Urban Tribes And Progressive Storylines: How ‘Friends’ Helped Undermine The Nuclear Family

Urban Tribes And Progressive Storylines: How ‘Friends’ Helped Undermine The Nuclear Family

The cult classic NBC sitcom “Friends” wouldn’t be considered progressive by modern standards, but, then again, neither would any television series from the mid 90s.

Compared to contemporary sitcoms, “Friends” was full of burgeoning concepts of wokeness, which were edgy for the time. Some – like Ross being married to a lesbian and Chandler’s father being trans – were as subtle as a freight train. Others were a little harder to spot.

The series centered around six single twenty-somethings living in New York City. Monica Geller (Courteney Cox), Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow), Ross Geller (David Schwimmer), Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry), and Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) were so close they were like family, which led to the first clever plot point writers used to paint a picture.

The concept for the “Friends” narrative was simple: chosen family, in other words a person’s peers, were more important than blood relations. These young adults were sleeping around and having fun, rather than getting married and starting families. This was all very intentional. Their parents were rarely around, having only a few cameos in their lives. 

“We never set out to try and capture a generation or anything like that,” series co-creator Martha Kauffman told The Baltimore Sun in 2004. “[Co-creator David Crane] and I, when we were in our 20s, lived in New York with a group of friends, and we just tried to fondly capture that feeling or time of your life when your friends are your family.”

One expert described this phenomenon as the “urban tribe.” It’s a concept that’s pervasive on television now, but really began with these carbon copy 90s sitcoms.

“‘Seinfeld’ was the innovator, ‘Friends’ the imitator when it comes to television and the urban tribe,” Robert J. Thompson, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, told the publication. 

“But as more and more people in their 20s delayed marriage and traditional families during the 1990s, ‘Friends’ was the one that best reflected and celebrated that lifestyle – offering a utopian version of it. ‘Friends’ spoke to Generation X the way ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ did to their baby boomer parents.”

Friendships that replaced familial ties was just one way the Emmy-award winning sitcom normalized a certain way of life. Fans may not have noticed that while Rachel, Phoebe, and Monica on “Friends” did all have children, not one of them did so in the traditional family structure of husband and wife getting married and then starting families. Again, the women taking a road less traveled to motherhood was intentionally included so creators could normalize extramarital sex, surrogacy, and single parenting.

During the 2004 conversation with the Baltimore Sun, Crane said he initially feared audiences weren’t ready for those progressive storylines, especially after the backlash that “Murphy Brown” faced in 1992 with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. However, he claimed no one cared when Rachel had Ross’s baby when they technically weren’t even dating. 

“We were concerned initially that people were going to say, ‘Hey, what kind of a role model is that?’” Crane said. “But that didn’t happen. And I think it’s because there is so much love between the characters on the show and this baby is so loved – with Ross [the father] still in the picture. But we never got one letter.”

Public figures had already sounded the alarm on out-of-wedlock children going mainstream on television. On May 19, 1992, then-Vice President Dan Quayle delivered a family values speech that touched on “Murphy Brown” and the long-term effects of normalizing single parenthood.

“Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong,” the vice president said, per The Washington Post. “Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong. We must be unequivocal about this. It doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”

His words would prove prophetic as fatherless homes, especially in the black community, have skyrocketed in recent years. 

The moms on “Friends” additionally contributed to this change in their own way. First, Phoebe offers to be a surrogate for her brother when he and his wife have difficulty conceiving. She gives birth to triplets named Frank Jr. Jr., Leslie, and Chandler (who is a girl) in “The One Hundredth,” which aired on October 8, 1998.

Phoebe does touch on the raw emotion that comes with being a surrogate, though her move is seen as altruistic on the show. Just after giving birth, Phoebe has a serious talk with the newborns, telling them that she wishes she could see them every day but settles on being their favorite aunt instead. Then all four of them cry together. It’s a poignant portrait of the real emotions women go through after bonding and giving birth to babies they’ll never parent.

Meanwhile, Ross and Rachel have a notorious on-again, off-again relationship throughout the series. The pair have a one night stand and end up conceiving a daughter, Emma. Writers slide in a subtle PSA on safe sex when they confirm the couple used a condom when they had sex.

During the conversation where Rachel tells Ross  that she is pregnant, he argues with her that he couldn’t be the baby’s father. “I don’t understand how this happened,” Ross says, “We used a condom!”

“Condoms only work, like, 97% of the time,” Rachel responds.

Ross and Rachel attempt to live together while she’s pregnant and act like a family, but then during the birth, everything goes wrong.

First, Rachel feels rejected by Ross, and Janice helps convince her that he won’t be around to help raise their daughter if he falls in love with someone else. Then, while Joey is trying to comfort Rachel, he kneels down next to her hospital bed. An emotional Rachel says “yes” to what she thinks is a marriage proposal, for Joey has found and is holding a ring that Ross’s mother had given to Ross in the hopes that he would propose to Rachel. 

Ross and Rachel go through the ups and downs of co-parenting before finally deciding to get back together in the final season. However, most of Rachel’s early experiences as a mother happen while she is alone.

Chandler and Monica do get married, but they find out they are unable to conceive on their own. In Season 10, the couple decides to adopt and are matched with a woman named Erica who is seeking to give her baby up for adoption. Chandler and Monica also break the news to their friends that they’ll be leaving their Manhattan apartment for a home with more space in Westchester. 

Toward the end of the last season, Erica surprises everyone by giving birth to twins, and the couple adopts them.

It may seem trivial to worry about the relationships of fictional characters on television shows. However, “Friends” was just the gateway to a plethora of entertainment that glorified families and parenting in a non-traditional way. Unconventional families can be wonderful, and adoption is a beautiful gift. However, glorifying these situations in the media has likely contributed to the collapse of the family in America, which has been to the detriment of everyone.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire. 

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