In Defense of Rachel Green
Here it goes, friends (pun intended). I’d thought of writing this a few years ago, but decided against it. Today’s top trending Medium article has urged me to put these thoughts into the internet void.
Friends is a TV show I long detested, and yet barely watched. I was absolutely judging the book by its cover. I saw a few episodes that were funny to me, and a few earlier episodes that I found to be written very poorly and cheesily. In college, I would sometimes put the show on because it was comforting and nostalgic, as many do now, but I didn’t really pay attention.
I didn’t have much access to TV when it was popular. Even so, I rarely watch TV shows when they are current, and can never honestly care enough about television to preemptively include it in my schedule. This article forced me to dig through a few old episodes of Friends, and now I already feel like I have spent too much time on TV today.
For someone who rolled her eyes at Friends so much when it was originally popular, I was surprised to find that it is one of my favorite sitcoms.
“How a TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization”, by David Hopkins, did not sit well with me, no matter how many times I agreed with a great deal of his very valid points.
I don’t hate the character of Ross Geller the way so many people do. I never found his nerdiness to be anything outside of character development, the way Monica has OCD (which shouldn’t be so comical), the way Phoebe was formerly homeless, or the way Chandler is emotionally stunted due to his childhood. I connect to his nerdiness in many ways. I’d be lying if I said my desk at work did not have dinosaur and Star Wars figurines on it.
All of the characters in the show get picked on for the characteristics mentioned above, when the situations in real life would not be so comical. OCD is a serious illness (Monica), and fat shaming is not funny. Homelessness and suicide are a rising concern in this country (Phoebe). Divorce, transgender parents, and bad childhoods are topics of many current TV dramas (Chandler). While Ross was surely picked on for being a nerd, all of these characters were picked on for their differences. In fact, the one character that may not have evolved in our society over time is Phoebe, because we haven’t done much about mental health or homelessness. Meanwhile, the fat jokes on Friends come off as insensitive and unfunny now, the sexual insecurity that Chandler has due to his parents may come off as strange now because, at least from where I’m sitting, being gay should no longer be kept a secret, and we’re at least striving for trans rights. And, behold, nerdiness is not as uncool as it used to be.
Granted, I’m not a child in public school right now. However, many of my friends and family are teachers, and I’ve previously worked and volunteered in schools k-12. I’ve produced media for elementary and college students. I had a coworker tell me that he’s glad characters like Ross and Sheldon Cooper are popular, because it makes his son feel less alone. It makes science a cool subject. It makes STEM initiatives accessible to all. Robotics clubs have far more participation than when I was a student. The ‘nerds’ may not seem so uncool. In addition, the kids who wanted to be involved in science, and may have been viewed as ‘too cool’ for it, can express their interest in science because it’s a huge focus in schools now (to the point that testing is running rampant, and arts are flushed down the drain, but that’s another can of worms).
I agree with Hopkins: I see Kim Kardashian’s ass at the top of CNN.com, and I am scared, too. Reality TV, journalism as entertainment, broadcasting our lives through social media as though we are our own paparazzi…what happened to investigating, reading, forming dialogues, and wanting to erase our own ignorance through knowledge?
I also agree 100% with the four points Hopkins lays out in his article, and I hope you do, too.
You probably think I’m done here, but if you did then you didn’t notice the title of this article.
No, I don’t think Friends was the demise of our intellectualism. Tons of shows at the time, and before, had us watching characters that were not intellectuals (Seinfeld, bless its heart, was full of impish and sometimes idiotic characters). I see the point Hopkins makes that Ross’s nerdiness is teased but, as mentioned, all of the characters are teased about their most highlighted characteristics.
Many men and women have pointed out to me that they actually find Ross to be an idiot, socially, or even sexist. He could be the classic case of book smart vs socially smart. I don’t think he is a social idiot, but he has poor communication skills. The sexism point is interesting, though. It does showcase the classic example of a man feeling that he is owed something for wanting a woman, and feeling overwhelmingly wronged when she rejects him. He waits years for Rachel. He finally dates her. After less than a few months he has decided, and tells her, that they will end up together, move to the suburbs, and have two kids. Did he ever ask her if she likes the suburbs? If she wants to be a mom?
When her career starts to take off, he behaves in a very jealous and controlling manner, and can’t stand that she is focusing on her career instead of him, though he had cancelled dates in the past for his own work. He gets so jealous of her male coworkers that he does everything short of peeing on her desk to mark it. When they go on a break, he hooks up with another woman within 24 hours, and will never admit his wrongdoing. In the end, Rachel gives up the biggest career opportunity of her life for this man.
You could cast the whole sexist theory aside, but the idea of the other characters in this show being idiots did not sit well with me. Everyone is smart in different ways, and it’s dangerous as an educator to say otherwise. They may not have a PhD, but that doesn’t always equate to smart, either. One could even argue that, while Joey is a struggling actor, Chandler has to start his career over, and Ross is fired from his job…Phoebe runs her own business, Monica becomes a top NYC chef, and Rachel goes from having nearly no working skills to be an executive at a high profile company.
The character of Rachel Green is not one of an idiot. After I first watched the show, I actually thought her character was a tribute to feminism.
Was it a coincidence that That Girl Marlo Thomas played her mother? Maybe.
I think that if all you took away from her character is that she liked to shop, then you should watch a few episodes again.
I did find her character very grating from the start. Spoiled, aimed to marry for money, self absorbed. But her character development was so great because of that.
Let’s not forget that Ross was supremely spoiled. He was clearly favored over Monica (because…what, she was fat? He was a miracle birth, according to his mom?), came from a comfortable upbringing, went to a good school, and likes to remind you that he is Dr. Ross Geller. He does not deal well with obstacle (Rachel, being fired, his divorce) because he was brought up without much of it. This is not to detract from the pains of his divorce, etc. Rachel Green may have gotten what she wanted on shopping sprees, but Ross got what he wanted with other things. I’m sure he worked hard, too, but it’s a lot easier to get to that point when you are well off and your parents think you shit rainbows. Remember how he blamed a lot of his troubles on his friends, like when he told his parents that his pot was from Chandler? Yeah.
Rachel ditches her wedding because she decides that she doesn’t want to marry for money. She has to cut herself off from her wealthy family, and she does. She works one of the most thankless jobs out there (food service), and a few more crappy ‘fashion’ oriented jobs before working her way up the ladder in the fashion world. She may like shopping, but working in fashion is more than that.
I used to have a very narrow minded view about the fashion industry, but it is a business, and it is an art. Her career is more business oriented than shopping.
Finally, when Rachel realizes she is pregnant, she decides to go it alone. In fact, she is insulted when people insinuate that she can’t have a child on her own. When the child is born, it shares both of their names. And she goes back to work early because her job is at stake (which seems ridiculous, but happens to women all of the time).
In the end, many people say that Rachel could have done better, not Ross. She was the girl that people pinned as a dumb girl with a credit card, and she ended up kicking ass at her job, starting from scratch on hourly wages, and opting to have a kid on her own. In the end, though, she decides against a career opportunity at a major fashion house in Paris…for Ross.
I don’t see the characters as idiots, and I certainly don’t see the character of Rachel as one. In writing this as mainly a critique on how women are portrayed in television, I hope we’re careful in our interpretations. As someone who loves media theory, I’d hope that people who are now watching, or rewatching, Friends on Netflix see the impacts it had in society in other ways (but, seriously, where are we with the mental health and homelessness issue here, America?). Thank goodness you’re watching that instead of Kim Kardashian’s butt.
*If I have misinterpreted any of the ideas in “How a TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization”, I am open to discussion! I’d also like to reiterate that I do fully support the views put forth by David Hopkins concerning our society’s shift in culture, hopes to continue intellectualism, and protecting the nerds.