All progress is war on the past and millennials are particularly merciless combatants. The arrival of Friends on Netflix UK has had this neo-Victorian generation reaching for its fainting couch. Through woke eyes, the hit NBC sitcom isn’t a diverting entertainment but an artefact of racism, sexism and homophobia.
If you were a twentysomething during its initial run, or a teenager dreaming of being a twentysomething, Friends was more than just a sitcom — it was a lifestyle choice. This is a polite way of saying it wasn’t terribly funny, except in broad and winsome moments, but it sold a frothy fantasy of deferred adulthood and we were buying. You weren’t supposed to question how Rachel and Monica, a waitress and a chef, could afford a two-bedroom loft in the Village or what sweet terms of employment allowed Chandler and Ross, an IT manager and palaeontology professor, to spend all day nursing mochas in Midtown. Friends existed in that easy, techy, gently liberal, Clintonian bubble known as the Nineties. There were no problems in Central Perk that couldn’t be quipped away and the real world seemed relaxed too — not carefree but content. The Twin Towers loomed over the opening titles for another seven seasons.
Millennials encountering the series for the first time are aghast. Ross didn’t want his son playing with dolls! Transphobic Chandler used his drag queen father’s birth name! Joey is sexist! They ‘fat-shame’ Monica! And where are the People of Colour? One critic complains: ‘[F]or every brilliant, hilariously funny thing Friends brought to us, I could give you a counterweight of something brutal and offensive and strange’. Anothersnips: ‘Friends represents the uninformed privilege of the ’90s and therefore that is the era in which it should stay’.
When Friends debuted in 1994, it did so in a world unrecognisable today. The internet was available to less than half a percent of the world’s population, sodomy was still a criminal offence in 23 US states, and there had yet to be a black president in the Ivy League let alone the White House. People smoked in bars, people smoked in workplaces — people smoked. Sun-dried tomatoes were obligatory, skate punk inescapable, and surfing— So. Much. Surfing. American TV series took a year to arrive in Blighty and every other movie was about the end of the world but on the plus side there was no Lena Dunham. Heterosexuality and humour were still legal and using the wrong gender pronoun didn’t yet carry the death penalty.
Friends reflected this pre-millennium milieu. It was whiter than a Guardian editorial meeting but, then, so was most of network TV. Its characters might have giggled over sexuality instead of solemnly intoning in prefixes and acronyms but, back then, a ‘cis’ meant Harvey Fierstein and a TERF was for playing football on. Not only is it absurd to expect a show from a quarter-century ago to reflect today’s mores, it misunderstands cultural progress in the 1990s.
For example, much of the humour in ‘The One Where Nana Dies Twice’ revolves around Chandler’s ambiguous sexuality. This is one of dozens of gags across the series that involve male characters being mistaken for gay, often based on stereotyped behaviour, and reacting uncomfortably. Friends captures the liberal machismo of Nineties men, who were quick to tell you they were okay with… stuff but they weren’t… you know. Even hinting that one of their lead characters might be gay was forward-thinking at a time when Ellen DeGeneres was still unable to come out in real life, let alone on her ABC sitcom. This is why the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation named Friends’ first season the outstanding comedy of the year and nominated the subsequent two seasons for the same.
To this bloodless, sexless generation, an egalitarian message can be delivered only with the prim superiority of a scold. You can’t be a feminist unless you find it ‘problematic’ that Joey liked having sex with women. You can’t write brassy, brilliant trans characters without following the arid, programmatic checklist of some dreary grievance outfit. You can’t indulge an old sitcom because that might mean that out there, at this very minute, someone else is being more virtuous than you. The critic Alexander Doty complained about the ‘pop culture territoriality’ of mainstream fans irked by his queer reading of the Wizard of Oz. There may be an analogue impulse, pop culture purging, the need to ‘correct’ the wrongs of the past by denouncing their expression in the music, movies and TV shows of the time. To claim a monopoly on popular culture, every generation has to scotch what went before and millennials are no different. Gen-Xers weren’t just bigots — they laughed about it.
What sets millennials apart is the atomised way they consume the TV of yesteryear. Series that ran for hundreds of episodes and were weekly fixtures in the family routine are now glimpsed in short, context-drained clips and gifs. The Golden Girls has provided endless memes for millennial-targeted platforms, mostly thanks to its sympathetic portrayals of homosexuality. And yet this is a show brimming with jokes about mincing gays, ‘swarthy’ immigrants, and transvestite ‘queers’. Dorothy is distraught when her son marries a black woman, Sophia cracks wise about her late husband’s fondness for marital rape, and Blanche balks upon learning her great-grandmother was Jewish. It may be celebrated and shared now but wait till it ends up on Netflix.
Pop culture purging makes the purger feel righteous but in targeting the past instead of casting a critical eye over their own icons, millennials have fallen victim to that most Nineties of delusions: The end of history. Prosecutors today, they will be defendants tomorrow. Brooklyn Nine-Nine does well with under-30s but in years to come it could form its own course in #MeToo Studies. Jake needles Amy with titles for her imaginary sex tape, Gina peppers Terry with constant come-ons in the workplace, and Charles hits on Rosa after she’s made clear she’s not interested. The same applies to politics. Britain’s radicalised youth is convinced of its moral superiority but its own children might look dimly on personality cults, hipster Communism, and rancid anti-Semitism.
There is an awful uptightness to our moment, an unforgiving mean-spiritedness passing itself off as enlightenment. The object is the imposition of a total politics but a capricious politics, refracted through a million personal grievances, and more interested in critique than progress. Culture is hectic, protean and ill-suited to the rigid schematics of ideology. Millennial politics dictates who we ought to be but pop culture shows us who we are and who we want to be. Friends, though contrived and confected, was truer to life than the austere anti-culture that has replaced it.