Guilty Pleasures: The Issue with Classic TV

Nostalgic television shows like Friends, The Simpsons and Sex and the City perpetuate stereotypes and contribute to inequality. Why do they get a free pass in modern society?

Feature by Kate Pasola | 04 Jan 2018
  • Guilty Pleasures TV intersections

One day we’ll be the old people. We’ll talk about memes and young eyes will glaze over. Maybe we’ll grin, reminiscing about yoghurt and our vegan offspring will recoil in horror. Perhaps gender roles will be a distant memory and it’ll seem ludicrous that we pissed in different rooms according to the genitals we were forced to announce on passports. 2017 kink might be 2050 vanilla. Robot consent could exist. With a bit of luck, rape culture will be outlawed, taboo, and an embarrassment of the past.

And, when that time comes, we’ll try to pass on the TV and film we enjoyed as young adults and our grandchildren will be mortified. “But that’s just the way it was back then,” we’ll say, hastily muting the telly. But privately it’ll dawn on us: TV was utter trash in the 90s and early 2000s. It’s the circle of life and it makes a joke of us all. One day you’re idealistic snowflake scum, then BOOM, you’re 75 and offensive.

Many younger millennials got a taste of this phenomenon on 9 August 2017, when Claire Willett (aka @kaneandgriffin) wrote an elegant 100-tweet essay about the TV show Friends, entitled In Defense of Rachel and Joey: A Thread. She made a clear and decisive case for why fans of the seminal television programme should reconsider their stance on the show’s most famous storyline of all – the love story of Ross Geller and Rachel Green.

Friends, and Ross & Rachel's problematic relationship

According to Willett, Joey Tribbiani was a better match for Rachel. Ross treated her as a prize, relying on admissions of a childhood crush to “claim” her when reintroduced as adults. During their relationship he sabotaged her career for selfish reasons, preferred her to be financially subordinate and regarded her as intellectually inferior. He was manipulative and possessive – the archetypal gaslighter.

Willett reminds us that Joey, despite his transparently promiscuous ways, was always supportive and protective. He helped her break into the fashion industry, fell in love with her while she was pregnant and welcomed her baby into his home when born. He made her laugh, and behaved properly when she didn’t reciprocate his feelings. Willet’s argument wasn’t a matter of taste in men – it was one of unacknowledged toxic masculinity.

As the enlightening tweets rolled in, a long lost penny dropped for a whole generation of Friends watchers. Twitter drowned the thread in retweets, accolades and “mind blown!” react GIFS. It was dissected and praised widely in the media, and achieved international recognition. If we could have been so wrong about Ross and Rachel, what else had we overlooked?

...Well, as it turns out, a lot. Many of the misdemeanours we no longer tolerate from modern TV still exist in those classic episodes, now showing on Comedy Central and Netflix. Racism, fatphobia, classism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, transphobia, a total lack of diversity in casting, the trivialising of workplace harassment, jokes about inappropriate relationships between figures of authority and children and much, much more.

The Simpsons Sex and The City

Such a critical blind spot is also present when it comes to The Simpsons, as demonstrated by comedian Hari Kondabolu in his insightful new documentary, The Problem with Apu. “‘Thankyou, come again!’ has haunted Indian children for over a quarter-century,” Kondabolu asserts, referring to the catchphrase of character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, The Simpsons’ racist, stereotypical caricature of a South Asian convenience shop owner. For context, the name Nahasapeemapetilon is derived from Sanskrit for 'bullshit', and his accent is the making of white voiceover artist Hank Azaria, who’s shown in the film saying the following to interviewers: “Right away they were like ‘can you do an Indian voice, and how offensive can you make it?”

Chelsea Fairless and Lauren Garroni are taking matters into their own hands when it comes to online sociopolitical critique of their own problematic fave, Sex and the City. Their Instagram account @EveryoutfitonSATC, which has 395k followers, is mostly dedicated to witty reviews of the iconic outfits worn on the series. But more recently, the pair have introduced a meme-like format featuring screencaps of regrettable moments from the series, re-subtitled to include ‘Woke Charlotte’ calling out her friends’ regressive attitudes. When Carrie mentions she only likes to wear “ghetto gold for fun,” Woke Charlotte responds: “That sentiment is deeply classist and displays a lack of awareness of your privilege as a white woman.” When Carrie denies the existence of bisexuality, Woke Charlotte leans the fuck in.

These days, many millennial TV-watchers have an insatiable taste for progress. We’re at the point where even Netflix’s most progressively written, diversely casted, appropriately directed, thoughtfully lit, and sensitively marketed shows will be pulled up for missteps – and that’s a good thing. Perhaps it’s exhausting for everyone, from the burnt out consumers to the wounded content makers. But that’s just how it works now. Sure, your colour-blind casting is great, but where are your writers of colour? Cool, you wrote a show about trans people, but did a cis person have to play the role?  We raise the bar higher and higher and make small smidgens of permanent progress along the way.

But identifying the problems in things we consumed as impressionable children before properly developing our world view? That’s more difficult for a range of reasons. Firstly, we feel grateful for the progress those shows once provided, whether that’s Friends’ normalisation of casual sex and narrative emphasis on friendship; SATC’s frontier-smashing examination of sexuality and acknowledgement that women have careers; or The Simpsons’ oft-incisive political commentary.

We also feel locked into a nostalgic relationship with these programmes. Realising their flaws is like coming back from a first semester at uni and re-meeting your great aunt in all her problematic splendour, or realising the tooth fairy is actually your father – informative but devastating. Unchartered territory.

'Reconcile your politics with your programmes'

However, those who were teens or older when programmes like Friends began airing will know that this newfound outrage isn't actually unchartered territory. For example, while Friends aired in the 90s and 00s, it was frequently subject to serious criticism for its perpetuation of archaic gender roles, blinding homophobia and truly Caucasian cast. Many have pointed out that the introduction of Ross's girlfriend Charlie in season 10 seemed like response to widespread condemnation of Friends's dearth of black characters with substantial speaking roles. The introduction of a charismatic fossil expert and double love-interest who happens to be black wouldn't have been so iconic had the show previously portrayed black people in roles other than service providers or one-line throwaways. The tokenistic racial elastoplast manoeuvre wasn't invented by Lena Dunham with Hannah's black boyfriend in the milky-white season 2 of GIRLS. It goes way back.

That Friends sidled past such urgent contemporary criticisms and became one of the most popular television shows of all time could be attributed to the fact that these original criticisms are barely digitised, lost to the mist of paper recycling. And, because re-runs simply aren't subject to the same scrutiny as original airings, the show's younger fans were left with the idea that the show was iconic, unfailing and timeless thanks to a media diet of Buzzfeed  quizzes and Tumblr gif-sets. 

But there’s something we can learn from this mess. Claire Willett, Hari Kondabolu, Chelsea Fairless and Lauren Garroni are a reminder that if you don’t want to kill your faves, it’s important to find ways to reconcile your politics with your programmes; whether that’s screaming at your screen, making memes, or writing to Matt Groening and asking him what the fuck he thinks he’s doing.

The experience of feeling retrospectively betrayed by old faves is also a lesson in hindsight. It teaches us to examine modern TV and film and decide how to do future generations proud. Or, at the very least, how not to horrify them.