- Friends was a decade-long Hollywood experiment in testing the moral limits of Americans and desensitizing viewers to harmful sexual behavior. Tweet This
- Our post-Friends world of sex today is hardly a bucket of laughs. Porn, casual sex, and surrogacy are wreaking havoc on the hearts, minds, and bodies of new generations. Tweet This
Pottery Barn has a Friends Anniversary Collection, LEGO recently launched a Friends-themed anniversary set, and Ralph Lauren has a Friends-themed line. I can’t walk more than a block in my neighborhood of northwest D.C. without seeing the metrobus “take a selfie with Friends” ads.
America has Friends fever, as the hit sitcom turns 25 this year and prepares to re-launch on an HBO streaming service in a few months. But the Friends fanaticism offers the chance to reflect on the show’s cultural influence and its role as a pop culture canary in the coalmine.
I was a teenager when the show was in its peak popularity. An entire generation of Americans like me grew up on a steady diet of Ross, Rachel, et al., most of us while in our teens and early 20s. I thought the show was peachy; that is, until one night at dinner, when my mom asked what the show was about. My dad, a man of few words, didn’t hesitate. “It’s a show about friends who all sleep with each other in a New York City apartment they could never afford.” Reluctantly, I agreed.
To be sure, the show is also a positive portrayal of friendship. But in reality, Friends was a decade-long Hollywood experiment in testing the moral limits of Americans and desensitizing viewers to harmful sexual behavior. For starters, the show made a punch line out of casual sex and hookups and portrayed them as consequence-free. No STDs, no trips to the abortion clinic, no staring at their phones waiting for the one-night stand to call. Just a good laugh about fighting over the last condom in the apartment and a porn marathon.
Friends fans are proud of this. As Samantha Allen put it for Mic.com,
Contrary to critics who believe the show left us with no enduring cultural legacy, Friends was surprisingly progressive in a way we might not have noticed at the time: it set the standard for how sitcoms could and would talk about sex. But for a '90s sitcom on a major American television network, Friends exhibited a remarkable openness about sex that set the pattern for sitcoms on air today. There would be no New Girl, no Mindy Project, no Sex and the City without Friends. At the exact same moment when the United States was whipping itself into a moral panic over Monica Lewinsky, Monica Geller and her friends were breaking television taboos and giving viewers a decade-long crash course in sex education. The show presented us with a cast of characters who had sex, talked about sex, had different sexual styles, and who even openly discussed contraception.
And as Jasmine Lee put it in Screen Prism,
Refreshingly, Friends showcases sex as just a natural act in which two consenting adults participate. Sex doesn’t change the world, doesn’t lock two people into a ‘til-death-do-us-part commitment, and doesn’t require much more than 'Yeah, s/he’s cute, I’m interested in his/her sexy bits, let’s get it on.' Considering this was a primetime television show, this is a fabulous piece of normalizing presentation.
Friends did a “normalizing presentation job” on a host of other issues once considered taboo. Pornography appears lightly throughout: Phoebe’s sister is a “porn star,” the guys discover they have a free porn channel and can’t turn off their television lest they lose it, and Monica walks in on Chandler watching porn. And so on.
Friends left basically no post-sexual revolutionary stone unturned, taking on everything from surrogacy (Phoebe becomes a surrogate for her brother) to gender ideology (remember Chandler’s father?). Friends even won a GLAAD award in 1995, two decades before Obergefell.
As another writer put it, Friends was a “sitcom that channeled the warm 'hang out' vibe through 10 seasons that revolved around six friends and their everyday lives” and also “introduced me to lesbianism, surrogacy and foosball.” In other words, Friends was the entire sexual revolution tied up in one made-for-TV package and wrapped in “warm hang out vibes.”
Many would undoubtedly argue that all Friends did was air out repressed sexual realities like rampant consumption of pornography or a burgeoning culture of casual sex. Others believe Friends did America a favor by not just giving oxygen to these practices but also paving the way for things like surrogacy.
But the reality is our post-Friends world of sex today is hardly a bucket of laughs. Porn, casual sex, and surrogacy are wreaking havoc on the hearts, minds, and bodies of new generations, and are particularly harmful for women. And thanks to the consequences of their proliferation, be it surging STD rates, high levels of depression among women, or a growing network of human trafficking tied to pornography, our world doesn’t look a thing like the world of Friends. The producers certainly succeeded in normalizing a brave new sexual world, but the last laugh is on us.
Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017).