch it critically and read against the grain, my child self couldn’t. What she saw was ten years of queer people being laughed at, excluded and – much as we might like to deny it – despised.
Sure, some of the other jokes were funny. But with the benefit of hindsight, that’s really not the point.