On the odd morality of “Friends”

Note: To those who haven’t seen the show and may be reading this, take a quick look at it on Wikipedia if you’re interested, I’m not in the mood to bother explaining anything.

There have been a lot of reruns of the show “Friends” on lately, a 90s/early 2000s sitcom about a group of friends who live near each other in NY and who have more or less adopted each other as family. I think I once read a quote from the creator that “‘Friends’ is about a time in your life where your friends are your family’,” and I think that’s a pretty good way to describe it.

I like the show – really I do. It’s generally well-written, it’s funny, and the characters are likable and go through meaningful development over time. Sometimes, though, I don’t think the writers really think through a lot of the things their characters are doing. The morality of some of the things they do is bizarrely twisted.

Consider one of the premises of the show: Ross is divorced from his first wife, Carol, because he learned at one point that she is a lesbian. That’s all well and good. Meanwhile, Rachel left her fiancee Barry at the altar, and we learn later that he deserved it because he’s a jerk. A fine premise.

Things get weird when we watch how the Ross and friends react to Carol and her new lover, Susan. Early on in the show we learn that Carol is pregnant with Ross’s baby, but she is divorced and living with Susan at the time. Ross arrives at the hospital for the ultrasound with Susan in the room.

First thing – Carol was originally going to leave out his last name completely from the child, but include Susan’s last name. What??? Ross reacts, as well he should, with indignation, and requests his last name be added onto the baby’s (he really should have demanded that Susan’s last name be removed too, but whatever).

An exchange between Ross and Susan occurs, and it is one of my favorite moments in the entire series despite being about two lines. Susan says something along the lines of “If you let him get his name added on he’ll only be letting him get what he wants!” Ross responds with this (it’s paraphrased, but pretty accurate):

“What I want? What I want? No, this situation is a lot of things, but it’s not what I want!”

That’s it. Those three lines are the whole exchange, and Ross has nailed it. The first odd thing, though, is that for some reason a laugh track was being played in the background. I…don’t see how that line can be construed as comical.

What else is odd is that when you watch the scene it’s clear that you are supposed to understand two things. One is that Susan is not being unreasonable – antagonistic, yes, and not necessarily correct, but not unreasonable. The second thing is that none of this is Carol’s fault.

The thing is, you don’t need to be a Christian or a conservative to see why this makes absolutely no sense. First of all, how is this not almost completely Carol’s fault? She cheated on Ross while pregnant with his baby and left him for a woman. And yet the characters repeatedly talk about how much they like her!

Let’s change something here: Imagine if she cheated on Ross with a man. All of a sudden, she’s no longer sympathetic. Apparently being lesbian means it’s okay to cheat on your husband and leave him. Why? Because you “can’t help it”? It’s “not your fault”? Okay. That’s pretty much a different way of saying, “The heart wants what it wants”. The problem is, I can use that same excuse if I want to cheat on my hypothetical wife with another woman. “Honey, I’m sorry, but I’m just attracted to her, not you. I can’t help it. It’s not my fault.” Who here would consider these excuses acceptable? Now imagine that you’re friends with my wife. Would you all go out of your way to talk about what a great guy I am? Of course not. But apparently, being lesbian means you’re exempt from such petty moral trifles.

And then there’s Susan. That you’re expected to think that any points she makes are even arguable is laughable. It’s not even her baby! It’s Ross’s. That she (and Carol, it must be remembered) even considered putting her name on the birth certificate and leaving Ross’s name out is so obviously morally reprehensible that the fact it’s presented as even a remotely arguable point is really a joke.

Now let’s fast forward, to when Carol and Susan are getting married. All of Ross’s friends are attending the wedding, and his sister is catering.

Read that last sentence again. Now try this little thought experiment: Let’s pretend that Carol is straight and is about to marry a man, and then let’s take a look at this sentence: “My best friends are attending my ex-wife’s marriage to the person she left me for, and my own sister is catering the wedding.”

Obviously, it’s horrible. And yet the show treats it as completely normal. Actually, it’s even worse than that. Ross doesn’t want to attend the wedding – and instead of leaving him alone about it, his friends actually try to talk him into it! It gets so bad that at one point, when Carol nearly calls the whole thing off, Ross TALKS HER BACK into marrying Susan! Can you imagine a man telling his ex-wife that she SHOULD marry the man she left him for? And somehow this is presented, not as the bizarre act of a man who’s succumbed to intense peer pressure, but as a moment of character development, complete with the lovely feel-good image of Ross at the wedding ceremony.

I think we could make an advertisement for homosexuality based off of this whole ridiculous mess. How about this – “Lesbianism: Because who needs morals, anyway?”, or “Homosexuality: Where a ‘good marriage’ means ‘a marriage where at least I’m happy, and damn my spouse!'”.

People will probably find those last two lines highly offensive. Hey, don’t blame me. It was all in the show.

[I will be coming back with a part two later, because there’s a lot more weird stuff going on in that show to parse out.]

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3 Responses to On the odd morality of “Friends”

  1. Terry Morris says:

    That the birth mother is sole determiner of whose name is, and whose name isn’t, entered on the birth certificate (with the backing of the State, of course), is morally reprehensible. But whatever.

    My wife was in the early stage s of labor with our youngest daughter and had gone into the restroom when a hospital staffer came into her room to talk to her about payment for their services. She asked whether I was the father. I replied “yes.” Then she introduced herself, telling me why she was there, and wondered whether she could discuss this with me. I said “you can discuss it with my wife when she gets out of the restroom.” She responded with a puzzled look on her face, to which I said “Hey; how do I know whether she’ll even put my name on the birth certificate?” ha, ha.

    Like I said, this state of things is morally reprehensible. But you can play along with the game and (1) have a lot of fun with it, while (2) raising a legitimate question to someone’s mind who has probably never had a second thought about whether this is good, bad, or indifferent, or of what their personal opinion of it is.

    The young lady returned about an hour later and proceeded to discuss the issue with my wife. I answered all of her questions. See how fun this is. 🙂

  2. This is what Dalrock is talking about when he goes off on his rants about love is what sanctifies sex. I must admit that it’s one of those things where the culture is so steeped in it I instinctively think he’s wrong, but then as I consider it, I’m not sure he is…

    • It gets worse when, in the finale, Ross is willing to see his daughter go off to France in order to make the mother haaaaaapy.

      And why does he ask her to stay? Not because she’s taking his daughter away from him to live in another country, but because he loves HER. And this was the finale.

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