Friends has always been a fantasy, and not just because it takes place in a bizarro version of New York City in which everyone is white and spacious apartments neighboring Central Park are easily affordable. Beyond that, the beloved series about singles in the city dealt in sexual politics that often seemed outlandish and antiquated, even back in the ‘90s.
For starters, the men of the series (particularly Chandler) are routinely treated as the butt of a joke for acting the slightest bit effeminate or homosexual, while the women are all employed in stereotypically female professions—Monica as a chef, Rachel as a waitress/fashionista, and Phoebe as a masseuse. But regardless of gender, each individual friend has shown themselves capable of lying and manipulating in the name of romance or, more frequently, casual sex.
So the titular Friends aren’t role models, but they’re often quite funny, which is why it’s so easy to overlook the series’ more troubling implications most of the time. But it’s worth examining the series for all its faults, including its adherence to gendered stereotypes that have only became more off-putting with time. These are 15 Most Sexist Moments In Friends.
15. “The One with All the Haste”
After losing their apartment in an elaborate wager made earlier in season 4, Monica and Rachel are desperate to get their place back from Joey and Chandler by any means necessary. Buying them season tickets to see the Knicks doesn’t work, so eventually, they offer to kiss each other for a full minute. Joey and Chandler, of course, agree, then proclaim the trade “totally worth it” and return to their old bedrooms.
But what grown men would actually agree to such a horrible trade? What did Joey and Chandler gain from the exchange, other than masturbation fodder for a few weeks? Are all men really so desperate to see their female friends act out their fantasies of lesbian lovemaking? Not unless they have a middle-schooler’s understanding of sexuality, as Friends seems to think. The Knicks passes were undoubtedly the better offer, guys.
14. “The Pilot”
When we first meet the friends, Ross is still reeling after his divorce from Carol, whose lesbianism is treated as a joke here, just as in later seasons. Just as Ross is reflecting he should have known because Carol always drank beer straight from the can (what?) and wondering whether he can love another woman, Joey steps in to comfort him with precisely the sort of sage wisdom you’d expect from a serial womanizer like him.
“What are you talking about, one woman?” Joey exclaims in disbelief. “That’s like saying, there’s only one flavor of ice cream for you.” He continues with this problematic women as ice cream analogy until concluding with his call to action, “Welcome back to the world, grab a spoon!” This way of thinking might shed some light on why Joey spends the next ten seasons bedding women by any means necessary, but in real life, men aren’t (and shouldn’t be) entitled to free samples of women like they are ice cream.
13. “The One with the Football”
Women are bad at sports! Much of this season three Thanksgiving episode relies on this tired stereotype to score laughs, as the friends face off in a Turkey Day football game that becomes a battle of the sexes after a trade between teams. Ross and Monica are both intensely competitive, though only Monica is made fun of for taking the game so seriously. Rachel is terrible at football, though that doesn’t matter when no one will pass the ball to her anyway.
For her part, Phoebe tries to win the game by flashing her breasts to an easily-distracted Chandler — who, again, acts with all the sexual maturity of a thirteen-year-old — implying that the only plan the girls can come up with to defeat the guys involves their sexuality. Because women are bad at sports! Get it?
12. “The One with the Metaphorical Tunnel”
During a weekend visit with Ben, Ross discovers his son has taken a liking to a Barbie doll he picked from the toy store. He is unreasonably disturbed by this, and he spends the remainder of this third season episode trying to interest Ben in more traditionally masculine toys like a GI Joe and dinosaur action figures, insisting repeatedly almost like a mantra that Ben “drop the Barbie, drop the Barbie.”
Eventually, this insecure ploy to force his son towards traditional masculinity works, but in this instance, the show makes it clear that Ross is being ridiculous — albeit with another joke relying upon straight men acting effeminately. Monica reminds her big brother that he often dressed as a woman during childhood and insisted everyone call him “Bea.” This might have been alright if Ross had learned his lesson about being closed-minded when it comes to the needs of his children. But of course, he didn’t.
11. “The One with the Male Nanny”
Once again, Ross proves himself to be surprisingly homophobic when it comes to his kids in this ninth season episode, wherein Rachel decides to hire a male nanny named Sandy for their newborn daughter Emma. Ross is immediately uncomfortable with the idea of a man working in a traditionally female career, and immediately asks if he’s gay. He isn’t, but Ross’ concern only grows as the nanny, played by Freddie Prinze Jr., is shown to be unusually sensitive and effeminate — by crying repeatedly, using lotion, putting on puppet shows, and even (gasp!) playing the flute.
Apparently disturbed that his daughter might have a non-masculine male role model, Ross ends up firing the nanny. But in firing him, Sandy gets Ross to tearfully reveal that he was once criticized by his father for playing with dinosaurs rather than going out for sports. Not that it makes any difference — Sandy still loses a job he was obviously qualified for, because, as Ross puts it, “it’s weird!”
10. “The One with Ross’s Denial”
Joey needs a new roommate, so he puts out an ad seeking a “female roommate, non-smoker, non-ugly,” never considering how awkward it might be to pick a roommate with the sole purpose of having a one night stand with them. He frightens Phoebe away with his mention of “naked Thursdays,” but somehow manages to interest several women who must not mind being sexually harassed while trying to relax at home.
Joey invites one such woman back “to see if our personalities match” with a word association test with prompts like “pillow” and “G,” for which the correct answers are “fight” and “string.” The unsuspecting woman gets the first couple responses right, but when she doesn’t respond to “doggy” with “style,” Joey immediately ushers her out the door — because Joey isn’t interested in women unless she’s as unreasonably obsessed with sex as him.
9. “The One Where Phoebe Runs”
When Joey finally does choose a roommate, he picks the Australian Janine based solely on her good looks. Though Chandler and Ross help Joey realize, albeit a little late, that he shouldn’t pursue a relationship with his new roommate, Joey still finds creepy and covert ways to ogle Janine, by changing the locks of their bathroom and keeping the thermostat at 100 degrees so she’ll walk around the apartment in her underwear.
The two eventually do date, but not until after Janine’s simple addition of potpourri and other “girly” items to the apartment make Joey feel needlessly uncomfortable in his masculinity. After Chandler berates him for succumbing to such wimpy pursuits as knitting and flower-arranging, Joey insists Janine keep her potpourri and other feminine touches to her half of the apartment, only to go back on his demands and request to keep them for himself.
8. “The One Where Dr. Ramoray Dies”
Friends exists in a world where few things matter more than the amount of sexual partners you’ve had. That’s why Monica’s 20+ years older boyfriend Richard (Tom Selleck) is so disturbed to hear Phoebe mention that Monica has had “a lot” of boyfriends. Conversely, Monica is equally unsettled to find out that Richard has only had sex with two women, her and his ex-wife — until she hears him explain that he’s only had sex with the women he’s loved, of course.
It’s a rather sweet ending, sure, but it doesn’t satisfactorily refute the implication that women should have as few sexual partners as possible, and men as many as possible. By that standard, Joey must be quite the role model.
7. “The One with Five Steaks and an Eggplant”
An attractive woman named Jade calls Joey and Chandler while trying to reach her ex-boyfriend Bob, who lived in the apartment before them. Since none of the Friends have qualms about tricking someone into a romantic liaison, Chandler answers the phone as Bob and arranges a date at Central Perk. Of course, the unseen ex-boyfriend doesn’t show up, and Chandler is there to swoop in on Jade by insulting Bob for so rudely standing her up. Does any of this sound like it could lead to a healthy relationship?
Regardless Chandler dates and subsequently sleeps with Jade under false pretenses. But when he again answers his phone as Bob, he hears her complain that their sex was mediocre and far too short — you see, it’s funny that Chandler is sexually inadequate, but it doesn’t seem to matter that he’s a sexual deviant. To end the episode, Jade calls back once more and leaves a voicemail requesting that Bob fulfill her desires one last time, to which Joey leaps for the phone, similarly eager to deceive this woman into sex as well.
6. “The One with All the Rugby”
Janice may have an annoying voice and an even more annoying laugh, but that doesn’t excuse the way Chandler treats her all throughout the series, constantly using his friends and outlandish lies to push her away rather than honestly confessing he’s just not interested. The lies don’t get much more outlandish than the one he concocts in this fourth season episode, wherein he tells her he’s moving to Yemen for work, and even boards a plane at the end of the episode in commitment to his lie.
But that isn’t the end of the Chandler-Janice saga. In seasons seven and ten, he doubles down repeatedly on another lie entirely, that he’s consumed by lingering feelings for Janice despite his marriage to Monica. But again, he’s using blatant dishonesty as a way to force this stereotypically insufferable woman out of his life in the short term, and the audience is expected to understand because, well, have you heard that laugh?
5. “The One with Rachel’s Assistant”
For once, the traditional gender roles are reversed when Rachel hires a male assistant for her work at Ralph Lauren, but still, the boss gets to be oddly possessive regarding their employee. Rach hires the assistant Tag over a more qualified female candidate just because she’s attracted to him, because, like Joey, she makes important decisions based entirely on sexual impulses.
Totally unable to maintain a professional relationship with a man she’s attracted to, Rachel begins lying to female coworkers that Tag is gay so they won’t pursue him. This unhealthy preoccupation with Tag continues in subsequent episodes, as she smells his shirts, snatches him away from a flirting coworker, and bribes Joey so he’ll stop using Tag as his new wingman. Now just imagine how creepy all this predatory behavior would be if the gender roles were swapped back to their traditional setup.
4. “The One with the Breast Milk”
The male friends react with all their typical maturity when the topic of Carol’s breastfeeding Ben comes up. Ross and Chandler freak out when Phoebe samples a taste of the milk from Ben’s bottle, then defends his reaction to Carol “because it’s breast milk! It’s gross!” If you haven’t noticed by now, Ross isn’t the most open-minded of parents. He finally agrees to taste it only out of some sense of misguided competition with Carol’s girlfriend Susan, who confesses that she’s tasted it too.
Meanwhile, Chandler and Joey, doing their part to depict men as uniformly uncomfortable with breastfeeding, rush out of the room when Carol begins feeding Ben, only to return at Ross’s insistence and ask outlandishly dumb questions about this natural process, like “If he blows into one, does the other one get bigger?”
3. “The One with All the Thanksgivings”
Every Friends flashback episode gets a lot of comedic mileage from the simple fact that Monica used to be fat. In this one as in others, young Monica is defined by her fatness more than any of her other traits, and constantly lampooned for her weight by everyone, including her future-husband Chandler, who immediately snickers when she introduces herself as Ross’s “little” sister.
Because Monica is nonetheless infatuated with him, everything Chandler says in this particular Thanksgiving flashback has an enormous impact on Monica’s future. He compliments her meal and says she should be a chef, so the insecure Monica chirps “Okay!” and goes on to do just that. Far worse, however, is when Monica overhears Chandler fretting to Ross about being stuck here “with your fat sister,” and runs away devastated. But rather than holding Chandler’s piggish comments against him, she uses them as the motivation she needs to get thin and eventually marry him. Long story short, in the world of Friends, fat-shaming really works!
2. “The One with the Hypnosis Tape”
Monica’s latest suitor Pete, played by Jon Favreau, overhears her complaining at work about how few men she’s seen recently and asks for a date with her, as though he’s ordering an additional menu item for his lunch. When she refuses, he responds by leaving a $20,000 check as a tip. Monica is still uninterested, until her friends realize Pete is a millionaire computer engineer and prod her into it. The old trope of women wanting a man for his money is alive and well here, but far more problematic are the ways Pete uses his riches and position of power to pressure Monica into liking him.
On their first date, he flies her to a pizzeria in Rome. Then, despite her insistence she’s not physically attracted to him, he buys a restaurant so she can be hired as head-chef — the exact sort of grand romantic gesture that would earn him a well-justified restraining order in real life. Monica initially rejects the offer, so Pete lies to her that he is no longer interested. Monica figures this out and goes to confront Pete once more, but before she can call him out on his deceit, they kiss, and Monica realizes she does have feelings for Pete after all. The lesson here seems to be that a man can make a woman interested him, if only he lavishes enough money and unwanted attention on her.
1. “The One with the Dozen Lasagnas”
Rachel sends her Italian stereotype of a boyfriend Paolo to Phoebe for a massage, but in the course of his rubdown, he begins sliding his hands along Phoebe’s thighs and then flips over to flash her his entire package. Phoebe relates this story back to her friends (minus Rachel) as though unperturbed, maybe even a little flattered and impressed, by this blatant sexual harassment, which one must imagine is a real problem for many a masseuse.
As though Paolo’s attempted infidelity wasn’t enough nonsense on Rachel’s plate, Ross immediately swoops in with an attempt to comfort her, or more accurately, to manipulate her into liking him for being the “anti-Paolo.” Maybe this is an accurate representation of two distinct types of men that women have to watch out for — the lotharios, and the so-called nice guys — but neither one receives much comeuppance, least of all Ross.
What other sexist moments in Friends left you cringing at the screen? Let us know in the comments.
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