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Friends showed being gay as threatening and I’m not buying the excuses

Claims that the show tried to be progressive or that it was “of its time” don't wash.

“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.

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The UK is suffering from an extreme case of generational inequality

Millennials across the developed world are struggling. But the UK stands out. 

 

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”

Joni Mitchell’s lyrics may refer to her first trip to Hawaii, but they could just as easily apply to UK trends in generational living standards that the Resolution Foundation’s Intergenerational Commission has uncovered. That’s particularly so in light of new analysis comparing these trends internationally.

While there are huge living standards differences between high-income countries, there is also much shared ground, with the financial crisis and demographic patterns putting pressure on younger generations’ living standards everywhere. But the UK stands out. With the partial exception of Spain, no other country in living memory has experienced as large a “boom and bust” in generation-on-generation progress across both incomes and home ownership rates.

On incomes, the millennials (born 1980-2000) who have reached their early 30s are just 6 per cent better off than generation X (born 1966-80) when they were the same age. This is very small progress indeed when compared with the progress older generations are enjoying – baby boomers (born 1946-65) in their late 60s are 29 per cent better off than the silent generation (born 1926-1945).

These sorts of slowdowns have occurred in most countries, but not to the same extent. In the US, millennials in their early 30s are doing 5 per cent worse than their predecessors, but this compares to relatively modest 11 per cent gains for generation X relative to the baby boomers. In fact, in the US – despite higher levels of income – the absence of generational progress is what stands out. Typical incomes in the US for those aged 45-49 are no higher for those born in the late 1960s than they were for those born in the early 1920s.

Back to the UK. The “had it then lost it” story is also clear when we look at housing. Our previous research has shown that young people in the UK face much higher housing costs (relative to incomes) than older generations did when they were making their way in the world. In a large part this is driven by the rise and fall of home ownership.UK home ownership rates surged by 29 percentage points between the greatest generation (born 1911-1926) and the baby boomers, but this generation-on-generation progress has been all but wiped out for millennials. Their home ownership rate in their late 20s, at 33 per cent, is 27 percentage points lower than the rate for the baby boomers at the same age (60 per cent).

This fall between generations is much smaller in other countries in which housing is a key areas of concern such as Australia (a 12 percentage points fall from boomers to millennials) and the US (a 6 percentage point fall). As with incomes, the UK shows the strongest boom and bust – large generation-on-generation gains for today’s older cohorts followed by stagnation or declines for younger ones.

Let’s be clear though, the UK is a relatively good place to grow up. Ours is one of the most advanced economies in the world, with high employment rates for all age groups. In other advanced economies, young people have suffered immensely as a result of the financial crisis. For example, in Greece millennials in their early 30s are a shocking 31 per cent worse off than generation X were at the same age. In Spain today the youth (15-30) unemployment rate is still above 30 per cent, over three times higher than it is in the UK.

But, if everything is relative – before the parking lot came the paradise – then the UK’s situation isn’t one to brush away. Small income gains are, obviously, better than big income falls. But what matters for a young person in the UK today probably isn’t how well they’re doing relative to a young person in Italy but how this compares with their expectations, which have been shaped by the outcomes of their parents and grandparents. It’s no surprise that the UK is one of the most pessimistic countries about the prospects for today’s young.

The good news, though, is that it doesn’t have to be like this. In other parts of the world and at other times, large generation-on-generation progress has happened. Building more homes, having strong collective bargaining and delivering active labour market policies that incentivise work are things we know make a difference. As politicians attempt to tackle the UK’s intergenerational challenges, they should remember to look overseas for lessons.