Have you ever heard the term "problematic fav?" It's a way of describing things we absolutely adore, but have to admit are a little problematic.
For some people it's old Disney movies, or actors who have shared some "interesting" opinions.
For me, it's Whitney Houston's entire songbook—every track is an undeniable, shower-sing your heart out, ugly-cry in the car bop. But really listen to the lyrics. Why was her whole career built on singing about somebody else's man and how did we all decide she was America's Sweetheart for it? That's some siren-level stuff and I'm suspicious.
For a lot of you reading this article, it's the series Friends.
In a recent interview with the L.A. Times, creator Marta Kauffman was honest about the role her show played in perpetuating systemic racism, transphobia, and homophobia through its character treatments and storylines and through it's very existence.
Much of the shows fanbase is entirely unaware that Friends is a purposeful whitewashed recreation of a TV show that was incredibly popular among Black and other minority audiences.
Here's Living Single...
...and now Friends
Living Single, which first aired on FOX in 1993, followed a group of friends with essentially the same living arrangement, basic character types, situations, humor, hijinks, etc... as Friends. It's popularity was immediate and unexpected, especially given the show centered around an all-Black main cast.
Queen Latifah, who starred on Living Single, explained how it happened:
"It was one of those things where it was a guy called Warren Littlefield that used to run NBC, and they asked him when all the new shows came out, they said, 'If there's any show you could have, which one would it be?' "
"And he said, 'Living Single'."
"And then he created Friends."
Friends creators took the same formula, added it to an all-White cast, and then premiered it on NBC in direct competition with Living Single a year later. NBC continued to promote Friends, but FOX was beginning to shift to more conservative programming and let the show with edgy humor, an all-Black cast and liberal writers flounder without much promotion.
Friends is still popularly viewed while Living Single remains largely forgotten outside of BIPOC communities.
At the time, Marta Kauffman said she was frustrated by people who called out the show's lack of diversity, particularly for a show set in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world and directly based off of a show that was groundbreaking for it's all-Black primary cast.
She complained she felt "singled out" by the criticism and thought people were focusing way too much on the lack of Black people in the show and should, instead, focus on how forward-thinking the show was about other things.
Now, however, Kauffman says she gets it.
“I’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years."
"Admitting and accepting guilt is not easy."
"It’s painful looking at yourself in the mirror."
"I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know better 25 years ago."
She now believes the lack of diversity and her defensiveness about the issue, came from her own internalized racism and the systemic racism that allowed, encouraged and then shielded her from the consequences of the removal of BIPOC people from a show set in New York City.
And that those systems are still in play now—in part because her show kept normalizing a White-only world.
Putting her money where her mouth is, she donated millions of dollars towards Brandeis University's African and African American studies department.
So now about those "other things" Friends handled so well...
Racial diversity, and the lack thereof, isn't the only problematic Friends issue Marta Kauffman wants to own and make right. She also spends a lot of time wishing she could do it over again when it comes to the handling of Chandler Bing's parents—specifically his trans one.
For those not familiar, Chandler has a cis mother, played by Morgan Fairchild and his other parent, who the show refers to as his "father," is a trans woman. That character, Helena, was played by cis-actress and sultry screen legend Kathleen Turner.
While the character identifies as Helena, the audience and other characters often deadname her—a choice Marta Kauffman wildly disagrees with now. Deadnaming, the lack of respect and even basic pronoun use all sit unwell with Kauffman all these years later.
Throughout the series, Helena is played for laughs. She is referred to as "he" and in masculine terms throughout the series run, even though Helena makes it very clear she is a woman.
Helena's trans identity, and the entire LGBT community, are most often framed as comical sources of discomfort for the Friends cast.
Kathleen Turner has famously admitted she wouldn't dream of doing the role now and would expect an actual trans woman would be cast and treated with respect in the role—which means some things would need to change in the scripts.
Kauffman talked about Helena's treatment with the BBC.
"We kept referring to [Helena] as ‘Chandler's father,' even though Chandler's father was trans."
"Pronouns were not yet something that I understood, so we didn't refer to that character as ‘she'."
"That was a mistake."
Kauffman says it absolutely wouldn't happen that way now and shouldn't have gone down that way then. While creators and execs were focused on getting laughs out of the audience, they lost sight of the humanity these roles represented.
But Kauffman said she doesn't lose sight of that on sets anymore.
"I like very much to create an environment where we have a happy set and a happy crew. It's very important to me that where we are is a safe place, a tolerant place, where there's no yelling."
"I fired a guy on the spot for making a joke about a trans cameraperson. That just can't happen."
It's interesting Kauffman has come from making trans people the punchline of entire shows to firing camerapeople who joke about trans people.
While she knows better, she also knows it's something of a monster of her own creation. Friends was incredibly popular and informed social and cultural attitudes for a decade. It's still popular now, so many of those problematic normalizations continue.
In 2020 she told an audience that she's aware her show is behind some of the disconnect between communities.
“What makes this truly emotional for me is that I want this connection I didn’t have. I deeply, deeply want this connection with the Black community that I didn’t have. Because of Friends, I never attained that.”
Kauffman has been working hard to right those wrongs and speak publicly about the damage her show has done but we're curious about whether it will be enough.
Fans of the show are passionate. They love and identify with these characters. They "grew up" watching the show and being formed by the ideas presented.
In a way, Marta Kauffman reminds us of Peter Benchley—the writer behind Jaws.
Benchley wrote Jaws in the 1970s and spent the rest of his life, right up until his death in 2006, trying to undo the damage his work did. He made major donations to pro-shark organizations, campaigned endlessly for their protection and educated people about where his work of fiction was way off base.