By Sabienna Bowman
Before Hannah Horvath ever dreamed of chomping on cupcakes while bathing with her bestie, or Carrie Bradshaw waxed poetical about shoes and her sex life, there were three women sitting around in a coffee shop bemoaning that their jobs were a joke, they were broke and their love lives were DOA’d. Those women were Rachel Green, Monica Geller, and Phoebe Buffay, the female half of the Friends sextet, and while they weren’t part of a series with a specific goal to show the world through a female lens, they made a cultural impact on women both onscreen and off.
Friends aired from 1994-2004 on NBC and came to define the network’s Must-See TV era. It is one of the few television series that can be said to have defined a generation. Walk up to any Gen X’er and shout “Pivot!”, and they will either grin at you or grimace, but either way they will know what you’re talking about. By combining the aimlessness of the twentysomething experience with a comforting chosen family fantasy, Friends found a way to do more than reflect the times, it began to shape them, from the infamous Rachel haircut straight on through to Joey Tribbiani’s foolproof pick-up line, “How you doin?” entering the popular vernacular. Given the extent to which the series infiltrated the culture, it’s not surprising that its core female trio struck a chord with female viewers—and not just in the area of their fashion sense.
Taken together, it cannot be said that the characters represented a true cross-section of the female experience in the 1990s. Unfortunately, Friends, just like its descendents Sex and the City and Girls, was completely lacking in racial diversity. The experience it reflected was inarguably white and middle class, but it still managed to differentiate between its three female protagonists by instilling each of them with a unique set of personal attributes.
Monica and Rachel shared similar economical backgrounds, having grown up together, but they represented different ends of the high school social order. At the outset of the series, Rachel was depicted as the ultimate head cheerleader stereotype whose picket fence future as a pampered doctor’s wife was a foregone conclusion. Monica lacked Rachel’s popularity in high school and instead dealt with body and control issues due to being an overweight child and teen. Monica’s struggles ultimately left her more confident than Rachel, not to mention more equipped to deal with the realities of adulthood. In fact, it’s Rachel’s relative helplessness in a real world setting that kicks off the series, as she reenters Monica’s life as a runaway bride looking for refuge:
Rachel: Oh… well, it started about a half hour before the wedding. I was in the room where we were keeping all the presents, and I was looking at this gravy boat. This really gorgeous Lamauge gravy boat. When all of a sudden I realized that I was more turned on by this gravy boat than by Barry! And then I got really freaked out, and that’s when it hit me: how much Barry looks like Mr. Potato Head. Y’know, I mean, I always knew he looked familiar, but… Anyway, I just had to get out of there, and I started wondering, why am I doing this, and who am I doing this for? So anyway, I just didn’t know where to go, and I know that you and I have kind of drifted apart, but you’re the only person I knew who lived here in the city.
Monica: Who wasn’t invited to the wedding.
Phoebe was the true outlier of the series. She was neither middle class nor raised with a nuclear family. Her young adulthood was marked by her mother’s suicide and a stint living on the streets of New York as a teenager. These dark themes were often played for laughs, but much of Phoebe’s journey over the ten year run of the series was devoted to her exploration of her past as she sought out answers about her parentage and acted as a surrogate for her half-brother and his older wife. In a series that was about the families we make, Phoebe spent much of her time looking for the family she was born into.
The rest of her time was devoted to musical pursuits and New Age dippiness in the early years. All of the characters evolved over the course of the series to a certain extent, but Phoebe’s growth arc was the most impressive. She was originally portrayed as a spacey, ditz; the sitcom idea of a vegetarian and a hippie, rather than an authentic person. With each season, Phoebe’s characterization grew. Her strong beliefs became less a source of mockery and more a natural part of what made her special. Furthermore, Phoebe lost the ditziness and gained a strong sense of self that made her a consistent voice of reason within the group.
Of course, Friends wasn’t a purely female-driven story. Its narrative thrust came from the interplay between the women and the series’ male trio: Ross Geller (Monica’s older brother and Rachel’s sometimes boyfriend), Chandler Bing (who would ultimately be Monica’s husband), and Joey. In a post-When Harry Met Sally world, Friends stood as an authentic counterpoint to the argument that men and women can’t just be friends, at least it did at the beginning of its run. By the end, nearly every character who wasn’t related or named Phoebe had been involved with everyone else (and in truth, even Monica and Ross shared a kiss). In the early seasons though, the gang was refreshingly platonic sans Ross and Rachel’s on-again, off-again “we were on a break!” dithering.
Instead of focusing the storytelling on unresolved sexual tension within the group, Friends put all of its energy into becoming an enthralling hang-out show. Unlike its contemporary, Seinfeld, Friends never claimed to be a show about nothing, but it wasn’t a sitcom with a statement to make either.
Friends was never interested in overtly addressing the political climate, so it would seem counterintuitive to say that Monica, Rachel and Phoebe reflected the third-wave feminist movement that was on the rise in the early ’90s, but it’s a hat trick that the writers pulled off. Each of them was driven by their individualism and all were openly sexual. They all desired steady relationships, but that never stopped them from dating and engaging with multiple sexual partners (and bragging about it, although not typically in the language of conquests that their male counterparts used). For example in episode 10, “The One with the Monkey,” Rachel says to Phoebe in reference to her new boyfriend taking their relationship slowly:
Rachel: Pheebs, I can’t believe he hasn’t kissed you yet. I mean God, by my sixth date with Paolo, he had already named both my breasts! …Ooh. Did I just share too much?
It is true that a great deal of Rachel, Monica, and Phoebe’s stories revolved around their relationships with men. In this way, Friends‘ legacy can be problematic; as many of the series that have attempted to replicate the Friends formula have primarily used their female characters as ciphers to tell romantic stories (How I Met Your Mother is one of the more critically successful examples), entirely missing the greater scope of Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe’s characterizations. All of their stories ended with them settling down in heteronormative relationships, but they were never entirely defined by their romantic partners.
Rachel’s story represented the most pure coming of age tale as she began the series as a waitress with no clear direction in life and ended it as a businesswoman and mother. Over the course of the series, Rachel routinely came to prioritize her career, and took great pride in her growth. Likewise, Monica’s passion for cooking was one of her defining qualities throughout the series’ run, and in season nine she even chose a position in a prestigious restaurant over transplanting her life to Tulsa when Chandler’s job forced him to relocate. Phoebe didn’t exemplify the same passion for her career as a massage professional; instead, her passion was reserved for her music (her awful, awful music).
While Friends had its share of flaws, it overwhelmingly did right by its female characters, even as it followed a traditional path for each one of them. It never overtly addressed issues of women’s representation, but it was capable of constructing interesting female-driven stories about everything from work to relationships to friendships, that were accessible to a wider audience. Strong female friendships are a rarity on television, which makes the bonds between the women of Friends all the more important. In season six, “The One on the Last Night” provided Rachel and Monica’s friendship with a showpiece as they prepared for Chandler to move in with Monica and for Rachel to move out. The two women spend much of the episode bickering before finally confessing all of the reasons why they’re going to miss living with one another, culminating with Monica’s tearful declaration, “And now you have to leave, and I have to live with a boy!”
Their friendship wasn’t so different from the friendships being formed amongst the real aimless twentysomethings venturing out into the adult world for the first time during the Clinton era. Today, asking someone if they’re a “Rachel,” a “Phoebe,” or a “Monica” is still a decent litmus test for a sussing out their personality. Friends worked not because it was particularly groundbreaking, but because it resonated on an emotional level. Its goal wasn’t to dissect the culture; it was to be a part of it. By doing so, the series created three female characters who were flawed, but also as real as the friend sitting next to you watching your favorite fictional Friends sip coffee.
Sabienna Bowman is a freelance writer and regular contributor at TV Equals and Film Equals. You can find her previous work at Wit & Fancy. Follow her on Twitter @sljbowman. For the record, she’s a Monica, but she always wanted to be a Phoebe.
Previously on Women in the Box: Dawn Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer