What the Jokes in Friends Tell us about American Culture
The brand of comedy in Friends could be described as both slap-stick and cringe humor. Seeing the characters misrepresent their gender ideals makes the live studio audience laugh because laughter eases discomfort. (While gender roles are the actual dichotomy of gendered behavior, I’m defining gender ideals as the desired and sought after dichotomy of gender based on society’s vision.) Because these failures are staged, not a true threat on the notion of personhood in American society, it’s OK for the audience to laugh and remind themselves that their identity is safe. In the same breath, however, viewers at home learn what is acceptable to do as a man or woman—and what is not.
Friends is a caricature of the gender ideals in American culture. To illustrate that, I’ll showcase failed masculine ideals (violence, physical strength, provision and sexual expression), failed feminine ideas (domesticity, fashion, body modification, wifely duties and sexual repression) and the mutual failed ideal of heterosexuality as they are acted out in specific episodes of Friends.
In “The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break,” Monica and Phoebe purchase a home-waxing kit that they saw on an infomercial. They believe that the organic ingredients in the wax will make the hair-removal process painless, and they are excited to try it. After removing the first strip, however, the girls find that this particular brand of wax makes the process more painful than ever. Their responses solicit loud barks of laughter from the live, American, studio audience: Feminine body rituals should be painful, “preponderantly masochistic,” and the girls should have known better.
Later, in the same episode, Joey and Chandler come into the bedroom and find Monica and Phoebe whining and hissing over their pain. Joey belittles their low tolerance; a man would be able to withstand the pain. “Oh yeah?” says Monica, and she proceeds to lather Joey’s arm in wax, slap a strip on it and rip it off. Joey is paralyzed with anguish and grunts to keep from screaming. More laughter ensues because, first, a man was subjected to the feminine ideal of body hair removal and second, a man could not withstand the pain that weak women experience “four times during each lunar month.”
Quite a bit of cross-dressing is shown in Friends as a means of humor, ranging from Chandler being tricked into wearing women’s underwear in public to Ross accidentally wearing the same women’s shirt as his date to Chandler’s cross-dressing father. By dressing in the clothes of the opposite gender, these men have failed at performing their gender ideals; masculine clothes allow American men to actually dress up in the persona society wants them to express. It’s interesting to note that the gender ideal of fashion is designated toward femininity—women are policed by both genders to purchase and wear the right clothes, purses, lipsticks, shoes, etc.—even though men are also expected to adhere to specific fashion trends.
Joey and Phoebe both cross-dress, inconspicuously, in “The One with Chandler’s Dad.” In this episode, Joey discovers that Phoebe’s most recent boyfriend is wearing pink, women’s underwear. When he tells Phoebe this, she says that she asked her boyfriend to wear her underwear. Joey is horrified—until Phoebe explains that at that moment, she is wearing her boyfriend’s boxers. Joey, the most openly sexual character on the show, is intrigued. When Phoebe’s boyfriend failed at performing the ideal gender roles, in Joey’s and the audience’s eyes, humor ensued. However, Phoebe’s act of wearing an article of men’s clothing is seen as sexy, at the same time it’s seen as “failing” to perform a gender ideal.
In “The One with the Cop,” Ross purchases a couch and needs help moving it up several flights of stairs into his apartment. Ross asks Rachel to help him at first, but she, in successfully performing her gender ideal, is too weak, so he asks her to bring help. Ross hopes that Rachel will bring Joey, but instead, she brings Chandler, “the next best thing.” To this, Ross replies, “Chandler! You brought Chandler? The next best thing would be Monica!”
The American audience finds this situation humorous both because Chandler is openly viewed as weak, feminine, while Monica is openly viewed as strong, masculine, when the roles “should” be switched.
Both Ross’ and Chandler’s physical strength is brought into question in “The One with the Halloween Party”: Everyone at Chandler’s Halloween party believes that Ross is stronger than Chandler, so Chandler challenges him to an arm wrestling match. Chandler is already wearing a pink bunny costume that his wife, Monica, made him wear, so he is already failing at performing his gender ideals in two ways: one, he is wearing a dyed-feminine costume of a non-aggressive, non-threatening animal; two, he is wearing a costume that his wife made him wear, making her the decision-maker in the family and, therefore, usurping his masculine role as head of household. He feels that he needs to prove his physical strength in order to achieve at least part of his gender ideal.
Ross and Chandler are so evenly matched that neither one is able to move the other’s arm an inch; it goes on so long that people lose interest and stop watching. Ross asks Chandler to let him win because there’s a girl at the party that he wants to impress. After Ross “wins,” he rubs his false victory in Chandler’s face, spreading the rumor of Chandler’s failure to express the correct masculine trait. The audience laughs at Chandler’s expense.
Heteronormative Sexual Expression
When you think of Joey from Friends, one of the first things that probably comes to mind is his iconic, simple, yet somehow effective pick-up line: “How you doin’?” He says this line on more episodes than not.
Joey is the bachelor of the group, the male character on the show that is the most successful at expressing his masculine sexuality. Although Joey sometimes winds up in women’s attire and engages in domestic activities, his intense, unquenchable sexual expressiveness and collection of female conquests makes his friends and the American viewers forgive his feminine attributes. In this regard, you could say Joey is the most masculine character on the show.
One of the many jokes in Friends that highlights the failed gender ideal of sexuality is when Monica and Richard compare their list of sexual partners in “The One where Dr. Ramoray Dies.” In this episode, Monica discovers that her boyfriend, Richard, has only slept with two women (including herself) and becomes alarmed. She is not reacting to his possessing the feminine trait of sexual repression; instead, she worries what Richard will think of her once he discovers that she has been with more people than he has, that she exhibits this masculine trait.
The audience chortles at her anxiety because they know Monica is caught between the old and the new ideals of feminine sexuality: The old ideals say a man will not find a woman desirable if she has sex with more than a handful of people, a problem since finding a husband is the end goal; the new ideals say she must take care of herself, acting independently of a husband, while fulfilling her own sexual cravings in the process.
Ross pits his own violent behavior against Phoebe and Rachel’s ability to protect themselves in “The One with Unagi.” Rachel and Phoebe take a self-defense class and tell Ross that, as a result, they feel ready to take on any attacker. Ross tries to test Rachel and Phoebe’s knowledge of defense and physical strength by affronting them with a series of surprise attacks. His motives are apparent: He wants to demonstrate his physical strength through violence, reminding the girls that they need him (or any man, for that matter) as a protector. The girls, however, overpower him easily, causing him to fail at his gender ideals, busting the American audience’s sides in the process.
Although Rachel has already proven that she knows how to defend herself in season 6, it seems that she has forgotten what she learned by season 9. During a Thanksgiving meal in “The One with Rachel’s Other Sister,” Rachel and her sister, Amy, get into a fight because Amy has discovered that, upon Rachel’s death in the unforeseeable future, she will not be given custody of Emma, Rachel’s baby. They begin hitting each other—but not with fists as men might; they slap limply at each other, pulling each other’s hair, cowardly turning their faces away.
In this scene, we see Rachel and Amy failing in their gender role to leave the violence up to men; however, they are weak and, therefore, feminine in their violent outburst. The audience guffaws at this blended demonstration of accomplishing and failing feminine gender ideals.
Rachel unprecedentedly tries her hand at domesticity in “The One Where Ross Got High.” Rachel, despite being a woman, does not possess the same domestic traits as her friend, Monica. Monica, the den-mother, has a natural inclination toward domesticity: She cooks (both professionally and for her guests), she is hospitable, she loves cleaning her apartment and she absolutely cannot wait to get married and have children someday. Rachel, because she was raised upper-class, has never had to possess these traits.
In this episode, Rachel attempts to cook an English Trifle. The pages in her cookbook have stuck together, so she ends up accidentally making half an English Trifle and half a Shepherds’ Pie. Her friends, to keep her from experiencing the shame that accompanies the failure to perform gender ideals, make a big show of eating her half-dinner, half-dessert. Both Rachel’s failure at domesticity and the friends’ reactions earn a hearty response from the audience.
One of the most notable examples of the failed gender ideal of domesticity is in “The One with the Male Nanny.” In this episode, Freddy Prinze Jr. plays the nanny for Ross and Rachel’s baby girl, Emma. He’s perfect: He does puppet shows, he sings lullabies and he loves children. There’s just one problem: He’s a man.
Without any commentary from the characters (yet), the American audience is positively cackling at Prinze’s performance. To make things funnier, Ross outright expresses his discomfort at having a male nanny—not because he fears that Prinze will hurt Emma, but because he does not feel comfortable with a man behaving femininely around his daughter. Ross eventually fires Prinze, who cries “like a girl” and asks what it is that makes people fire him. This earns a big laugh, too, because of course Prinze should know that he is failing at performing his gender ideals.
Much of Chandler’s failure to perform his designated gender ideals is often blamed on his father’s queerness, on his cheating on Chandler’s mother with a man and breaking up the family: In other words, Chandler has never had a male role model who could successfully express his gender ideals.
Chandler’s father is referenced many times throughout the series but isn’t brought to the screen until “The One with Chandler’s Dad” in season 7. Monica, Chandler’s then-fiancée, meets Chandler’s father in a gay bar, while is performing a musical number onstage, dressed, quite convincingly, as a woman. Monica would not have been able to recognize him without Chandler’s mortified exclamation upon seeing him: “And there’s Daddy!” The American audience laughs because they believe Chandler “should” be embarrassed to be the spawn of a man who laughs in the face of his gender ideals.
In America, female queerness is viewed differently from that of male queerness, and that difference is clearly depicted in “The One with Rachel’s Big Kiss.” In this episode, Rachel tells the group of the “one wild thing” she ever did in college: make out with a girl. This act is so “wild” because it expands beyond the boundary of heteronormativity.
Phoebe does not believe that Rachel could have done something so “wild,” so Rachel kisses her old college roommate right in front of Phoebe in order to prove her ability to break the rules. Instead of laughing at this kiss, the audience erupts in hoots of excitement; it seems America doesn’t think there’s anything funny about women failing to perform their heterosexual gender ideals. This particular failure allows American men to achieve their gender ideal of hyper-sexuality in objectifying women.
When Rachel pulls away, her old roommate reveals that she has been in love with Rachel for all these years. This elicits a big laugh from the audience; homosexual acts are sexy but true homosexuality is viewed as a joke.
Friends as American Reflection
The popularity of Friends shows how relatable the storylines are to American audiences (or how relatable they were to American viewers in the 1990s and early 2000s). The series shows what it looks like to succeed (and fail) at performing America’s ideal lifestyles. In creating characters that often fail at performing their gender ideals, the writers of Friends also created characters who were all both masculine and feminine, who in some cases fulfilled their gender roles but not their ideals, and were, therefore, more realistic. Americans saw themselves reflected in the lives of each character, at one time or another, allowing them to safely laugh at the characters’ failures and at their own.