Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Controversy over Ross, Rachel and Joey on Friends

Friends was a long time ago.  I recall watching it with my cousin, then my dorm mates, then by myself.  But it still pulls up some surprisingly strong feelings.

Last week, a Twitter rant about why Rachel should have ended up with Joey instead of Ross ended up gathering quite a bit of attention in the media and online.  Unfortunately, my tech skills have not proved sufficient to link to a specific Twitter thread, but I have transcribed the entire thread below.

The rant itself brings up some interesting points.  That Ross' s insecurity makes him undercut Rachel's career and intelligence.  That Ross and Rachel made each other worse as people (both were jealous and suspicious and tried to sabotage one another's relationships).  That Joey often supported Rachel and paid attention to her feelings, despite being set up as the "shallow" Friend.  And that ending the series with Rachel and Joey as a couple would have been a game-changer in the sitcom world.

It gave me some new thoughts to try out (which I always love).  To be honest, I haven't thought much about Friends for over a decade, having stopped watching the show around season six or seven (whenever Phoebe had the triplets).  But this rant is about the romantic relationships and the subtle skewing that often appears in fictionalized examples.  I probably would have left it rattling in the back of my brain but couldn't because of a morning show DJ.

The day after I saw the rant, there was a substitute DJ on the morning show I usually listen to on the radio.  He began talking about the rant, starting off by describing it as a "Tweet-storm by a stupid woman who droned on and on about how Joey and Rachel should have been a couple on Friends."  This did not bode well and tweaked my inner injustice radar.  The DJ immediately continued to mock several of the tweets, following each with a "NO!"  No counter-argument, no alternate point of view, just a straight denial.  He finished by claiming that "most of the men agree with me" and then moved on to sharing traffic and weather details.

It surprised me that he felt this was sufficient to counter what was a well-thought out and pieced together view.  It also surprised me that he was so clearly emotional about believing Ross and Rachel should be a couple and was so threatened by the idea that Joey could have been a contender.  (Maybe I shouldn't be surprised, as a man denigrating a woman for sharing an opinion isn't exactly uncommon, but I will maintain my higher expectations for society no matter the evidence to the contrary.)

So here's my thoughts on the matter.  The sit-com is a formula.  It's meant to be light-hearted and funny, giving people twenty-two minutes to relax and enjoy themselves.  They don't often tackle more serious subjects and one of the things that people love about them is their predictability.  The audience isn't looking for the characters or situation to change in any meaningful ways, they just want to have a laugh.  Now, some sit-coms have managed to be funny, successful and tackle big issues (Murphy Brown and Roseanne being the two which immediately spring to my mind) but Friends never aspired to that.  It was a group of people with a wide variety of personalities, making their way through life as hilarity ensued.

Yes, in anything resembling a real life situation, Ross would have been a horrendous, hateful jealous jerk.  Because his jealousy and insecurity got laughs, they were played up more and more as the series went on.  He did actively block Rachel's career, both with his jealousy of the men around her and his final push to prevent her from taking the Paris job.  (BTW, this is a pet peeve of mine, when female characters give up their dreams for a relationship.)  He did pursue her when she said she wasn't interested and was dating someone else (and she did the same to him).  Those are not good qualities in a romantic partner.

@kaneandgriffin had a very valid point that Joey's character went through a real change, from being shallow and a player to falling in love with his pregnant friend, respecting her feelings when she didn't return them, and then moving to a deeper level of relationship.  It would have been nice for the writers to acknowledge that change.  It probably wasn't a deliberate character arc, but it still ended up happening.

She also had a valid point that what Ross fell in love with was a fantasy.  He wanted to be the kind of guy who could get a Rachel.  But he doesn't think he would be enough, otherwise, he wouldn't be so jealous.  

There are a lot of real life women who put up with jealousy and manipulation in the name of love.  Who make themselves less so that their partners won't be outshone.  And it would have been amazing if a pop culture icon like Friends could have turned that script on its head and said "here's someone who has treated her consistently well throughout the series, who puts her interests above his own, and now he's going to get the girl."  To honour a relationship built on a solid day-to-day friendship rather than a long distance crush.

But I'm not getting upset about it, because there are lots of stories out there which do what @kaneandgriffin wanted.  They may not have been made into long-running TV shows, but they're there.  Friends missed a chance to be revolutionary, and probably won't be making my rewatch list anytime soon.  The very fact that we now see the flaws rather than accepting them as inevitable or right is a victorious step in the right direction.

As for the mansplaining DJ, he can cart his entitled ego to the curb.  The intelligent men and women out there have some real discussions to catch up on. 

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