Sunday, November 5, 2023

Sunday Reading

Chandler Bing’s Contribution to Queerness — Leo Herrera in Slate.

There’s a TikTok trend, among Gen Z, roasting how millennials talk on social media: always with the “millennial pause,” as it’s called, at the beginning of videos because we grew up on analog devices that took a second to record, or with the beat after delivering jokes because we were raised on sitcoms with studio-audience laugh tracks. Millennial humor is marked by self-deprecating jokes (“Can you believe I did a thing?!”) and goofy, cringy sarcasm at the mundane. There are an embarrassing number of these mocking videos, and in every millennial impression, I recognize someone: They’re all doing a variation of Chandler Bing. Matthew Perry’s character in Friends epitomized ’90s snark and self-effacing humor, an evolution of Sam from Cheers and nearly everyone from Seinfeld, but without the cool confidence or sheer shamelessness. The singsong of his quips is part of our dialect now: “Could I be any more tired?”

A few weeks ago, I started watching Friends for the second time as a refuge from the news. Any episode from its peak seasons—the first four in particular—is as comforting as a warm bowl of mashed potatoes. But in the years since the series ended, there have been waves of condemnation of the show, think pieces about how white, homophobic, transphobic, and fatphobic it was (and it was all those things). I wanted to see how it held up, decades later. It’s a bummer that I finished my rewatch just as Matthew Perry died. It was Oct. 28; he was 54.

Friends was one of my first “white shows,” as a Mexican immigrant who grew up on Latin American media. I was too young to understand Cheers (literally, as English is my second language). As a sensitive kid, I was uncomfortable with Seinfeld’s nihilism, though I loved the warm chaos of Married … With Children. As I learned English, I gravitated toward shows like Martin and Living Single, the precursor to and blueprint for Friends. These kinds of shows were an essential part of how I acclimated to a new country. Assimilation meant survival in high school. I had paralyzing social anxiety. I was too gay for the brown kids, too gay and brown for the white kids. I didn’t watch sports or listen to hip-hop, but I soon found that pop culture could be my entry point. I studied it like it was my SATs.

Thursdays, when Friends aired, was my favorite night because the following day, I’d have something to start conversations with. Parroting a line from the show always guaranteed a laugh, and Chandler Bing’s zingers in particular were perfect for awkward high school boys. Memory is an incredible thing: Not only can I still recite punchlines from episodes I haven’t seen in 20 years, but I can also remember whom I talked with about those episodes the next day. I still get a fuzzy, cringe-inducing feeling recalling the time I laughed with the popular object of my teenage crush about how Ross rolled over a juice box and Rachel thought he’d ejaculated too early. Friends’ adult humor seemed like such a big deal to us back then, when we were on the precipice of growing up.

There’s so much else about the show that resonated with me. Its very thesis felt fresh: Failing at life going into your 30s is OK as long as you have people who love you. This was a post-grunge generation examining itself and the greed of the ’80s. Friends also captured a love for New York City before gentrification made it nearly impossible for a character like Phoebe, a masseuse, to afford a Manhattan apartment. (Although much has been said about the unrealistically large apartment Monica lived in, to be fair, it was supposed to be a family inheritance.) The chemistry of the cast is unparalleled; any two characters could be left alone and pingpong their way to huge laughs. Their friendship was aspirational, both on screen and off, as the actors’ infamous negotiations for record-breaking pay illustrated. Truly, Friends was one of the last great American multicamera sitcoms.

Watching and rewatching the show now, there are obvious issues with it, as with any media of the time. But for each moment that would be deemed problematic today, there were also moments of surprisingly progressive politics and queer solidarity. Friends was one of the first times I saw gay characters on TV that weren’t just confined to a “special episode.” I mean, the show premiered with Ross’ wife leaving him for a lesbian relationship. It even featured a gay wedding! That was a revelation to me, as was seeing Ross construct an alternative family, raising a child with those two women.

It’s easy to pile on Friends for what it didn’t do—cast nearly any people of color, for instance—but by the same token, we also have to give the series credit for what it did do. Its queer characters were usually played as smart and interesting, not as just one-dimensional villains. The gay jokes were nothing compared to the violent homophobia of other media at the time. In fact, the subtext of most of the show’s homophobia, such as Chandler’s disgust at the male body and eternal worry about being seen as gay, was always about insecurity, not prejudice. Chandler may not have been fully queer coded, but he had a queer pathos, uncomfortable in his body, traumatized by his dad being gay and then trans (his worst Thanksgiving memory was his father sleeping with his Latino housekeeper). That plot conflated transgender, drag, and gay in a way that was ignorant but not malicious. When the show revealed Chandler’s “father” as a woman, they were portrayed by Kathleen Turner, an A-list legend, not a mustachioed caricature of a woman or man in a wig. Phoebe’s bisexuality and radical hippie ethos were effervescent; she preached about radical acceptance and spirituality without being turned into a New Age cartoon. Even the same-sex kiss between Ross and Joey for Joey’s audition practice was a testament to their bond, not played for disgust. The friends in Friends seemed like people who would accept me as a gay person. In a time without much direct representation, that kind of reflected acceptance felt like something, at least.

For someone who never watched Friends when it aired, its problems likely won’t be balanced out by context or memory. But it still carries meaning to me and so many others. With each watch, I get something more out of it. As an adult, I now understand the jokes differently. After living in New York, I appreciate what the show said about success. As a queer person, I’m grateful for what it showed me within the limits of the time. Watching Matthew Perry’s battle with addiction become apparent—even in Chandler’s face—as the seasons progressed, I sympathize because it mirrors so much of the queer struggle with substances. I don’t have the same yearning behind my laughter now that I did at 15. But Perry’s death reminds me of all the friends I’ve lost too. There is nothing sadder than when a group of friends loses its clown.

Doonesbury — X marks the spot.