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The many in my generation who grew up with a steady diet of Ross, Rachel and their carefree friends in New York were saddened to hear about Matthew Perry’s untimely death.
The characters were beautiful, young, hilarious — and constantly having fun. The show’s popularity is indisputable, with the series finale in 2004 viewed by 52.5 million Americans — long before streaming on HBO and Netflix introduced the show to a whole new generation of fans.
The ’90s sitcom has now become a “ubiquitous cultural artifact” in the words of one writer. During the show’s 25-year anniversary a few years ago, Lego even launched a “Friends” themed anniversary set.
After a life battling addiction and never marrying, the death of Perry (who played Chandler on the show) prompted another spate of articles celebrating “Friends” as a cultural force. But I wonder whether that widespread impact is something to be glorified or grieved?
Many popular commentators have valorized the show. Samantha Allen argued the show “exhibited a remarkable openness about sex” and provided viewers “a decade-long crash course in sex education.”
And Jasmine Lee likewise praised the show as a “fabulous piece of normalizing presentation” by showcasing sex as a “natural act” that doesn’t impel “two people into a ‘til-death-do-us-part commitment.”
There definitely was a certain message this show preached about sexuality and the good life. After carefully reviewing all 236 episodes, Mike D’Avria reported the six core cast members had 85 sexual partners appearing on the show as special guests in the course of 10 seasons (between 9 and 17 partners per character).
“Friends was a decade-long Hollywood experiment in testing the moral limits of Americans and desensitizing viewers to harmful sexual behavior,” Ashley McGuire wrote for the Institute of Family Studies. She remarked how the show had made a “punch line” out of the stream of casual hookups, always portrayed as “consequence-free” — with “no STDs, no trips to the abortion clinic, no staring at their phones waiting for the one-night stand to call.”
The normalization of watching pornography is another legacy of the show, before the iPhone had even arrived on the scene in 2007 (three years after the last episode). Phoebe’s sister was a porn star, Monica walks in on Chandler watching porn, and in one episode, two of the guys stumble across a free porn channel that they end up binge watching for days.
“Porn is a punchline, not sexual poison,” remarked Jonathon Van Maren about the show, conveying an unmistakable message to its young viewers: “Normal people watch pornography. It’s no big deal. Women don’t care about it. It’s just part of being an adult. Feel free to watch porn, just like your Friends.”
Van Maren described the spiritual dissonance involved when believers consume the same kind of entertainment as everyone else, “laughing along about everything from porn binges to promiscuity” in one moment, while also “attending church to hear a pastor explain how such things were so wicked God Himself had to be crucified to save people from these sins the next.”
In fairness, there have been some secular critiques made of character Joey Tribbiani, who constantly mistreated and sexualized women on the show — even comparing them to ice cream in one episode (and making light of predatory sexual behavior as another laugh line: “She’s needy, she’s vulnerable — I’m thinking — cha-ching!”)
Yet by and large, popular critique has focused entirely on another set of the show’s cultural sins: Lacking diversity in an all-white main cast, and moments where characters were transphobic, homophobic, sexist and “fat-shaming.”
There are discussions worth having about any of these. But far less has been said about a much more frequent theme — the show’s constant normalization of casual, no-commitment sex.
As one faith leader taught, physical intimacy was meant to be symbolic of “total union” between a couple: “union of their hearts, their hopes, their lives, their love, their family, their future, their everything.”
There are consequences for ignoring that. A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Pediatrics referenced “Friends” as one of the shows that was “glamorizing sex while hardly mentioning its downsides, such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”
Of course, “Friends” is not alone in preaching this sexual sermon. Allen noted the show had “set the standard for how sitcoms could and would talk about sex.” And Van Maren wrote that the show, “more than any other previous sitcom, extracted sex from the marriage and demystified it.”
But McGuire argues that “Friends” had an especially potent impact, reflecting “the entire sexual revolution tied up in one made-for-TV package and wrapped in ‘warm hang out vibes.’”
The post-”Friends” world of casual sex today is “hardly a bucket of laughs,” McGuire continues — with pornography, casual sex and abortion “wreaking havoc on the hearts, minds, and bodies of new generations” — especially women.
If we were to “honestly assess” the impact of the full sexual revolution, Van Maren notes, “and if we consider the extent to which this show and its comedic genius served as propaganda” for the same, many would be forced to conclude the “Friends” legacy is “tragically unfunny, indeed.”
McGuire agrees, “The producers certainly succeeded in normalizing a brave new sexual world, but the last laugh is on us.”
Even so, we still have a choice today — not dissimilar to the impressive choice Matthew Perry made later in his life.
After falling into what he called “the big terrible thing” of addiction to alcohol and pills, Perry found lasting freedom through the 12 steps — using his platform to encourage others struggling all around the world.
Even more than being remembered as a funny actor, Perry told loved ones he wanted to be remembered for helping people get sober.
Kudos to you, Matthew — and rest in peace. Thanks for pointing so many to the possibility of redemption, no matter how hopeless it may seem.
Jacob Hess is a contributing writer for the Deseret News and the former editor of Public Square Magazine. He’s the co-author of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” and “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”