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The Potentially Problematic Nature of 90’s Television

Opinion Piece

Amongst the news recently was the announcement that Sex and the City will return titled ‘And Just Like That’ and will follow the girls as they try to ‘navigate love and friendship in their 50’s’. Kim Cattrall will not be returning reportedly due to a feud with her former on-screen co-stars however that has not been confirmed.  When Sex and the City first aired, it was seen as somewhat revolutionary; these were four women who openly talked about their love lives and their sex lives.  It was praised for liberating female-led content.

How well has 90’s TV shows aged? I have never watched Sex and The City and I was born in the mid 90’s. However I have watched shows from a similar era including Friends and Frasier.

Sex and the City

There seems to be criticism circulating about Sex and The City and why it is problematic. One of the shows main themes is how it is challenging to be single woman in your 30’s and it has been highlighted that, for what seems to be an empowering show speaking about female sexuality, there are elements that are contradictory to that empowerment. The girls are sexually pressured in the workplace by their bosses; at the same time, they have pressured each other to do sexual things in order to keep a man, yet slut-shame each other for doing that. Women are pitted against each other and settle for toxic relationships.

There is classism, biphobia, anti-semitism, a lack of diversity and the stereotypes surrounding them.  It is not a show that is representative of society’s values today. Despite this, I still want to watch the show. I can watch it and take the show with a pinch of salt and appreciate it for what it is — a television show.

Friends

Friends is a show that I watched as a teenager, often religiously. My high school best friend and I used to have conversations just involving Friends quotes. Watching it as an adult, it hits slightly differently.

I know that Friends is less representative of society today. It has moments of sexism, homophobia and transphobia and openly jokes about sexual assault. There are moments when, as an adult, you know things are not right. This will vary for different people. Some people might find some content offensive which others may just take for bad humour, and others may find it perfectly acceptable and agree with the joke. For me, some moments stick out and leave me with a bad taste.

In the first season, Rachel’s then-boyfriend Paolo sexually assaulted Phoebe. He went to her for a massage, exposed himself – making her visibly uncomfortable — and then when she gets close to him to do her job, he strokes her leg and grabs her butt with both hands. This goes against Section 130.52 of the New York State penal code. Phoebe is worried that Rachel will be mad at her for what has happened. Watching this is bizarre especially since we know there is an offence such as sexual assault and we know that Paolo’s behaviour is completely unacceptable.  

Rachel does not blame Phoebe, nor should she have done. However, her reaction suggests she has been cheated on and not that her friend has been assaulted.

Age gap in relationships

Another thing that stands out to me is the age gaps in some of the relationships. Firstly Monica and Richard, this does not seem as bad as other relationships; however in the show there are references to him watching Monica grow up and seeing her swim in his pool. They are both consenting adults so without the context of their previous relationship and him being her eye doctor, it may seem less weird. Rachel and Elizabeth’s dad is another one. This does not seem particularly weird despite the age gap which does convince me that Monica and Richard’s is more inappropriate because of their history with each other.

Next, we have Ross and Elizabeth. I’m distinguishing this from the relationships mentioned above for two reasons. Firstly, she is 20 years old. In America, she is not an adult until she is 21. Here is another significant thing, he is her teacher. She is a student. They had to hide it from the faculty in case he got fired.

Sexuality

Susan and Carol got married on Friends. Despite the obvious undertones of homophobia and transphobia on Friends, they broadcasted the wedding. In 1996. As someone who did not watch it in 1996, I don’t think I will ever truly understand the significance of that because when I first watched it, it was not something that seemed taboo to me. Gay marriage was not legal when the wedding was filmed. They were not allowed to kiss at their wedding and some states refused to air the wedding episode.

Now, on to the transphobia: Chandler refuses to recognise his trans mother’s gender identity and calls her dad. He does not use the correct pronouns for her either. Marta Kauffman, a co-creator of Friends does regret the jokes that were made and said that the transphobic jokes would not have been used if it was made today.

In this show, being anything but straight was seen as an insult. For example when Joey had a purse, he was teased by Chandler and Ross. Chandler was worried when everyone thought he was gay. Please do not get me started on Ross’s reaction to Ben playing with a Barbie doll. He convinces himself that his lesbian ex-wife and her partner forces Ben to play with Barbies. He takes every opportunity to mock the male nanny that Rachel and himself hired. The way the nanny was presented in the show was extremely stereotypical and the way Ross reacted to that was further distasteful.

Ross is a walking outdated stereotype. His relationship with Rachel was toxic. They were both toxic together. He is not happy when she prioritises herself and her new job to the extent he turns up at her office whilst she is working, ignores the requests for him to go home and sets fire to something in the office whilst setting up a picnic. Before this, he essentially stalks his own girlfriend whilst she is eating lunch with Mark because he does not trust that they are just friends. This was an overarching storyline for the entire season, which reappears briefly in season 10.

Body Shaming

Monica’s former body-size is a constant mention throughout the show. Everytime it was mentioned, it was included for the purposes of humour. It was something that made me cringe. Beyond that, it just seems that this character was used to get cheap laughs without putting much effort in. In the alternative two-part episodes, the opening sequence shows ‘Fat Monica’ jumping onto the couch near the fountain and it almost tips over. She remains a virgin for the longest time and is seen as the character whom the others are friends with due to pity.

Monica had an ultra-critical mother, who we saw through the show, who made a point to criticise everything about Monica. Her eating habits, whilst being a punch line for jokes on the show do seem indicative of an eating disorder in need of some form of counselling to deal with the psychological motivators of the problem.

Looking at ‘Fat Monica’ in a wider context is important. In the 90’s in America, extremely thin models were the prevailing fashion trend. It was a decade of ‘heroin chic and the skeletal grunge aesthetic’. ‘Fat Monica’ allowed people to take those anxieties people might have had about weight gain and body shape and project them onto the character and laugh.

Should we still be friends with Friends?

Friends is a popular show, even if it did have a worrying lack of diversity for New York in the 90’s. It has been analysed to death by a whole range of people. Friends is relatable and offers an insight into life after education and the ups and downs that come along with it. It does cover serious taboo subjects which were not discussed in the 90’s and started a conversation. It covered infertility, being a single parent, breastfeeding and same-sex relationships, amongst other things.

Even now, it still starts conversations. Friends has provided us with the assistance to talk about sensitive matters, even if it is discussing elements that have not aged well. It is important that we can distinguish the differences.

Frasier

I will be the first to admit that I have never really enjoyed watching Frasier. I watched it if nothing else was on and it is one that I struggle with. When I have watched Frasier, I have noticed how Frasier acts around other people. His background and privilege impacts upon the way he treats others. He presumes, depending on his audience, that they do not understand him, that they are inferior to him. The classism within the show just seems cringe worthy.

The way Ros is treated and judged because she sleeps with different men just irks me. Niles for me comes across as slightly obsessed with Daphne and acts like a love struck puppy.

People argue despite this, that Frasier is one of the best sitcoms to have been created. I do not personally see it but maybe I just do not appreciate it. What I do appreciate about Frasier is that different societal classes are represented in one household. They are a family who change and influence each other.

Modern Day Television

Government Ministers, specifically Oliver Dowden, the Culture Minister, has requested warnings to precede The Crown to make it clear that it is fiction and not fact. The fourth series of The Crown has received backlash as it portrays the beginning of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s relationship. It also looks at Diana’s struggles with Bulimia. There was concern that this series would cause irreparable damage to the Royal Family. I would argue that Prince Andrew would do that, but each to their own.

The latest series has put warnings at the beginning of episodes in which Diana’s bulimia is depicted, warning viewers it may be ‘harmful’ to watch. It is reported that a friend of Prince Charles told newspapers that Morgan was ‘using light entertainment to drive a very overt republican agenda and people do not see it’. He said that they (probably in reference to the audience) ‘have been lured in over the first few series until they cannot see how they are being manipulated. It is highly sophisticated propaganda’

Speaking in an interview, Princess Diana’s brother said he thought it would help if there was a disclaimer at the beginning of each episode that stated ‘this is not true but it is based around some real events.’ He believes that some people believe everything they see in the show.

Recently, a discriminatory language warning was given in advance of an episode of The Royle Family (1998-2012). This has been criticised by numerous publications for example The Sun and the Daily Mail. This has also been criticised by angry fans who branded the warning ‘pathetic’.

The BBC issued a statement in reaction to this criticism which read: ‘‘This isn’t about one scene or phrase. Some older programmes – on occasion – contain language that some find offensive, inappropriate or which has fallen out of use.  We make that clear for viewers.’

Conclusion

The reaction to the discriminatory language warnings has been mixed. Some people have welcomed it and others have condemned it. I have seen people on social media claim that this is a limit to the freedom of speech and this will help raise a generation of ‘snowflakes’. This is a whole other debate, however it does raise an interesting point of whether people will see using the language as rebelling against the state, sticking their middle finger up to society and purposefully use it as they are told it is inappropriate to do so. It may seem far-fetched but it would not surprise me.

In my opinion, we should not get rid of these shows. Yes, some storylines within them have not aged well. However like most things, it shows the evolution of society since then.

There has been good from these shows; Carole and Susan’s wedding in Friends is an example of a moment that, at one stage, was seen as ‘taboo’, grace our screens.

Let us watch the shows and remind us of our progress and it is up to us to educate people that what may have been acceptable then is not now and let’s continue to appreciate good television for what it is.

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