So, WAS Friends Homophobic?

Kelsey Miller on the Slow, Awkward Mainstreaming of Gay Life on TV

By  Kelsey Miller

There’s a short film on YouTube titled Homophobic Friends. Filmmaker Tijana Mamula first uploaded it in 2011, and since then, the film has been referenced in dozens of op-eds and think pieces, with headlines ranging from defensive to outraged to ironically amused: “Friends: Could There BE Any More Gay Jokes?”

It’s a question that’s lingered over the series, in the years since it went off the air. Is Friends homophobic? Or is it a product of its time? Mamula’s film answers at least one of those questions with an unequivocal yes. Her film is an edited compilation of every gay joke made on Friends. It’s cut together in the style of an episode, the difference being that it runs almost an hour long. And, in fact, there could be more gay jokes. “I discarded a few that were completely repetitive,” Mamula told me. Her original cut was 90 minutes. There are the sight gags where Joey and Chandler realize they’ve been hugging too long, and frantically break apart. There are the easy one-liners (“If the homo sapiens were, in fact, homo sapiens, is that why they’re extinct?”) and the flat-out lazy one-liners (“So, how goes the dancing? Gay yet?”).

Then there’s Carol and Susan. To some, these characters are held as evidence that Friends is callous and offensive in its treatment of gay people. Indeed, Ross’s first-season arc is essentially one long lesbian joke. At times, there is no joke at all; someone simply uses a term like lesbian lover and the audience laughs. In later seasons, these women fade into the background and then disappear entirely, retired like an old bit that isn’t working anymore.

But to many other viewers, Carol (Jane Sibbett) and Susan (Jessica Hecht) are proof of just the opposite. They are Friends’ saving grace—the only real element of diversity in the series. “I loved Carol and Susan,” pop-culture journalist Sarah Beauchamp told me. “They were, honestly, some of the sanest characters on the show.”

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Above all, they were there. Real-live lesbians, on prime-time television. Growing up as a gay kid, Beauchamp wasn’t much bothered by all the pointed remarks about their sexuality. That was to be expected. Back then, if a gay character appeared on screen, sexuality was their defining characteristic, if not their only one. Beauchamp was just thrilled to see these women—living their lives, raising their child—and know that tens of millions of others were seeing them, too. On January 11th, 1996, they even got to see them get married. “As in, ‘I now pronounce you wife and wife’ married?” Ross asked. And the audience laughed like crazy.

As Kevin Bright said, a show’s second season is about stepping up the game, growing the numbers, and generally going big. That’s precisely what happened with Season Two of Friends. They got rid of the monkey and doubled down on everything that people seemed to like about Season One, including the lesbians and the gay jokes. It is impossible to come away from this season and deny that Friends relied on homophobic humor. It’s also clear that with “The One with the Lesbian Wedding,” they did step up their game.

Carol and Susan were loosely based on a real couple, Deb and Rona, who were longtime friends of Kauffman and Crane, from back in their New York days. Kauffman was godmother to their daughters, and vice versa. As she said, they wrote the women into the series because they seemed like a natural fit: “We never did it to make a point. It was just that these were the people in our lives and we thought this would be good material.”

In many ways, it clearly did. Watching the two women and Ross sort out the complexities of their new family was both unusual and relatable to anyone who’s dealt with kids and divorce. The setup was certainly used for laughs, as well, but the women themselves were never the butt of the joke. More often it was Ross who got nailed by Susan, for being ignorant or squeamish about the lesbian thing. She remained a necessary, deadpan counterpart to Ross throughout the series, though it never got ugly, because it was Friends. Ultimately, they were family. One day, Deb told Kauffman she’d been watching an episode with her eldest daughter. The girl looked at Carol and Susan on-screen, with baby Ben, and turned to her own mother. “A family like ours,” she said. It was the first time she’d seen one on television.

Kauffman and Crane had always wanted a wedding for Carol and Susan, and in 1995, it wasn’t unheard of. The first same-sex wedding depicted on television happened in 1991, on the Fox sitcom Roc. Led by Charles S. Dutton, the show followed a black family living in Baltimore, and often tread into complex political areas. The episode in question features a gay uncle (played by Richard Roundtree—aka Shaft) who first comes out to the family, then reveals that his partner is white, and then marries him at the end. While the script was full of typical cracks at gay people, it also confronted a hornet’s nest of nuanced topics about prejudice and intersectionality—eons before words like intersectionality entered the mainstream lexicon. It also didn’t pretend that bigotry could be solved in 22 minutes. At the end of the episode, the titular character, Roc, admits he’s still not totally comfortable with his uncle’s sexuality. Rather, he is learning to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

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“It is impossible to come away from this season and deny that Friends relied on homophobic humor.”

In December 1995, Roseanne featured a gay wedding, as well—and (as usual) it didn’t so much grapple with the issues as flip them a big, fat middle finger. In the episode (titled “December Bride”), Roseanne winds up planning a wedding for a gay acquaintance, Leon (Martin Mull), and his partner Scott (Fred Willard). When Leon walks into the venue, he is horrified to discover that Roseanne has filled it with drag queens, topless male strippers, shiny purple fabric, feather boas, and, sitting on the altar, an enormous pink triangle. The buttoned-up Leon shouts, “You have somehow managed to take every gay stereotype and just roll them up into one gigantic, offensive Roseanniacal ball of wrong!” He’s so repelled by the scene that he calls off the wedding and, in a panic, even tries to convince Roseanne that maybe he’s not gay, after all. Rattling off a list of stereotypes himself, Leon argues: “I hate to shop. I am absolutely insensitive. I detest Barbra Streisand, and for God’s sake, I’m a Republican!” True to form, Roseanne bluntly asks, “But do you like having sex with men? GAY!” It’s an episode that openly jeers at gay people and rolls its eyes at homophobes. It wants to make everyone uncomfortable. Whereas Roc tried to raise and reflect on complicated feelings about gay unions, Roseanne simply tried to push every possible button as hard as it possibly could.

Friends didn’t want to do either of those things. Crane said so, in no uncertain terms: “I’m not trying to make people comfortable, and I’m not trying to make them uncomfortable,” he told reporters in November 1995, a week after shooting “The One with the Lesbian Wedding.” Months before airing, the episode had already gotten plenty of hype, particularly due to the casting of Candace Gingrich—whose brother, then House Speaker Newt Gingrich, actively fought for anti-gay-marriage legislation like DOMA, and often likened homosexuality to an illness or addiction, “like alcoholism.” Candace was a burgeoning gay rights activist and had been cast as the officiant in Carol and Susan’s wedding after meeting Kauffman and Crane at a benefit for GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).

But that was as political as it got. Politics wasn’t the point, Crane said. The point was “that gay people have lives, like everybody else. That weddings are a part of those lives. That it’s not a gigantic issue. In fact, I wouldn’t even say it’s the biggest issue in this episode.”

Indeed, the wedding storyline gets far less screen-time than the other two in the episode: Phoebe gets possessed by the spirit of a dead woman named Rose, who won’t cross over until she “sees everything”; Rachel’s mother turns up (surprise—she’s Marlo Thomas!) to announce she’s divorcing Rachel’s father. Sandra Green realizes that, just as her daughter nearly did, she got swept up into marriage with a man she didn’t love. “You didn’t marry your Barry, honey,” she tells Rachel. “But I married mine.” This is the central story of the episode, which is sad and somehow perfect. It highlights just how different marriage is for women like Rachel and Sandra than it is for Carol and Susan. It’s expected of them—almost inevitable. (“I went straight from my father’s house to the sorority house to my husband’s house,” Sandra says.) That is, of course, an injustice and a trap itself, and Rachel’s entire arc throughout the series is about her breaking out of it. But within the context of this episode, it makes another point: for these straight women, it’s easier to be married than to not be. Even if it’s loveless, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons. Carol and Susan do love each other. They’re a family. They have nothing but good reasons to be married. But for them, it’s a battle and a constant compromise just to get down the aisle.

Friends was not interested in battles, but it did compromise—some would say too much. Dr. Suzanna Danuta Walters wrote about the episode in her book, All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America. She gave the show credit for being “carefully sensitive,” but, she added, the episode “went out of its way to portray the gay wedding as an exact replica of its heterosexual counterpart.” With a few notable exceptions: no white gowns, no exchange of vows, and no kiss.

“We were disappointed about that,” Jane Sibbett later said in an interview. Same-sex kissing wasn’t common on network television in 1996, but it had been done. The actresses suggested they include one, feeling it was only natural for a wedding scene. But the producers were worried that a kiss would go too far for their audience. Instead, the ceremony is punctuated by Phoebe (possessed by Rose) looking at the brides and shouting, “Now I’ve seen everything!” It’s painfully obvious today that the writers crafted the entire Phoebe storyline as a setup to this punch line. It’s a little sleight of hand, allowing them to avoid a potentially polarizing lesbian kiss, and instead offer a crowd-pleasing lesbian joke. To Sibbett and Hecht, it seemed like a lot of effort to skirt around a little kiss. “How lovely and simple that could have been,” Sibbett recalled. But everyone was just too nervous. “And I think maybe they pulled back a little bit.”

Everything about Susan and Carol’s wedding was designed to be as familiar and unprovocative as possible. Candace Gingrich was there, but not identified, and would likely not be recognizable to anyone who wasn’t involved in gay activism. Gingrich was dressed in traditional ministerial robes (though devoid of any religious symbols), in keeping with the rest of the scene. As Dr. Danuta points out, the brides walked down the aisle to classical wedding music, holding bouquets, and on the arms of men—“one in full military garb, to further the imagery of inclusion.” And still there was, as Sibbett calls it, a sense of pulling back. Costume designer Debra McGuire did not make their gowns in bridal white, but soft silvers and muted earth tones. She accessorized them each in a decorative hat—the suggestion of a veil, but not quite. But there was no question that they would be in dresses. “We took it very seriously,” McGuire recalled. “I really loved the idea of these women being women, of them looking beautiful and feminine, because of the stereotypes about gay women.”

This is where Friends reveals itself to be truly a product of its time—a homophobic era in the most literal sense of the word. In the mid-90s, the gay rights movement was gaining more traction than ever before. The right to legally marry still seemed a remote possibility, but civil unions would soon be offered by a handful of states and countries. A small number of high-profile politicians and celebrities had come out (this was before Ellen DeGeneres did but after Melissa Etheridge). It was by no means an easy time to be gay, but it was a hopeful moment when things seemed, little by little, to be changing.

And, as ever, people responded to change with fear. In 1996, the “gay panic defense” was still an acceptable legal strategy. Jonathan Schmitz—who shot and killed his friend Scott Amedure, after Amedure came out to him on The Jenny Jones Show—successfully used it and was convicted of second-degree murder, rather than first (and was later paroled). President Clinton instituted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a military policy that simultaneously forbade the harassment of closeted gay, lesbian, or bisexual service members, and banned them from coming out of the closet. Specifically, they were not allowed to disclose their sexuality, nor indeed any information that might suggest they weren’t straight (what kind of information that might be was anybody’s guess). As the policy stated, openly gay people would put the military at “an unacceptable risk.”

At the time, DADT was seen by many as a win for the gay community. Until then, there were no protections against discrimination on the basis of sexuality, and being gay had simply been grounds for discharge. Clinton had campaigned on the promise of finally ending the ban on gay service members—with no such qualifiers about being in or out of the closet. Polls indicated that most Americans supported the move. But Congress and military leaders opposed him, and after months of negotiation, Clinton announced the new policy, calling it an “honorable compromise.” And at least some gay people agreed. Former army captain John McGuire told the New York Times: “People I worked with in the army knew I was gay, but I didn’t hold up a huge sign . . . If you are a gay man or lesbian and join the military, you want to fit in. You want to conform.”

That was certainly the case on television, too. Confirmation, assimilation, inclusion—whatever you want to call it. It was okay for gay characters to exist as long as they didn’t hold up a big, flashy sign. Carol and Susan could be lesbians and even wives, as long as they didn’t kiss or touch or cut their hair short. Twenty years later, Jessica Hecht remembered getting the call from a casting associate to come in and read for the role of Susan: “She said they were looking for somebody who could play a lesbian but didn’t look like a lesbian . . . somebody who could look good in, like, antique clothes, but not really be too aggressive.” The character description put it in no uncertain terms. Susan, it said, was “a lipstick lesbian.”

There are, of course, many gay women who do dress like Susan and keep their hair long. Many others prefer short hair and suits. Actress and comic Lea DeLaria had a small part as one of Carol and Susan’s guests. She said of the wedding scene: “They needed at least thirty or forty more fat dykes in tuxedos. All those thin, perfectly coiffed girls in Laura Ashley prints—what kind of lesbian wedding is that? And no one played softball afterward?”

Who knows? Maybe they did. Susan and Carol were not main characters, after all, and they presumably had a whole life and social circle that we never got to see. But that’s the point: Friends allowed for all manner of gay jokes, but in its brief glimpses of actual gay people, they played it as straight as possible.

I spoke with television writer Ryan O’Connell about this “honorable compromise” so often made on sitcoms. “When you remove any kind of gay quality from a character, it’s almost homophobic,” he told me. O’Connell wrote for the rebooted Will & Grace, another NBC comedy that first debuted in 1998, and returned in 2017. That series did have gay lead characters, including Jack McFarland—a  singing, dancing, sign-waving gay man. During the show’s initial run, Jack was a polarizing character, who many criticized for being too recognizably gay. O’Connell summarizes the backlash:  “Here’s how we went in gay culture: Jack McFarland comes on TV. We’re like, ‘Yay!’ Then there’s this movement that says, ‘Oh, I don’t know. Jack is very stereotypical.’” After that, television saw a wave of gay male characters who were written as the anti-Jack: jocks, cops, conservative Republicans, and other straight-dude archetypes. In reaction to one Jack, says O’Connell, there were years of gay male characters “who had no signs of being gay, other than the fact that they like men.”

Gay jokes, he says, weren’t really the problem with Friends. Like Beauchamp, he grew up watching it as a gay kid in the ‘90s. He heard those jokes everywhere, off-screen and on. “[They] were just so ingrained into the fabric of every show that it didn’t even phase me.” The real homophobia on Friends, and virtually all of its peers, was the constant straightening out of the gay community.

“Confirmation, assimilation, inclusion—whatever you want to call it. It was okay for gay characters to exist as long as they didn’t hold up a big, flashy sign. Carol and Susan could be lesbians and even wives, as long as they didn’t kiss or touch or cut their hair short.”

But—and this is not the kind of “but” that erases everything that came before it—with Carol and Susan, Friends still stepped up its game. The show did depict the first lesbian wedding on television, in prime time. Kiss or no kiss, that was no small thing. Two network affiliates—WLIO in Lima, Ohio, and KJAC in Port Arthur, Texas—refused to air the episode, but that just wound up backfiring when viewers in their regions raised angry protests, and GLAAD decried the censorship, giving the episode even more press. NBC hired extra temp staff to field phone calls, expecting to hear from thousands of outraged viewers. In the end, they got two calls. Almost 32 million people tuned in to watch “The One with the Lesbian Wedding.” It was the highest rated program on television that week, and the first episode of Friends ever to hit #1. That is no small thing, either. To have the most popular TV comedy take this risk and not just survive but succeed tremendously revealed that yes, things really were changing. It made clear that Americans would not merely tolerate a gay couple on television, but tune in and cheer for them. Friends cleared a path for other shows to follow, with far less trepidation.

Furthermore, the story of Carol and Susan and Ross explored another common experience in gay people’s lives (albeit through the eyes of a straight character). “I thought it was even better having a character like Ross there,” Sarah Beauchamp told me, reflecting on the wedding episode. “Because he needed to warm up to it and be convinced of it. [In] a lot of families, when a kid comes out, their dad or their mom is getting used to it. So, I liked that they showed that side of it, too.”

Yes, Ross spends one and a half seasons moping about his lesbian ex-wife and sparring with Susan—which, Beauchamp adds, is probably how it would go in real life. And it does happen in real life, because gay people often have heterosexual relationships before coming out, and that makes for a complicated breakup. “That’s something you have to process . . . Ross definitely didn’t handle it well, but I don’t know anyone who would,” says Beauchamp. Even in the idealized world of Friends, “I don’t think anyone whose wife leaves them for a woman and finds out she’s pregnant would be like, ‘Oh great! Let’s all coparent! This is so comfortable for me!’” Ross’s initial reaction, she says, was a pretty authentic mix of hurt, anger, and ignorance. “That’s reality.”

At one point Ross even tries to convince Carol that they should get back together. There’s a scene in Season One where the two of them wind up at a hibachi restaurant, reminiscing about old times. “Here’s a wacky thought. What’s say you and I give it another shot?” says Ross. “I know what you’re gonna say, you’re a lesbian . . . but there’s something right here. I love you.” True, he’s being unbelievably unfair, and Carol shouldn’t have to put up with it. But their deep connection is obvious; they share years of history and complicated feelings, not to mention a child. The talk ends with a brief kiss before she tells him no—of course, no. Jane Sibbett recalled the scene as one of her fondest memories from working on the series: “Because it says so much about our relationship, and that there can be so much love between two people.” The scene doesn’t come off as offensive, but heartbreaking and intimate.

It’s Ross who Carol seeks out the night before the wedding, after her parents refuse to attend and she considers calling it off. This is the moment when Ross finally comes around, puts his own hurt feelings aside, and steps up. “Look do you love her? . . . Well, then that’s it,” he tells Carol. “If my parents didn’t want me to marry you, no way that would have stopped me. Look, this is your wedding. Do it.” He then fills in for Carol’s father, and walks her down the aisle (hanging on to her arm just a little too long before letting her go). Is he totally over it? No. He might never be. But it’s a turning point for him, and for this newly blended family. Later on at the reception, Susan asks Ross to dance. “You did a good thing today,” she tells him.

One act of decency doesn’t erase what came before it, but “The One with the Lesbian Wedding” was a good thing, both for Ross and for Friends. In light of how much the world has changed in the years since it first aired, the episode stands as an uncomfortable reminder of a time, not long ago, when gay jokes were far more acceptable on-screen than gay people—let alone gay marriage. Even now, when representation is at an all-time high, queer characters make up only about 6% of those on scripted television (most of which are male and white). In 1996, any degree of visibility made an impact. And to give these two women a wedding, to show them surrounded by family and friends, standing up in support of their love—even if just for a minute of screen-time—was an undeniably good thing. “I think for the gay community it was huge, to actually be able to see that,” said Sibbett. “I wish that there had been more.”

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From I’ll Be There For You: The One About Friends by Kelsey Miller. Used with permission of Hanover Square Press. Copyright © 2018 by Kelsey Miller. 

Kelsey Miller
Kelsey Miller
Kelsey Miller is a writer, editor, and speaker based in Brooklyn, New York. Kelsey is the author of the memoir, Big Girl (Grand Central Publishing, 2016) and I'll Be There For You (Hanover Square Press, 2018), a pop-culture study on Friends. Her work has been featured in Glamour, Women's Health, Cup of Jo, Furthermore, Refinery29, Good Housekeeping, The Hairpin, Hearst Digital, Ladies' Home Journal, SundanceNOW, The Rumpus, and more.





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