Lesbian “Friends”: Legacy of a Sitcom

This week when Friends ends its ten-year reign on NBC, it leaves behind a complicated, ground-breaking, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately positive contribution to lesbian visibility.

At first glance, a sitcom about six heterosexuals in their mid-20’s — massage therapist Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), waitress-turned-fashion maven Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), chef Monica (Courteney Cox), her brother and paleontologist Ross (David Schwimmer), actor Joey (Matt LeBlanc), and Chandler (Matthew Perry), the guy whose job no one could ever remember — didn’t seem a likely candidate to influence lesbian visibility.

But somehow, the topic of lesbianism or bisexuality managed to slip into at least a few episodes of almost every season, and over time, the show served as a barometer of America’s mixed feelings about women who sleep
with other women.

We learn in the very first episode in 1994 that Ross has a lesbian ex-wife, Carol (played in the first few episodes by Anita Barone, then beginning in Episode 1.8 by Jane Sibbett), who left him after several years of marriage for her friend Susan (Jessica Hecht). The relationship between Carol and Susan is seen primarily through Ross’ eyes, especially in the beginning, as he embodies the uneasiness many straight men have with lesbians and lesbian relationships.

Denial and confusion over how to refer to and explain lesbian relationships is humorously explored in Episode 1.16 when Ross, Susan, and Carol attend their first lamaze class together:

Hi, um, I’m err, (clears his throat) I’m Ross Geller, and err
ah…(pats Carol’s stomach)…that’s, that’s my boy in there, and uh,
(points) this is Carol Willick, and this… is Susan Bunch. Susan is um
Carol’s, just, com… (embarrassment finally overwhelms him, until he
finally says)…who’s next?
TEACHER: I’m sorry, I didn’t get… Susan is?
ROSS: Susan is Carol’s, Carol’s, Carol’s, friend…
CAROL: Life partner.
ROSS: Like buddies.
SUSAN: Like lovers.
ROSS: You know how close women can get.
(The teacher smiles, but her eyebrows go up. Susan and Carol pat each other affectionately.)
Carol: Susan and I live together.
ROSS: Although I was married to her.
SUSAN: Carol, not me.
ROSS: Err, right.
CAROL: It’s a little complicated.
ROSS: A little.
SUSAN: But we’re fine

At Susan and Carol’s apartment to pick up Ben in Episode 1.12, Ross sees a photo of Carol and Susan with a friend, and innocently asks “Hey when did you and Susan meet Huey Lewis?” then looks embarrassed when she tells him it’s their friend Tanya.

The audience are meant to laugh at this both because of Ross’s naivete, and because women who look like men are funny.

When Carol then asks Ross “Don’t you want to know about the sex?” (meaning the sex of the baby), he misunderstands and responds with a nervous laugh, “I’m having enough trouble with the image of you and Susan
together, when you throw in Tanya — ”

Besides just laughing at Ross’ mistake, the audience is also meant to identify with Ross’ confusion over and discomfort with what two women do in bed together (especially when one of them is his ex-wife).