A Product of Their Time: The Inescapable Disappointment of Stories Ageing

I grew up watching FRIENDS. I realise that’s not a show for children, and indeed, I completely missed the sex jokes when I was younger, but on the whole, I loved that show. It was the funniest thing in the world to me, and I loved the characters to bits. I remember crying my eyes out at the finale. I bought seasons 3 and 6 (those were the only ones available at the local DVD store). During sleepovers, I introduced some of my classmates to the show. We all started loving FRIENDS together.

As I grew older, I forgot about it. Then, the show landed up on Netflix. And criticism began pouring in.

I first noticed it on Tumblr. People were discussing its lack of diversity (which I agree with), the casual homophobia and fatphobia (also true), and its romanticisation of toxic relationships. A lot of the hate was towards Ross. And I didn’t understand that. When I was younger, Ross was one of my favourite characters (I, too, wanted to be a palaeontologist when I was little). Critics of the show, usually younger audiences who were watching it for the first time, pointed out that Ross was needy, jealous, possessive, manipulative, and condescending. This was not at all how I remembered my favourite childhood show. Surely I would have noticed if he was such a bad person.

I started getting defensive about it. I remember one of my friends criticising the show in front of me, and I jumped in to say it was an old show and people didn’t understand the humour and just lay off. In hindsight, I was making a fool of myself.

Because I actually rewatched the show last year, and my god, it sucks.

Not only do I agree with all the critique about Ross, I started to see just how toxic the Ross/Rachel dynamic was. Joey, usually considered one of the better male characters in the show, also came off as extremely creepy–the kind of guy who would definitely be named in a sexual harassment scandal. A thick layer of gay panic coats all the interactions between the male characters. Actually, I remember thinking that there isn’t a single episode in the show’s ten-season run that doesn’t have a little bit of homophobia baked into it.

The female characters were a bit better, but the lack of diversity was undeniable. And even if you excuse that all these people are awful (it’s a comedy show, I guess), the humour ages like milk. I was shocked that I’d ever found it funny.

And it makes sense. The first episode of FRIENDS aired in 1994. That’s 27 years ago! The world has changed at a breathtaking pace, and we’re now more considerate about minority representation in media.

Right?

Right.

I also loved watching Modern Family

In fact, I’ve been rewatching it lately. And a lot of it holds up. But there are some aspects of the show that rub me the wrong way, things I didn’t notice earlier that I do now. While the show does have more diversity (a cis gay white couple with a Vietnamese child, plus two Columbian characters), a lot of the jokes are stereotypes. Gloria is loud, sexual, and hot-headed. Cam is flamboyant, Mitch is neurotic, and their love story is not given the same treatment as the others in the show are. There are a lot of unnecessary comments about Lily (their daughter) and her heritage.

Modern Family is a world away from the toxicity of FRIENDS, but it does have significant levels of toxicity nonetheless. Cam and Mitch, for instance, are unbearable, more and more with each season. They are constantly sniping at each other (it’s not cute banter). They lie and manipulate each other. There’s even an episode where Cam lets their friends think he and Mitch have separated, just so he can figure out whose side they’d be on in the event of a real break-up (S11, ep7).

Another gripe I have with this relationship is that the writers of the show have not explored it as fully as they have with the other relationships, like Claire and Phil, or Jay and Gloria. These couples have entire episodes dedicated to their sex lives and needs. Cam and Mitch don’t get the same depth. Aside from a passing comment or chaste kisses, their dynamic is oddly de-sexualised.

By itself, I don’t have a problem with this. Honestly, I find that TV is too sexed-up for my tastes anyway. But as the only queer couple in the show, this absence feels like a deliberate decision. And I wonder if it was. Because when Modern Family began in 2009, it was the first show that I had seen with queer main characters. The fact that it aired uncensored on Indian TV felt like a victory. Even today, good queer representation in India is rare and hard to come by.

Well, at least there’s always Brooklyn-99

I’m not American, so I missed the context in this one. I started watching the show because I kept seeing gifs of it on Tumblr, interspersed with the occasional post critiquing its premise. These posts often used the word ‘copaganda’, which I didn’t understand or think too much about.

Not only did I love the show, but I honestly think it tethered me during a dark time in my life. I would keep it on in the background while doing my chores because it helped me laugh. I could quote the lines from memory. Brooklyn-99 held, and will continue to hold, a special place in my heart.

I admit that I missed all the red flags. A lot of its viewers did. If you have the privilege of not being persecuted by the police for just existing, you wouldn’t question this show. It’s diverse, it’s feminist, it’s wonderfully queer. None of the male characters exhibit any toxic masculinity. The show is also hilarious.

But it is cop propaganda. It makes the NYPD look much better than they are. The cops in B-99 are cute, cuddly, funny. They’re “Good Cops”. This bleeds into the narrative that the police who shoot Black Americans in cold blood are just one-off examples of “Bad Apples”, and it completely ignores the systemic issues involved in the issue of police brutality in the US. This matters because the media we consume affects the way we think about the world, and if you don’t question the messages you’re getting from Brooklyn-99, you can reasonably come to the conclusion that the police are not to blame for the crisis of racist attacks by cops against Black and Brown people in America.

There’s actually a scene in the show that made me double-take the first time I saw it, because it reminded me of a John Oliver deep-dive about police militarisation and how American police have more ammo than they need.

In this scene, Jake and Charles carry too many weapons and can’t get down the corridor before needing to rest and call Terry for help
In this episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver talks about how American police are given resources fit for an army–resources they don’t actually need

The murder of George Floyd has led to a lot of critical analysis about the copaganda that we consume without thinking. The show Brooklyn-99 has itself promised to address this in the upcoming season, though I honestly don’t know how. In my mind, the most ethical thing for the show to do is call it quits where it’s at.

But that’s another, much larger discussion for another time. I wanted to talk about something else.

why the stories we love disappoint us

And they will disappoint us eventually, because stories are a product of their time and their zeitgeist. Things that seem funny or revolutionary ten or fifteen years ago can be offensive today. The fact is, if something is problematic now, it was always problematic, and we’re only just starting to see it.

I can watch an episode of FRIENDS or Modern Family or Brooklyn-99 and I can enjoy it too. But suddenly I’m looking at it through the big eyes of hindsight and I can see its problems as well as I can see its gags. So I can’t say I enjoy them as much as I used to.

But you know what? That’s okay. Because it’s a sign that society is evolving. The progressive stories we write today will probably look backwards and close-minded, thirty or forty years from now. And isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t that mean that as a society, we’re unlearning more biases and striving to create a safer environment for oppressed communities? If we look back on books and shows from the past, will we find countless instances of casual discrimination that would not be acceptable today.

I know I can’t go back to these shows with the same kind of enthusiasm anymore. But I’m glad for it. I don’t want to be the kind of person who can ignore overtly problematic content. If we, as consumers, do not call it out, producers and storytellers of all kinds will not strive to do better.

We also need to support upcoming minority artists and stories from minority backgrounds. Because true representation is when people tell their own stories.

This is a pretty large topic and I might discuss it again at some point. Maybe my opinions will have changed. Maybe I’ll be more educated on the subject. And this article will be nothing but a product of my own understanding of things as of this moment. That’s okay. I’m excited to grow, and I’m excited for stories to become kinder and more inclusive with each passing day.

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