Who Told You Masculinity Had to Be This Way? The Policing of Masculine Norms in Friends
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
SPOILER ALERT: All 10 seasons of Friends. I grew up watching Friends with my family. Every night at 10PM and 10:30PM, our cable TV would air a doubleheader of Friends reruns. Once I was old enough to stay-up-late, I got to watch episodes of Friends every night. The episodes were all out of order, but I didn't care, sleuthing out the episode's chronology based on who was dating or living with whom. To this day, Friends is a comfort show for me, one that is, as the theme song says, there for you. As much as I love the series, though, we need to host a difficult conversation about some of the elements of Friends that perpetuate dangerous expectations and beliefs. There are certainly a few ideas we can pick on with Friends, from the rejection of curvy bodies and the treatment of LGBTQ+ identities to how they could afford such comfortable apartments and why the cups at Central Perk were so big. Today, I want to focus on one of the most reinforced expectations on the show - what it means to be a man. If you want a refresher on what we mean by "masculinity" and "masculinities," please read my article here!
Frequently, the characters of the show police each other's behaviour, punishing one another, specifically Joey, Ross, and Chandler, for any action that they feel deviates from the expected performance of hegemonic masculinity. In other words, when one of the male characters does something that seems "girly" or like they are "turning into a woman," the other characters, usually the other two men, bully them until they conform with society's expected displays of masculinity. This pressure to conform limits men's behaviours, precluding them from certain hobbies, professions, or roles they may otherwise be interested in. As a result, in the real world, we see these pressures manifest as high suicide rates, men's exclusion from the private sphere, and the prolific propagation of toxic hegemonic masculinity. In an equal world, men and women should have the full range of choices for careers, roles, appearances, interests, and mannerisms available to them, without risking losing their gender status. So let's take a Deep Dive into the top five times the Friends policed one another's masculinity! To be clear, we will only be examining cases where the behaviour of a male character is flagged and corrected based on the fact that it is feminine. This means that we will not be considering cases of personal preference, like when Rachel broke-up with Paul because he was a "whiny cry-baby;" behaviours that I personally might consider problematic, like the objectification and lack of respect for women displayed by the three principle male characters; or behaviour that a character self-corrects to appear more macho, like Chandler trying to convince himself to be interested in football. We will only be looking at the top five most egregious times one of the friends corrects another's behaviour specifically because they feel they are "becoming a woman."
5. The One With the Ballroom Dancing
Our first entry takes place in Season 4, Episode 4. Rachel is caught by the building manager, Mr. Treeger, clogging the chute with pizza boxes. He yells at her in frustration, making Rachel cry and prompting Joey to demand that he apologizes. Mr. Treeger retaliates by threatening to evict Rachel and Monica, but eventually relents and offers to let the girls stay if Joey will help him practice his ballroom dancing. At first, Joey is hesitant, but he starts to enjoy himself and to become a talented dancer. However, when he tells the Friends about the arrangement and that he is having fun and learning things, Monica asks him if he is "gay yet?" and Rachel calls him a "twinkle toes."
There is nothing about dancing as a hobby that makes it exclusively feminine or that would require someone to have a specific sexuality to partake in it.
4. The One With Joey's Bag
Just as much as the Friends police each other's behaviour, they also pressure each other into adhering to masculine ideals in appearance. In Season 5, Episode 13, "The One With Joey's Bag," Joey has an audition for a suave, international-type character, so Rachel offers to help him pick out an outfit to suit the part. Rachel shows him a shoulder bag. He is hesitant at first because it looks like a purse, but after seeing it in the catalogue and how it looks in the mirror, he comes to really like it! When Joey arrives at the coffee house carrying the unisex bag, Chandler and Ross mock him, calling him "Mrs. Tribbianni," suggesting that he could carry his make-up in the bag, and that the bag will get him a "date with a man." These comments make Joey defensive about his masculinity, leading to him blowing his audition and having to give up the bag.
In the same way I believe all women's clothes should have bigger pockets, men should also be able to carry a bag!
3. The One Where Ross Teaches His Son Hegemonic Masculinity
Societal expectations of masculinity are learned in childhood rather than being some innate instincts. At our number 3 spot, Ross shows us how they are learned! In Season 3, Episode 4, "The One With the Metaphorical Tunnel," Ross spends the day with Ben (this episode is one of only 24 that feature Ben of the 236 episode run, but that is a rant for another time). When Carol and Susan drop him off, he plays with a Barbie, a toy he picked out at the store for himself and carries everywhere. Ross responds by spending the day trying to convince Ben to get rid of the Barbie and play with a G. I. Joe instead.
Structurally, G.I. Joe and Barbie aren't that different of toys. Both are human figures made of plastic and are somewhat posable. Where one is taller and more colourful, the other is more squat and moveable. Both had associated books, TV shows, accessories, and clothing. From the perspective of a toddler, the toys are easily interchangeable. The gendered meaning of one being a toy for girls and the other being a toy for boys are taught first by parents, media, and advertisements and then reinforced by other children that have learned similar things from their parents. Here, Ross is policing his child's masculinity and ensuring that he learns to conform to gender norms and learns that some plastic toys are only for boys, while others are only for girls.
2. The One Where Joey and Janine Redecorate.
In Season 6, Episode 8, "The One With Ross's Teeth," Joey's new roommate Janine, redecorates the apartment with Ann Getty art, candles, pillows, potpourri, and other touches. Chandler warns Joey that the apartment is becoming too girly, so he decides to talk with Janine, during which Joey discovers that he actually likes all of the new touches! As Joey bonds with Janine, knitting potholders and making flower arrangements, Chandler demands to know, "Where are all the men!?" calling Joey a "girl" and declaring that he is "turning into a woman." After Chandler shames Joey for his behaviour, Joey asks Janine if the feminine decor and hobbies can be moved from the living area into his bedroom.
In this episode, Joey discovers hobbies and decor styles that bring him joy. After being policed and shamed for it by Chandler, he must hide the things that bring him joy in the more private space of his bedroom, allowing him to perform expected patterns of masculinity outwardly.
1. The One With The Male Nanny
In Season 9, Episode 6, Rachel and Ross hire a nanny as Rachel prepares to return to work. The most qualified candidate they interview is a lovely boy named Sandy. Sandy has a degree in early childhood education and loves his job. Ross, meanwhile, absolutely loses it. Ross declares that a nanny is an inappropriate job for a man, a sentiment echoed by Joey and Chandler when they find out. Throughout the episode, he questions Sandy's masculinity, claiming that he is too sensitive to be a real man. Ross also reveals the arbitrary things he believes are masculine versus feminine, inquiring, "What kind of a guy makes delicate french cookies? They're not even butch, manly cookies with chunks."
Gender does not correlate to one's ability to do a job in any way. When we restrict men to only portraying one type of masculinity, we limit them from being nurses, teachers, and, yes, nannies. As much as women are capable of excelling in leadership positions, men are capable of excelling in nurturing and private-sphere fields. But Ross is discriminating against Sandy based on gender, not his qualifications. Moreover, Ross scoffs when Sandy tells him that he finds caring for children fulfilling. Ross is effectively saying that he believes childcaring is not valuable in society, and that is why it is a position not worthy of a man. By extension, Ross is saying that women are neither valuable nor capable, so they perform this work. This, however, is just not true.
We also know that men who identify with the LGBTQ+ community can and do represent a broad spectrum of various masculinities. During the interview process, Ross asks Sandy if he is gay. This is an extremely inappropriate behaviour as a potential employer because it is not pertinent information. When he later asserts that Sandy must at least be bi based on his behaviour and career choice, Ross reveals that he believes gay and bi men are not real men because he believes anyone not conforming to Ross's idea of masculinity to be feminine and therefore gay. This is a homophobic attitude.
At the end of the episode, Ross and Rachel fire Sandy because Ross is uncomfortable with a male nanny. While rules for in-home employees are a little more open to interpretation and prioritize the comfort of everyone involved, as an employer, this is an incredibly unethical decision as Ross has judged an employee's performance based on his gender and sexuality rather than on the wonderful care he provides Emma.
These entries don't make the top-five because they do not directly feature one of the Friends indicating that a behaviour, outfit, or interest is too feminine for a man, but they do feature jokes where the punchline is that one of the character's performances of masculinity diverges from the norm. These are the Honourable Mentions:
- The One with the Girl Who Hits Joey (Season 5, Episode 15) - In this episode, Joey dates a girl who hits him, and when he brings up his concerns to the Friends, they suggest that he is weak for being beat-up by a "little girl." The expectation implied is that men must be stronger and able to fend for themselves. This is a dangerous attitude to perpetuate as it leads men to refrain from reporting cases of domestic abuse or refuse help in abusive relationships.
- The One with the Nap Partners (Season 7, Episode 6) - Ross and Joey fall asleep on the couch and wake up to find they were cuddling. They both feel it was the "best nap they ever had" and agree to do it again. When the Friends find them, they judge them and ask what they are doing, leading Ross and Joey to deny that they were napping and decide never to do it again. The joke here implies that men cannot be platonically affectionate. This inhibits men from using a full range of love languages to show their friendship and implies deeply rooted homophobia.
- The One with the Where Monica Sings (Season 9, Episode 13) - Joey tells Monica and Phoebe that his photographer recommended he get his eyebrows waxed and asks if they think that's weird. While Monica agrees that, considering his profession, his eyebrows could use the attention, Phoebe declares that whether it is weird for a guy to get his eyebrows waxed depends"on how far along he is in the sex change process," prompting Joey to complain about the double standard. Beauty regimes ought to be optional for any person. For the same reasons that women shouldn't be pressured to shave or perform body modifications to feel beautiful, men should be able to shave, manscape, pierce or colour their hair, nails, and body in the name of self-expression.
The key here is that I am not advocating for men to do or not do any of the things included in this list. We are highlighting these examples to show that standards of hegemonic masculinity create understandings of what it means to be "a man" and that to do anything less makes you either less of a man or a woman/girl/sissy/pussy. When we have that attitude, we hurt men by barring them from being themselves in public or having certain interests and hobbies. We also hurt women by defining what it means to be a woman as the absence of being a man. This phrasing makes women inherently less valuable than men, which is, of course, not true.
It is also important to note that, of our top five examples, only one featured women policing standards of masculinity. All of the other cases were undertaken by other men. Secondly, the show frequently conflates one's ability to conform to a hegemonic ideal with one's sexuality, inferring that deviating from a particular form of masculinity indicates deviation from being a straight, cis male. In reality, we know that there is no correlation between the two. Finally, I want to highlight that the characters we most frequently see policing the masculinity of others are those who are least secure in their own masculinity. Those being policied tend to be most secure in their own identity and therefore most willing to be themselves.
While all of these entries are meant as jokes and were informed by the predominant attitudes of the times they were created in, we need to able to acknowledge that these "jokes" reinforce and disseminate all of these attitudes as being true in the eyes of the viewers. These attitudes, as we have noted, not only set women and LGBTQ+ men as being inherently less valuable than cisgender straight men, harming these communities, but harm men by limiting their avenues for support and self-expression.
Men commit nearly two-thirds of the world's suicides. There are a myriad of reasons for this discrepancy, but among them, we must consider the pressures on men to hide weakness and vulnerability, to suppress the expression of self-identity, and to refrain from seeking help in abusive relationships or mental health crisis. We need to also consider the shame and lack of belief or support men receive from their peers when they come forward with these issues.
Our boys and men deserve better. They deserve to be surrounded by real, well, Friends. Not bullies or gender-expression-police.
Until next time: think critically, reflect, and keep reading!