Frenemies: Perpetuating Heteronormativity with Lesbians

Oppositional Gaze Blog

Friends is arguably one of the most well known shows in TV history. The show’s 10 seasons is testament to the wild popularity of the six cute and quirky young New Yorkers that won the heart of the 1990s. Admittedly, I have been mildly addicted to the show ever since Netflix added all 10 seasons to their instant queue. I often turn on an episode of (…or 5 or 6) after work or a long day because it is mindless and pleasurable to watch. However, I feel compelled to “admit” that I watch Friends because every time I click “play next episode” I know I am going to be consuming a version of American life that erases most marginalized identities. The white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle-class people we come to know and love find their way into viewers’ hearts and show us how cute and witty everyday life can be. In doing so, however, non-normative identities (that is, those that don’t match Monica, Rachel, Pheobe, Chandler, Joey, or Ross’s) are either erased completely or are thrown in negative contrast to the protagonists’. Indeed, the first person of color to have a major part on the show was Ross’s Asian American girlfriend, Julie. Julie’s character served to produce angst and internal conflict on the show because she became the barrier that prohibited Rachel and Ross to get together. Even though Julie’s personality was sweet (borderline dull), she was an outsider brought in to the storyline to reinforce the idealism of the white, heteronormative couple by being portrayed as a nuisance or a challenge to overcome. This theme of rendering characters with non-normative identities as “challenges to deal with” in the plot line of Friends recurs with many characters, but I believe most clearly with Susan. Applying an oppositional reading to Susan’s character reveals the violence of the stereotypes attached to her, and transforms her dry, humorless persona into a reflection of the frustrations of a having a non-normative identity on a homonormative show.

There is a similar dynamic at play in the character of Susan, who is Ross’s ex-wife’s lesbian partner. A dominant reading of the relationship between Susan and Ross would have the audience view Susan as a contributor–if not source–of the destruction of Carol and Ross’s marriage. Carol’s discovery of her homosexuality left Ross feeling sad and alone, and we are supposed to feel sorry for him. He is depressed for the majority of the first season and talks about his failed marriage as though he had been defeated or wronged. Although Ross is hurt by his divorce, his does not take it out on Carol, whom he still cares for (after all, they had been married and thus achieved the pinnacle of the heteronormative dream). Instead, Ross takes it out on Carol’s partner, Susan. In Friends, Susan’s character is to be read as embodying every negative stereotype of lesbianism. She is cold, humorless, and has a strong disdain for Ross (and, presumably, all men). Even her voice is abrasive, and when Ross first meets her in the OBGYN’s office, he comments on her “firm handshake”. Susan’s main source of personality and humor arises from her sarcastic jabs at Ross, which is apparently the only comedy her character is capable of. However, Ross hands it back to her while still maintaining his wounded ex-husband shtick through a balance of snide lesbian jokes and visible discomfort with the whole situation. Even though Ross and Susan dislike each other equally, Ross is still seen as the victim because he was the one whom Carol abandoned in favor of Susan. In this way, Susan represents the danger that homosexuality (particularly lesbianism) poses to heteronormativity. After Susan swoops in and infects Ross’s marriage with homosexuality, Ross is left feeling hurt and alone, and while the audience sympathizes with Ross, we are inherently led to see Carol and Susan’s relationship as the source of his pain.

The dominant reading of Susan’s character, as well as her relationship with Ross, perpetuates the notion that homosexuality breaks down heterosexuality and the ideal American family. Mulvey’s point that “woman as representation signifies castration, including voyeristic or fetishistic mechanisms to circumvent her threat” (Mulvey 67), can enlighten us as to why the dominant reading of Susan is negative, and why this is problematic. If women in film (and on TV) are a source of castration anxiety because of their lack of phallus, then Susan poses a double threat to masculinity. Not only is she a woman with a vagina which symbolizes a lack of a penis, but she is a woman who does not seek the male gaze to remedy this absence. Being a lesbian means that she derives pleasure from lack and, thus, renders the phallus irrelevant and unnecessary to her own motivations. Mulvey asserts that “Woman’s desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it” (Mulvey 58). Homosexuality has allowed Susan to transcend castration by viewing it as a source of pleasure, not a threat of “lack”. Furthermore, Susan is supposed to be read as an aid to Carol’s “conversion” to lesbianism. In this way she has not only transcended a need for masculinity to counteract feminine “lack”, but she has broken apart a heterosexual relationship and disproven an assumed “need” for a phallus in a sexual or romantic relationship. The audience is supposed to read Susan’s character and her role in the show as a problem in Ross’s life, but in doing so we must demonize the lesbian relationship that formed from Ross’s divorce. We are not allowed to see Carol and Susan’s relationship as a positive or happy thing, and this is harmful because we implicitly come to understand lesbian relationships as “alternative options” that thwart heterosexuality and the “right” way of being.

We also come to understand lesbian relationships as selfish on the show. Carol screwed over Ross when she realized she was a lesbian, and seemed to show little regard for his feelings or remorse (not that she needs to apologize for her identities).

Finally, the portrayal of Susan as the cold, man-hating lesbian simply perpetuates harmful stereotypes about lesbianism that back up dominant patriarchal notions that lesbianism is bad and harmful to men and to heterosexuality. Her relationship with Ross perpetuates the image of the sad, broken, straight man who is victimized and rendered irrelevant by female homosexuality. The white male victim is actually a very dangerous idea because it reframes the privileged identities that Ross has as sources of victimization. As the victim, it then seems fair that Ross (and others on the show) marginalize and devalue Susan and Carol’s sexualities with jokes and heteronormative plot lines.

Despite Susan’s obvious portrayal as a threat and the butt of many a gay joke, my queer female identity allows me to easily understand her character in opposition to the dominant reading. Clearly Susan’s abrasive personality is a gross perpetuation of the hegemonic stereotypes about lesbians (particularly white lesbians). However, there is a grain of truth to Susan’s personality. I would be lying if I said I’ve never wanted to say some of the things that Susan says to Ross. His pathetic white straight man persona is annoying and hides all of the privileges he has–even from himself. Susan can clearly see that Ross has huge social privileges over her because he is both male and straight, but the fact that he refuses to see this and instead claims the identity of victim in the Susan/Carol/Ross triangle must be extremely irritating and delegitimizes Susan’s feelings for Carol, since she is the “bad guy”. For example, Susan sees through Ross’s wounded man shtick in the previous clip when she reminds Ross that it is not very hard to generate sperm. Similarly, in the clip below we hear Susan speak the truth when she tells Ross that he feels threatened by her:

 

Bell Hooks, in talking about Black Womanhood in cinema, says, “Most of the black women I talked with were adamant that they never went to the movies expecting to see compelling representations of black femaleness. They were all acutely aware of cinematic racism–its violent erasure of black womanhood” (Hooks 119). While we need to keep in mind that oppressions of black women are unique from oppressions of white lesbians, I think this statement could be applied to an oppositional reading of Friends. Susan is not a compelling representation of white homosexual women. Her one-dimensional character is a “violent erasure” of white lesbianism. But despite this erasure, there is something real about Susan. If we look at her personality as a product of the challenges she faces as a woman, as gay, and as the partner of a once-married, straight identified woman, we can sympathize with her frustrations. She is trying to retain her legitimacy in a relationship with a woman who is pregnant with a man’s child. She is trying to be part of a family that the rest of the world (including the father of the child) insists she screwed up. Most importantly, she is desperately trying to legitimize her love for Carol in a world that would rather make a joke out of it. Susan is constantly fighting the erasure of her identity and her feelings for her partner. Thus, an oppositional reading of Susan’s character reveals that the stereotypes the show uses to devalue her lesbian identity are also legitimate responses to the frustrations that come with having your identity erased.

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