Lesbian “Friends”: Legacy of a Sitcom

 
 

Rachel kisses her old college friend (Wynona Ryder)Unlike the men, who
live in a constant state of fear that someone will think they’re gay
(as evidenced by many moments where they quickly pull out of hugs, or
make jokes about Chandler’s perceived homosexuality), the straight
women of Friends
have no problem with anyone thinking they’re gay or bisexual (unless
that person mistakenly thinks they’re interested in a relationship with
them, as we’ll see in the example below).

All three of the female Friends
kiss other women at some point during the series, and even Rachel’s
temporarily single mother gets into the act at one point, enthusing at
Carol and Susan’s wedding, “I just danced with a wonderfully large
woman. And three other girls made eyes at me over the buffet. Oh, I’m
not saying it’s something I wanna pursue, but it’s nice to know I have
options.”

In episode 7.20, Rachel runs into an old friend from college (played by Winona Ryder),
with whom “one night, senior year we went to a party, had a lot of
sangria and y’know, ended up…kissing for a bit.” Even though she is
not gay or even bisexual, Rachel is not ashamed of this brief foray
into homosexual activity years ago; she’s even a little proud of it, as
she demonstrates here in an exchange with Melissa (Ryder), who
initially refuses to acknowledge their lesbian encounter in college:

RACHEL: Look, that night was
the one wild thing I have ever done in my entire life, and I’m not
gonna let you take that away from me! Okay, so if you don’t remember
that, maybe you will remember this! (She grabs Melissa and kisses her
on the lips.)
MELISSA: My God! You love me!
RACHEL: (shocked) What?
MELISSA: Of course I remember our kiss. I think about it all the time.
I can still hear the coconuts knockin’ together I… (Phoebe is
shocked.) I just didn’t want to tell you ’cause I didn’t think that
you’d return my love, and now that you have… (Leans in to kiss
Rachel.)
RACHEL: (moving away) Whoa! Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa! Whoa! Whoa!
MELISSA: Aww, look who’s being suddenly shy. You can’t tell me you
don’t feel what I feel. Nobody can kiss that good and not mean it.
(Goes in again.)
RACHEL: (moves away again) I-I-I-I’m just…I’m just a good kisser!
MELISSA: (suddenly frightened) Shut up!
RACHEL: I’m sorry!
MELISSA: (laughs) Oh you don’t have to be (Laughs again) sorry.
I’m…I’m obviously kidding. I’m not in love with you. (To Phoebe) I’m
not in love with her. I don’t hear coconuts banging together. Yeah, I
don’t…picture your face when I make love to my boyfriend. Anyway, I
gotta go. Eh…kiss good-bye? (Rachel stares at her stunned.) No? Okay.
(Hurries into the cab and drives off.)

Phoebe then unexpectedly kisses
Rachel, as well. “What the hell was that?” Rachel asks, to which Phoebe
responds, “I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.” “And?”
Rachel asks her. “I’ve had better,” Phoebe shrugs.

Scenes like these and the overall ease with which the women on Friends
are willing to engage in light homosexual activity (or at least are not
afraid of it) tend to reinforce the notion that female sexuality is
more fluid than male sexuality, and that women in general are more
tolerant of lesbianism and lesbian relationships than men.

Interestingly, however, the show never does introduce or even reference any actual bisexual women, only lesbians or bi-curious straight women.

Carol wasn’t a bisexual woman
married to a man who fell in love with another woman, she was a lesbian
who just hadn’t realized it yet; similarly, by her last statement about
picturing Rachel’s face when having sex with her boyfriend, we are led
to believe that Melissa is also a lesbian-in-waiting, rather than
bisexual. And Joey’s comments aside, the Hot Nanny doesn’t appear
likely to succumb to his advances anytime soon.

This avoidance of the topic of
bisexuality or bisexual characters is fairly consistent with the
invisibility of bisexual women on television in general, however, a
taboo that has only recently begun to be challenged.

Ultimately, the attitude of Friends
towards lesbianism and bisexuality is one of tolerance and acceptance,
even as it also positions lesbians as outsiders and bisexual women as
nonexistent. The straight characters on the show evince contradictory
attitudes towards lesbianism and bisexuality, but these fairly
accurately reflect the conflicting and evolving feelings of the
American public towards this subject in the last decade.

Friends
pushed the envelope in terms of lesbian visibility and desensitized
viewers to the topic through scenes like Carol and Susan’s wedding in
1995, the repeated use of the word “lesbian” on primetime TV when that
was still a rarity, a few lesbian kisses in the latter half of the
series, and the debunking of the notion that straight women can be
“converted” by lesbians.

Over the lifetime of the series
Susan and Carol have remained in a strong, committed relationship, and
in the process become one of the longest-running lesbian couples on
television, even if their presence diminished significantly over time
(they didn’t surface at all in Season 10).

So while the lesbians on Friends
may never have been a large part of the series, and the contradictory
male attitudes towards lesbianism frustrating at times, the show
ultimately made it easier for later television shows to introduce
lesbians and lesbian topics — and gave viewers a humorous and
sympathetic glimpse, however fleeting, into the lives of two lesbians
and their friends.

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