If you’ve read my previous post on the subject, you’ll remember that while I and many in today’s 2019 society greatly enjoy Friends – it doesn’t mean we’re blind to it’s flaws. Indeed, looking on it with today’s socially conscious mindset it is a piece of art with many flaws. Homophobic, Trans-phobic, Sexist, low-key racist; name a terrible thing to be, and friends probably made that kind of joke. But by far the most interesting flaw to discuss, at least from an intellectual perspective, is the show’s relationship with toxic masculinity. With the other kinds of prejudices on display, the show makes a joke about it – has the nerve to think it’s funny – and moves on to the next mildly to extremely offensive joke. However when it comes to the subject of Toxic Masculinity, the show seems on some level to not only be aware of it, but to condemn it. And yet, we still gotta make those jokes.
What do I mean? Well let’s take a look at one episode in particular, to gain a little better insight into this strange phenomenon – the sixth episode of season 9 : The One with the Male Nanny. First, a brief plot synopsis before we get to the real meat of the episode. After slogging through hordes of disappointing applicants, Rachel finally finds the perfect nanny for her Ross’ daughter Emma – but there’s just one problem, he’s played by Freddie Prinze Jr. That’s the main story anyway, there is the secondary story of the Episode with Chandler being upset that Monica called one of her co-workers ‘the funniest guy she’s ever met’; however since it only briefly crosses narrative streams with the titular plot-line, I won’t be going too deep into that .
Ross takes an immediate dislike to the new Nanny – named Sandy ; mainly because he is performing a role traditionally considered part of the feminine domain, child care. However Sandy is also a very sensitive man, he cries unashamedly when he is happy – as when he is accepted for the position – and sad – as when he is remembering his last charge. He also cooks, plays the recorder, and has the audacity to do all this while still being completely heterosexual. Ross can barely stand to be in the same room as Sandy, and laments long and hard to whoever will listen of the weirdness of having a male nanny – although never within said nanny’s earshot, such is the coward’s nature. This is a pretty standard move when it comes to Ross, he is the guy that made such a fuss when his toddler son started playing with a barbie doll. What is strange about this situation however, is Rachel’s reaction. She loves Sandy and whole heatedly endorses his non-traditional version of masculinity, being a factor in her child’s development. This is a stark removal from the Rachel Green who once dumped a boyfriend for crying too much; or regularly belittles her male friends when they step even the tiniest bit off the narrow heteronormative version of masculinity. I mean she was right there with the rest of them glaring down at Ross and Joey, when they’d fallen asleep together. That’s it, nothing sexual, just took a nap on the same couch.
So, what does this sudden turn around in one of the main characters of the show mean? Well probably many things, not least among which Rachel doesn’t find Sandy attractive – and thus doesn’t require him to live up to her idea of the ideal man. But the notion I’m going to focus on here, is the underlying message of the story-line. Namely that Ross is wrong. He is wrong to hate Sandy and he is wrong to try and encourage that hate in others – in other words he is wrong in his Toxic Masculinity. A fact that is underscored in the episode’s ending, when Ross breaks down in Sandy’s arms after recounting the abuse his father heaped on him, for not living up to the masculine ideal . Now I know what you’re thinking, Wee Lassie I thought Friends had a bad relationship with Toxic Masculinity – this all sounds really good. Ross finally realizes that he’s been continuing the circle of abusive toxic Masculinity began by his awful father – and he can finally break free of it and become a better man, nay a better person all round. Except that’s not what happens, this is Sandy’s last episode and these themes, or Ross’ connection to them, will never be brought up again. So what can we really take away from this episode? Toxin Masculinity is bad, yes absolutely, but does that lesson have any impact on the viewer, if it has none on the rest of the series?
Femininity in men continues to be mocked. Chandler continues to be called gay – with the implication that this is somehow a bad thing – if he expresses so much as the barest interest in culture ; and the men can’t so much as hint at their love for each other, without the women implying that their masculinity is somehow lessened from the action. At the end of the episode, Sandy still looses his job because he is a man working in a non-traditionally male occupation, and that is what the audience must take away from it. The Writers’ intention, either good or ill, means nothing if the product as a whole cannot reflect it. Still, even if it was only for one brief moment, at least they tried.
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