The Unbearable Lightness of Being Monica Geller
Friends is a natural choice for a postpartum viewing experience. For one thing, it’s a comedy, and laughter is so very important during those hazy sleepless days and nights following your baby’s birth (or babies, OMG). Another factor that makes it ideal postpartum viewing is the short episode length. Twenty-two minutes is just enough time to keep your attention span while simultaneously allowing for a bit of a zone-out situation. Also, there are no complicated plot lines to follow, so if you doze off or have to leave the room you will not miss some crucial twist in the narrative. You might miss an 80s flashback or Joey (Matt LeBlanc) wearing a raw frozen turkey on his head, but you will be fine. There are hijinks coming.
Friends is not Game of Thrones. You will not see anyone murdered. You will see a group of friends sitting on a couch, sipping coffee and eating pastries. You will not spend even a second of your time trying to figure out who is related to who and what that means for the Iron Throne quest.
The most complicated family dynamic is this: Phoebe Buffet has a twin sister named Ursula (both played by Lisa Kudrow), and later in the series we find out that they have a long-lost younger brother named Frank (Giovanni Ribisi). And then Phoebe becomes a surrogate for Frank and his wife, Alice (Debra Jo Rupp (of That 70s Show fame)), and gives birth to triplets. As you can imagine, this is all handled with much humor and an overall sense of lightness. Let’s just say no one is fucking their sibling OR trying to behead them on this show.
And yet, I would be a fool not to point out that this show is disgustingly, cruelly, and annoyingly into fat shaming. This surprised me because the last time I religiously watched the show my biggest concern in life was doing well at Mock Trial regionals. That is to say, I was in high school, and not that into thinking beyond the show’s entertainment value, mainly Joey wearing a raw turkey on his head, etc. etc.
But as a more conscious and perhaps conscientious adult I was floored by the fat jokes directed at Monica Geller (Courteney Cox). Didn’t we banish fat jokes to the island where we are soon to send Donald Trump? A place where we can wave at them from a distance but then turn our sights to brighter and kinder horizons? Apparently not. And it’s disappointing, and it’s a real shame.
I’m sure there is an intelligent way of dealing with the storyline for a formerly overweight character. However, you will not find this on Friends. Friends made the outdated, insensitive, and boring choice to routinely discuss Monica’s weight as a problem, as a big joke. Her svelte physique is celebrated, while her former overweight self is treated as a disappointment, to say the least.
I know this is a comedy, I know it’s easy to feel like maybe I’m overthinking this. But really, haven’t we all been sufficiently schooled in the dangers and the insensitivities of commenting on the shape and size of bodies? And yet, being overweight is still one of these frontiers where it somehow seems okay to treat it as a pejorative, to loudly deride it.
Listen, I don’t like Chris Christie’s politics, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let you think it’s okay to make fun of his size rather than his idiotic political machinations.
Those 80s flashbacks I talked about earlier? In these scenes, the humor surrounding Ross and Chandler has to do with their Miami Vice suits and A Flock of Seagulls haircuts, things that are just silly fashion phases. The humor surrounding Monica and Rachel is different. It’s not a silly fashion phase; it’s physiological, hard to change. Rachel (like Jennifer Anniston in real life) is shown to have a pre-nose-job nose. It’s exaggerated in its size and it entirely transforms the character’s face. Interestingly, she’s still portrayed as hot and popular. Maybe the nose is not such a detrimental thing after all? We’ll never know. By the time we meet Rachel Green at the start of the series her nose is a post-surgery wonder and her face is transformed.
Monica is portrayed as an obese goofball. She’s nervous, giggly, awkward, and very naïve. She refers to her vagina as a flower, or something equally dainty. The Monica we see in “present day” is whip thin, organized, and hyper productive. And yet, she’s never completely emerged from the shadow of her larger self. It’s a running joke that her brother, Ross (David Schwimmer), is the favorite child. It’s not explicitly stated that her weight is the reason for this, but that’s the feeling we get watching the show.
What a drag! Pooping all over the fun times that is Friends! I’m reminded of the anger and sadness I faced from some of my first-year writing students as we read criticism of Walt Disney and Disney films. It’s like I was killing their childhoods. In a way, by re-watching Friends I killed a part of my high school ignorant self. I can’t believe I missed all the jokes at Monica’s expense.
Or maybe I didn’t think it was such a big deal?
But, now? I do. And it is. So, watch it, don’t watch it, whatever. Just know what lurks within its cozy interior.