Liking Problematic Things or The One Where I Can’t Stop Watching ‘Friends’

I’m a child of the ’90s and early ’00s, so the sitcom Friends is very much a part of my frame of pop-culture reference. I watched the reruns as a kid on tv, and it was a part of my child-hood in that way that media is more and more often. I always enjoyed it, but the older I got, the more I began to realize the problems with it. And yet, I can NOT stop watching it since Netflix added it to their streaming service. I know that it’s the equivalent of a Wendy’s salad (apparently healthy but actually laced with harmful nutritional substances). But it still speaks to me in some ways, still makes me laugh till my sides hurt sometimes, and still makes me care about the characters.

Friends is bad and problematic in all sorts of ways. There’s homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, classism, fatphobia, and diversity issues coming out the characters’ lily-white ears. Some of the problems are subtle, a product of the culture of the ’90s. Others are far more blatant. There are a lot of people who feel alienated, othered, or creeped out by the show. And with good reason. The male characters are obsessed with not being thought to be “gay”, the female characters are obsessed with not getting “fat” (not to mention all the fat jokes at teen-Monica’s expense), and all of the characters exhibit subtle misogyny (including the women) on semi-regular occasions.

But for all that, I still can’t stop watching it. I’ve watched all ten seasons in less than a month, and I’ve gotten invested in the characters’ lives whether I like it or not (dammit Ross and Rachel!). It takes a certain amount of skill to write a character I hate (Ross) and then make me care about what happens in his story line anyway. Despite thinking Ross is a horrible, shallow, creepy-stalker, selfish, pompous, arrogant, “nice-guy” douche and Rachel is a vain, shallow, selfish twit, I desperately want them to end up together by the end of the show.

I don’t believe in “guilty pleasures” (though that’s a post for another day). I believe if you enjoy watching/reading/doing something, then you should own it. If something makes you happy, don’t be afraid to say so, even if it’s poor-quality or frowned on by society (obvious caveats around harming others and breaking laws apply here). But if something is bad, no matter how much you love it, you owe it to yourself and those around you to admit that it’s bad. Maybe you can’t stop smoking and you’re done trying, but don’t pretend that it’s a newfangled ‘health treatment’ just to make yourself feel better. Maybe those trashy romances you love really brighten your day, but if they’re one step above poorly written fan fiction *cough*50Shades*cough* don’t pretend they’re Nora Roberts novels.

For me, Friends is one of those things. I love it, despite it’s problems. It’s a look back (however distorted) at times during my childhood and early teen years (the show basically covers my entire middle school & high school career). But I like it for more than nostalgia. There’s some bad writing, lazy writing, and less-than-stellar performances. Between that there’s some hilarity, some sensitive handling of difficult issues laced with humor.

No matter how much you love something though, that doesn’t make it perfect. Very few things in life are perfect, they almost always reflect somebody’s biases or imperfections. We owe it to those around us and to the very pieces of media we love to see their flaws as well as their good points. Critiquing something or admitting its failings doesn’t mean we love it any less, but rather it is often a profound expression of love. Caring enough about something to see its flaws clearly enough means you also care enough to make it better.

We also owe it to the people who may find something we love personally hurtful or troubling or erasing to admit that their feelings about it are valid. No piece of media is ever universally loved by all people everywhere. Other people not liking or being hurt by something doesn’t have to negate our enjoyment. But we must be willing to admit that something we enjoy is problematic to others, or else we’re just compounding the issue by denying people’s feelings and experiences.

Anyway. I finally finished watching Friends, so now I’m probably good for a couple of years on that front. I enjoy it, but it’s not one of the shows I like to re-watch over and over. Though I might have to circle back to a couple of Phoebe’s best episodes. I’d forgotten how much I loved her until now.

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