What Friends meant to a generation of young women

By Daisy Buchanan

This month marks 10 years since the final episode of the cult sitcom, Friends. Growing up alongside the show, Daisy Buchanan believes it turned her into a more confident, inquisitive and sociable woman than she otherwise might have been.

The TV show Friends helped shape a generation of young women.
The TV show Friends helped shape a generation of young women.

Recently, my friends and I were discussing a new study that revealed, among other things, men and women broadly want to do the same things after sex. It might be cuddling, it might be sleeping, it might be mucking about on your phone. But why was this news? Why did we think there was a gender gap? Where had we got the idea that dudes want a bit of distance and women prefer hours of tender, delicate holding while their partner sings songs about how close and connected they feel following the act of physical love? We'd all seen it happen somewhere, long before any of us were in a position to experience it for ourselves ...

"The hug and roll!" I shouted. "I totally blame the hug and roll!" If you need this phenomenon explained, this is a term first coined on a Friends episode (The One With The Jam) in which Ross tells Chandler that he can avoid post-coital cuddles by hugging his partner close and then rolling her over as she falls asleep, allowing him some valuable bed space. "Hug for her, roll for you!".

When this episode aired I was 12 or 13, and I felt so awkward around boys that I was more likely to hide under the bed from them than to expect one to initiate any future rolling. But Friends gave me a glimpse of The Ghost Of Sexual Behaviour Yet To Come. Don't be too clingy. Sex does not necessarily come with cuddles as standard.

However, the show taught me as much about friendship as it did about romantic and sexual relationships.

It's exactly 10 years since we saw Monica's apartment in the dark before the credits rolled for the very last time. I might be in my 20s now, but I still can't ignore the impact Friends has on my behaviour, the manner in which I conduct my relationships and the way I fix a snack. (Cheers, Joey.) For a generation of millennials, it was our guide to being grown up.

There were flaws

Even as a fan, I know Friends was flawed, and I'm finally clear-eyed enough to be horrified by the way the show failed to portray non-white core characters, their occasional failure to properly show and respect the gay community and the lack of responsible realism.

Even in the 90s, most of the characters could never have covered the rent on a central Manhattan apartment on the money their paltry salaries paid. Their bitchy, bad behaviour often went unpunished, and it was sometimes rewarded. I had a big argument with my dad about one episode (The One Where No one's Ready, if you're as nerdy about it as I am), in which Ross is giving a speech at the museum and the rest of the friends conspire to make him late because of their thoughtlessness and bratty behaviour. "It's not funny! It's just 20 minutes of horrible people being horribly selfish!" cried Dad.

It's taken a few years but I'm starting to see his point.

But oh, the positives

Friends had so much merit, however. It was the first time a programme seemed to address what I might become one day.

Living in a shared flat, going through a series of crappy jobs and even crappier boyfriends and girlfriends might be the 20-something norm now, but it was the first time I'd seen that lifestyle on TV. The only other cool, relatable girl on screen was Elaine in Seinfeld, but as the sole woman in the ensemble, her lifestyle seemed a bit flukey and kooky.

Though Friends doesn't have a great track record in the way it discusses gay people, it was the first show I saw that attempted to portray a gay relationship in an interesting and honest way. To my everlasting shame and horror, the word "lesbian" was, pre-Friends, an insult I heard and used in the playground. Then we met Ross' smart, gorgeous, gay, ex-wife Carol and the equally striking Susan. And they were raising Ross' baby, Ben, together. There have been a number of brilliant shows that have had a far greater positive effect on the homosexual community, but putting compelling gay characters on one of the most popular mainstream shows going forced pupils at my all-girls school to start calling each other out on their casual homophobia.

It made us love boys in a different way

And Friends passed the Bechdel test (requiring a work of fiction to feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man) - probably more easily than Sex And The City. Monica, Phoebe and Rachel constantly had conversations about their lives, jobs and families that were not about relationships with men. That was the part of the programme that felt the most real. It proved, endlessly and effortlessly, that writing women for TV and making them interesting, funny and engaging is no harder than writing men.

It was also the first time I saw men and women focusing on maintaining a friendship with each other instead of pursuing each other sexually. It was the perfect programme to watch as I emerged from my "boys are smelly" phase. Ross, Chandler and Joey showed me some men were sex-obsessed, some were nerdy, some were nervous, but they would also turn out to be sweet, smart, funny and worth getting to know platonically.

Ross and Rachel during her labour

It made me consider the sexual fluidity within friendships, and addressed the evolution of relationships. Dating threatened to destroy Ross and Rachel, yet it brought Monica and Chandler a happy ending. But you never felt any of the characters were getting it wrong, they were just trying their hardest. Watching Monica and Richard's break-up was particularly painful. Other sitcom couples screamed at each other, but those two just had to acknowledge that they wanted entirely different futures and had to end it all while they were still in love. Typing that makes my eyes prickle a little. There was no real answer, resolution or message beyond "life sucks sometimes".

The hug and roll will stay with me for the rest of my life, but so will all the sex-positive parts. Monica and Rachel fighting over the last condom; Rachel initiating a sexual fantasy conversation with Ross; Monica's magnificent touch by numbers sex guide. It made viewers address their own issues and boundaries.

Yes, the Ross and Rachel "we were on a break" storyline was remote-control hurlingly irritating, but it meant that a lot of adolescents I know grew up with at least some idea about cheating and boundaries.

Lena Dunham owes Friends a lot

The show influenced our behaviour in both positive and negative ways, but it also generated a lot of important conversations between friends and family that may not have happened otherwise. Your mum probably knows about Phoebe's lobster theory. Thanks to a decade of repeats, my youngest sisters, who were a year old when the show started, know all the words to Smelly Cat.

Everything we watch now borrows heavily from Friends. Teenage girl fans may find the sentimentality of the programme uncomfortably cloying in places, but there might not be a space for a programme about female relationships on TV if Jennifer Aniston and her colleagues hadn't cleared a path for it. Happy Endings, a heartbreakingly underrated sitcom that was cancelled last year parodied parts of Friends magnificently, but it always honoured the spirit of the first version ­- and I suspect its writers would be the first to admit that the gag rate of the original could not be improved upon.

Whether I like it or not, Friends will stay with me forever. In 10 years' time, my own friends will still know exactly what I mean when I say "How you doin'!" in a Joey drawl or "Could this be any more annoying?" or "Demi Moore is not a 'he'!"

Friends was a deconstructed fairy tale - it started with Rachel, the princess, escaping the castle and rejecting everything she had been told to want. Growing up alongside it allowed a generation of young women to challenge their existing role models and question the paths that previous generations had carved out for us. Friends turned me into a more confident, inquisitive and sociable woman than I otherwise might have been. And no matter how old I get or how cool I pretend to be, I will always, always clap along with those four beats when I hear the theme tune start.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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