“Friends” or Foe?

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The media piece I decided to view for the Oppositional Gaze was an episode from the tv show Friends titled “The One With the Yeti.” Friends is a comedic sitcom about 6 friends in their mid to late 20s living in New York City. Rachel is a feminine, attractive character who works in fashion and comes from an upper-class family. Her roommate is Monica, who has a very type-A personality, is a huge neat freak and is diligent in her work as a chef. Phoebe is an eccentric, lovable, hippie-like character who grew up in a difficult situation. The male characters include Ross, Monica’s brother- the “nerd” of the group and a paleontologist, Chandler who is a businessman and the funny guy, and his roommate Joey, who is a dim-witted, attractive character who is struggling to become an actor.

In this episode there are two main plot lines. One consists of a tiff between Monica, Rachel and their downstairs neighbor, and the other discusses Ross’s struggling new marriage. I’m going to focus on the latter. Ross was recently married to a woman named Emily, who is more or less the antagonist of the story. Rachel and Ross’s previous romantic relationship causes tension between Emily and Ross when he accidentally says Rachel’s name during their wedding. Emily is a rather unfeminine, ill-tempered, British woman, whose character development on the show is very short-lived (mainly over the course of a few episodes.) In “The One With the Yeti,” Ross tells Rachel that he can no longer hang out with her (and by default, the rest of their friend group) because it makes Emily uncomfortable. Rachel and the rest of the group have a serious problem with this and it causes them to hate Emily. Ross tries to speak to Emily about her concerns to see if they can make something work, but she can’t trust him and decides to end their marriage. This plotline is prominently outlined in the episode.

Although this is a fairly realistic story and I don’t see many issues with the plotline, the character development and presentation of Rachel and Emily is done in a way that negatively perpetuates female stereotypes. This is done through two ways: their behavioral and social characteristics in the episode, and their physical attributes.  This can be analyzed using a psychoanalytical approach.

On paper, Emily’s personality is much more compatible with Ross than Rachel’s personality. Emily is smart, hard-working and goal-oriented with a very down-to-earth personality. Ross falls in love with her almost immediately after meeting her. Rachel is much more spontaneous and slightly stuck-up due to her parents paying for her expenses most of her life. However, after the wedding incident when Ross blurts out Rachel’s name instead of Emily’s, the show completely transforms Emily’s character. She begins to become more demanding in what she wants of Ross and completely disappears from his life for a period of time. In his attempts to gain her back, Ross succumbs to Emily’s wishes to ease her fears and jealousy. He sells his furniture, leaves his apartment, stops seeing his friends and decides to move to a farther location in New York to be with Emily. The gaze of this narrative is not shown at all through Emily’s view, only slightly through Rachel’s view and primarily through Ross. This presents Emily as a dominant, controlling figure and Rachel as the passive, well-behaved counterpart. Using Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytic tools discussed in her article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” we know that the “pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” described through the theory of scopophilia (Mulvey, 4.) This  presents Emily’s figure as a potential problem, as she’s in an active position and has become an instigator for castration anxiety. The show resolves this anxiety by following the “sadistic voyeuristic” approach (Mulvey, 6.) By the end of the episode everyone hates Emily, she’s forced to break off their marriage and everyone lives happily-ever-after back in their normal lives while Emily’s in England, alone, and out of the picture.

Rachel’s character on the other hand is a perfect subject for the scopophilia of the episode. She’s passive, submissive and desperate for Ross’s affection. The castration anxiety for Rachel is not an issue because she becomes an object of fetishistic scopophilia (Mulvey, 6.) This is further exemplified by analyzing her physical characteristics. Rachel (played by Jennifer Aniston) is a constant object of affection for many of the male characters that appear through the Friends series. She was the “cool girl” in high school and has a glamorous job working in fashion. Emily (played by Helen Baxendale), although not unattractive, is not the object of such affections. This is another reason the castration anxiety needs to be resolved through sadistic voyeurism, rather than through festishistic tendencies.

Rachel

Rachel, played by Jennifer Aniston

Emily

Emily, played by Helen Baxendale

Although Friends is one of my favorite television shows, I was able to view this episode through a critical eye for a variety of reasons. I didn’t sit down and decide to watch this episode and point out the flaws in it. Coming from a lower-middle-class background, having no interest in fashion and greatly valuing a college education, I find it very difficult to relate to Rachel at times and tend to project myself into characters like Monica and Emily. This episode stuck out to me because I was especially fond of Emily’s character and was hurt by the events that took place, and how the writers dramatically changed the audience’s perception of Emily. From this kind of viewpoint I could take a step back and analyze the story in this episode from an oppositional gaze.

In Bell Hooks’s “The Oppositional Gaze,” she describes this tactic of viewing from the standpoint of a black female spectator. She says that “all attempts to repress black peoples’ right to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze” (Hooks, p116.) She discusses how by returning this gaze, one takes back their reality. By doing this one can find empowerment while under or misrepresented.

My oppositional view for this post wasn’t coming from a view of systematic oppression, but rather from discomfort. All of the female characters presented in this show are portrayed as white, heterosexual, and self-sufficient, which I can easily identify with. This is where my oppositional view differed from Bell Hooks, and made it more difficult. I was going into this program expecting to relate to the characters, not to be placed in a position of opposition. Instead I was forced there unexpectedly. Hooks describes how “not all black women spectators submitted to that spectacle of regression through identification,” which further describes how our oppositional gazes differ (Hooks, p121.)

Because of this, I can still find enjoyment in other storylines in the Friends episodes. For example, the other storyline of “The One with the Yeti” involves Rachel and Monica trying to befriend a new neighbor that they accidentally hurt. This is something I can easily relate to, as find my personality similar to Monica’s, and my lifestyle similar to both of them. I also live in an apartment and work to be friendly to my neighbors.

Overall, this story of Ross and Emily’s failed marriage in the “The One with the Yeti” episode of Friends negatively portrays female stereotypes through the characteristics-both personal and physical- represented by Rachel and Emily. Using psychoanalytical tools, it’s shown how the use of the male gaze perpetrates these stereotypes.

Bibliography

Hooks, B. “Black Looks: Race and Representation.” Boston: South End Press (1992): 115-31. Web.

Mulvey, L. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Web.

Mulvey, L. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Web.

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