One of the most popular and profitable sitcoms in recent television history was “Friends,” broadcast for 10 seasons from 1994 to 2004.
The show, co-created by Marta Kauffman and David Crane, was wildly uneven in quality over the years. But it had some very appealing characteristics including, for a time, superb scriptwriting, which propelled its success through long periods, even entire seasons, of substandard episodes.
The show’s appeal resided, first, in its portrayal of six attractive, imperfect people with everyday problems who embraced each other in unconditional friendship – friendship that promised to supersede misunderstanding, inconvenience, personal neurosis, conflict of interest, and even betrayal.
Once a week, audiences tuned in to watch the mundane, frustrating aspects of their own lives dramatized through beauty, humor, and happy endings. People saw gorgeous, vibrant young people with fashionable clothes, clever minds, and spacious Greenwich Village apartments, enacting – at least sometimes, and to some extent – their own real life anxieties, mistakes, longings, relationship problems, humiliations, and petty obsessions in a comfortable, ultimately safe setting where love almost always had the last word.
The realistic depiction of women’s subjectivity, rare in the sit com world, was to a large extent built in to the format of “Friends.” The female characters – Rachel, Monica, and Phoebe – were at least as complex as the male characters, Ross, Chandler, and Joey. Female characters had their own independent place in the plotlines. They possessed their own independent neuroses, dysfunctional family backgrounds, frailties and talents, desires and ambitions, while remaining, along with the male characters, the show’s heroes.
These appealing aspects of the show were established from the beginning. But a show’s potential cannot be brought to the screen without competent weekly scriptwriting. Sometimes the weekly scripts of “Friends” were outstanding. Witty absurdity mixed with surprisingly realistic perceptions, desires, relationships. Sexual themes were integrated aspects of character and plot. Dialogue remained true to character. Plotlines were faithful to each character’s desires, intersecting and colliding with the desires of other characters in unpredictable, comical, yet believable ways.
A great example is “The One with the Birth,” from the first season, where Ross’s ex-wife Carol, pregnant with his child, goes into labor. Phoebe, playing the diplomat, accidently locks herself, Ross, and Carol’s lesbian partner Susan in a broom closet at the hospital, where Ross and Susan have it out: “The woman I love is having a baby today! I’ve been waiting for this just as much as you have,” Susan yells at Ross. “No, no, no … When this day is over, you get to go home with the baby, okay? Where does that leave me?” Ross yells. Susan yells back, “You get to be the baby’s father. Everyone know who you are. Who am I? There’s Mother’s Day, there’s Father’s Day, there’s no Lesbian Lover’s Day!” Ross roars, “Every day is Lesbian Lover’s Day!”
In “The One where Dr. Ramore Dies,” from the second season, Monica and her boyfriend Richard are in her bedroom and confess they love each other for the first time. Meanwhile, roommate Rachel is in her own bedroom with her boyfriend Ross, where they confide their insecurites and passions. Rachel and Monica head to the bathroom at the same time for a condom, but there’s only one left. They negotiate: Rachel offers to do Monica’s laundry for a month if she can have it, and then ups the offer to cleaning the apartment for two months. “All right, I tell you what,” Monica says, “I’ll give this to you if you can tell me where we keep the dustpan.” Rachel hasn’t a clue. They rock-paper-scissors, and Rachel wins. “Fine, go have sex,” Monica says. She informs Richard in a huff, “It’s not gonna happen. They’re doing it tonight, we can do it tomorrow.”
Because of the dearth of high quality television scriptwriting, the well-written episodes stood out as enthralling gems, leaving many viewers willing to wait out long periods of mediocrity – even trash – for effective follow up to what had worked so well early on.
The poorer quality shows, which appeared more frequently after the series’ success was well established, resulted primarily or even solely from poor quality scripts. The show’s inherently appealing characteristics, along with its popular, talented actors, were still at work, but these factors were rendered largely ineffectual by weekly scripts that featured unrealistic dialogue, character inconsistency, superficial plots, and stomach-turning raunch.
In these scripts, sexual storylines were more sickening than funny, sometimes little more than cleaned up versions of the male fantasies in Penthouse Forum. Pornography and prostitution were paraded as healthy and acceptable aspects of the male characters’ lives – Chandler’s and Joey’s in particular – which the female characters seldom minded, and often happily accommodated. The jokes and banter increasingly resembled televised sexual harassment, hostility, and the ugly graffiti of adolescent males schooled in misogyny.
These raunchy aspects to the show were more common mid-run, but occasionally appeared in the first few seasons, where women’s bodies and sexuality were depicted as severed from women’s self-possession and personhood. In “The One with the Breast Milk” in season two, Joey and Chandler are grossed out by Carol’s breastfeeding of her baby. Joey asks her, “If he blows into one, does the other get bigger?”
By the sixth season, the objectification of women not only became the norm in one liner jokes, but the predominant theme of entire episodes. In “The One where Ross Dates a Student,” Ross, the character who is always falling emotionally for women, dates “Elizabeth,” a character who seems cut right out of soft porn celluloid – a vapid blond with no discernible personality characteristics other than that she really likes sex, especially when it’s “naughty.” Ross tells Joey and Monica he really likes the young woman because she is “mature.” Joey holds out his hands indicating “big boobs.” Chandler enters the room. In this same episode, Chandler is making big sacrifices for Joey by socializing with a smart woman he knew in college who became a movie director, in order to ask her to give Joey an audition. Chandler tells the three of them he “needs more time” to ask the favor and so must have dinner with “Dana Keystone.” Ross, recognizing her name, says, “Oh yeah! Wasn’t she uh …” and he indicates “big boobs.” “No, that was Dana Caplin,” Chandler says. The three “ahhh.”
The dinner scene opens with Chandler’s display of torturous boredom with the female director, who is not offensive in any way other than that she is not cut out of celluloid. Chandler begins with, “Great story again! The yarns that you weave! Woo-hoo-hoo!” After he finally asks her the favor and Dana agrees, Chandler says to her with contempt, “I’ll see you later!” and races off, as if spending more time with her would make him vomit.
These scripts, it was later revealed, emerged from an atmosphere in the writers’ room that reflected a shocking level of misogyny that manifested in the scripts themselves. The behind-the-scenes dynamics during this mid-run period were exposed through a sexual harassment suit filed by Amaani Lyle, a 26-year-old African American woman who was hired in 1999 as a writers’ assistant for the “Friends” staff.
Lyle’s main job as a writers’ assistant was to transcribe everything the writers said during the work sessions. After six months on the job, she was fired for failing to keep up.
According to the sexual harassment suit she filed in 1999 against Warner Brothers, NBC Studios, Bright, Kauffman, Crane Productions, and three of the producer/writers on the staff – Adam Chase, Gregory Malins and Andrew Reich – the content of what Lyle was supposed to speedily transcribe included hour after hour of the male writers’ boasts of their sexual exploits, their jokes about rape and stalking, their detailed descriptions of blow jobs, their use of derogatory words like “bitch” and “cunt” to describe women they didn’t like, and other sexist as well as racist comments. Adam Chase, Andrew Reich and Greg Malins in particular, Lyle claimed, “would speak about women with complete disrespect.”
“They would constantly be goofing off disrespecting blacks or women and everybody would have to wait for them to finish,” the suit claimed. At the end of the workday she would sometimes have to wait to go home “while writers were sitting around pretending to masturbate.”
When Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman was present, the suit claimed, the staff wasn’t allowed to use the word “cunt.” Presumably, the atmosphere in the writers’ room shifted accordingly and the male writers understood that a certain level of misogyny, equivalent to the use of the word “cunt,” would not be tolerated. As co-creator of the show, Kauffman had a higher rank than the other writers, and therefore she had the power protect her own right to work in an atmosphere free of what she found too offensive, without help from the courts. Perhaps it was during these sessions of required restraint that the more creative, higher quality scripts emerged.
When there were no standards for behavior, the suit claimed, Chase, Reich, and Malins and other male writers used the writing sessions to draw lewd pictures of women. The three men speculated as to whether Courtney Cox was “competently” sexually servicing her boyfriend. Chase informed his co-workers of the way he wanted to fuck Jennifer Aniston.
Lyle claimed in the suit that Reich was openly condescending to her, shot down every idea she had, and spoke to her as if she were “dumb,” unlike the way he treated the other writers’ assistants, who were white males.
The suit also claimed that on one occasion, Greg Malins took a copy of the “Friends” script cover and blackened out letters to make it say “penis”, then held it up and announced, “This is the most important thing you’ll learn on ‘Friends’.”
So it would seem. By the late ‘90s, the charming sitcom “Friends” had become a vehicle for transmitting the writers’ raunchy, male supremacist values, openly reveled in during writing sessions, filtered for broadcasting over the public airwaves, and delivered directly into living rooms across the country.
“Friends” is certainly not the only TV show that delivered high doses of raunch. It had higher levels than most, perhaps because it was more successful than most and could get away with it. But raunch on sitcoms of all kinds is now the norm. According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, released in November of last year, the number of sexual scenes on television has nearly doubled since 1998. The study found that 70 percent of all shows include some sexual content, and that these shows average 5.0 sexual scenes per hour. During prime time hours, when children are most likely watching, sex is even more common, with 77 percent of shows including sexual content, averaging 5.9 sexual scenes per hour.
The study didn’t measure the percentage of sexual scenes that would qualify as “raunch,” but even a casual viewing of TV sitcoms makes clear that depictions respectful of female sexuality are few and far between. The study did measure how often “safe sex” was addressed. It found that only 14 percent of shows with sexual content include at least one scene with a reference to sexual risks or responsibilities, and that two thirds of these references are “minor or inconsequential.”
As recently as fifteen years ago, sexually offensive storylines and male locker room jokes were not nearly so common on television. Since the early ‘90s, the level of television raunch has skyrocketed. Perhaps this shift in mainstream entertainment was in some ways a response to Anita Hill’s pivotal testimony against Clarence Thomas in 1991, which supposedly led to the enforcement of sexual harassment laws in the workplace. After the “freedom” to harass became more restricted in the workplace, was the mainstream media – untouchable by sexual harassment laws – used to compensate, teaching, modelling, and promoting sexual harassment through entertainment that is transmitted directly into millions of homes across the country (and the world)?
Certainly the exponential increase in sexually explicit content has helped normalize in mainstream society the very same attitudes toward women and sexuality that were celebrated in the “Friends” writers’ room. By loading this and other shows with high levels of tasteless raunch, writers and producers contributed to creating a culture that makes sexual bullying and exploitation seem acceptable and harmless, culturally stealing from victims the grounds to object.
The power of television to influence society should not be underestimated. Most affected by these shows, of course, are children and teenagers.
Children spend more time watching TV than doing any other activity except sleeping. By age 18, the average American teenager will have spent more time watching television – 25,000 hours – than learning in the classroom. Teens rank the media second only to school sex education programs as their leading source of information about sex. TV has no less influence in modelling courtship (or the lack thereof), and in teaching children and teens what is expected of them in relationships.
The American Academy of Pediatrics warned in 2001 and in 2004 that the media’s sexual messages – increasingly “explicit” as well as “unrealistic, inaccurate, and misleading” – play a significant role in promoting gender stereotyping and early sexual activity, which the studies link to high rates of STDs and sexual violence.
Parents, children’s advocacy organizations and politically conservative groups have been lobbying to put an end to extensive sexuality (misogynist or not) on TV, while producers and networks have aimed to increase it, presumably for commercial reasons. As the saying goes, “sex sells.” Hollywood has argued that it simply serves up what audiences want.
Yet a 1994 confidential research report for NBC on the “Friends” pilot contradicts this claim. The report indicates that the drive for higher profits and ratings is not what’s really behind the increase of raunch in television scripts. The telling evaluation of test audiences for “Friends” included this warning: “Don’t overdo sexual situtations, at least early in the show’s run. It will work against broadening the audience base.”
As this warning demonstrates, it is not the “broad audience” that is pushing for more sex on TV. Yet the goal to increase “sexual situations” was treated in the report as simply a given, so widely shared in the industry that no further explanation for wanting a later increase of “sexual situations” was even needed. The warning disaffirms the claim that the industry simply offers what the viewers want, catering to the lowest common denominator for commercial reasons.
Although the phrase “sexual situations” doesn’t necessarily mean raunch, “overdoing it” probably does. Looking through “Friends” scripts, it’s clear that there were plenty of “sexual situations” from the very beginning. But sexuality and humor in the earlier shows tended to be integrated as aspects of character and relationship complexity: the sweet but angst-filled romance between Ross and Rachel; Monica’s warm, conflicted relationship with Richard; the brief, spark-filled romance between Phoebe and David the scientist; Chandler’s discovery of his love for the hysterical Janice.
The license to “overdo sexual situations” was apparently issued as time passed, after a broad audience was established and money was rolling in. The raunch increased, and relationships (and sexuality) became by and large phony and uninteresting – Chandler and Monica, Joey and Rachel, Phoebe and Mike, Ross and Emily, even Rachel and Ross. Brief affairs tended to involve two-dimensional minor characters that were completely forgettable.
The research note warning producers that overdoing the sex too soon would work against broadening an audience should have been an obvious point. After all, the majority of television viewers do not live in a fraternity. Most viewers are actually women, and the overwhelming majority are women, plus children, plus men who don’t care for raunch. Degrading sex jokes, explicit sex scenes, sex-obsessed characters, and plotlines featuring sex after minimal or no dating are clearly not what most TV viewers have been pressuring writers and producers to put on the air.
People don’t want it, yet year after year it increases. In the absence of organized feminist opposition, conservative lobbies that aim to suppress women’s and gay rights as well as any depiction of sexuality in the culture are the main forces countering Hollywood’s over-the-top raunch. The powerful lobbies are not making the crucial distinction between the dehumanizing sexual scenarios and jokes on TV, and the relatively rare, honest depictions of sexuality, in comedy or drama, that reflect and strengthen our humanity. There aren’t enough of the latter, and we need to encourage cultural representations of sex that are respectful of women’s subjectivity. Unfortunately, too many of those who oppose conservative efforts to suppress all depictions of sexuality simply throw their political weight on the side of those who use sex to degrade and abuse. The response should instead be to support those individuals and feminist organizations demanding dignified treatment and representation of women both in the workplace and in popular culture.
Amaani Lyle’s sexual harassment suit was initially dismissed by a trial judge who ruled that the harassment was an essential part of the male writers’ creative process, and not directed at her personally.
In April 2004, a Court of Appeals reinstated Lyle’s claim, explaining, “A woman may be the victim of sexual harassment if she is forced to work in an atmosphere of hostility or degradation of her gender.”
But in April 2006, the California Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit, unanimously ruling that vulgar and coarse comments reflected the “creative workplace” for a comedy with sexual themes, and that the male writers did not direct their lewd comments at Lyle or at women in particular.
Ironically, because the male writers’ behavior in the workplace ultimately contributed to normalizing sexual harassment in larger society, the sexual harassment that took place in the writers’ room was viewed as acceptable, and therefore legal. Before our eyes, the cultural normalization of sexual harassment through the mainstream media is influencing the legal interpretation of sexual harassment law, and those who helped to normalize such behavior are consequently exempted from accountability.
Justice Ming W. Chin wrote in his opinion that such lawsuits “directed at restricting the creative process in a workplace whose very business is speech-related, present a clear and present danger to fundamental speech rights.” Clearly it is not women’s speech rights he is worried about. The judges did not seem to find relevant the fact that an atmosphere of basic respect is essential for effective creativity, and that sexual harassment destroys it. As the male writers for “Friends” were aware, rape jokes are a powerful way to silence women.
Jeffrey Winikow, representing a group of employment lawyers, pointed out that the ruling allows behavior by scriptwriters that “will continue to create this atmosphere where a woman really has to desensitize herself to all forms of misogyny to succeed in that business.” (Los Angeles Times, April 21)
Eileen Conn, a successful female scriptwriter who has written for “Mad About You” and “Just Shoot Me”, inadvertantly affirmed this view in Christopher Noxon’s article on Lyle’s suit (New York Times, October 17, 2004). “I can get just as bawdy as the guys,” she boasted. “You either join them or get out,” she said.
Along similar lines, “Murphy Brown” creator Diane English told Noxon she learned early on to “out-gross the guys” as a strategy for staying afloat. “That way,” she explained, “they knew they couldn’t intimidate us and the playing field was equal.” English, who stood firmly on the side of the networks and producers being sued, was admitting in this statement that the men used their sexual banter to intimidate women. That was its purpose. Her defensive response was to make it clear to “the guys” that their tactic wouldn’t work.
“It was a rotten place to be a woman, basically,” one woman writer told Noxon on condition of anonymity for fear of losing future job prospects. (Some speech clearly isn’t tolerated by the industry). An annual sexual harassment seminar, she said, inspired an especially boisterous round of joking. “We all knew we could sue,” she told Noxon, “but we also knew if we did we’d never work again.”
According to the Writers Guild of America, women comprise only 29.3 percent of TV staff writers in the 2005-2006 season – though women comprise 51 percent of the population. Minorities, 30 percent of the population, are 12 percent of writers in 2005-2006. Once on staff, inequality for women and minorities continues. Men and whites are far more likely to be the “show runners,” while women and minorities are disproportionately in lower ranking positions.
But even these discouraging statistics don’t reflect the fact that the misogynist, bawdy work environment – which Hollywood insiders admit is virtually ubiquitous – largely determines which women will work in the industry, as well as which women will rise to the top. Many creative, talented women have too much respect for women to stand it day after day, and so they opt out. The test for success for women scriptwriters is partly based on whether they can endure the constant sexist assaults on mind and spirit. Those who win the culturally influential positions, then, are not necessarily the most talented, creative and prolific; instead, the work atmosphere elevates the ones willing to “join in” rather than “get out.”
Good paying jobs for creative writers are rare in this society. All else being equal, many of the most talented writers in the country would pursue television scriptwriting positions. And the competition is, in fact, fierce. But all else is not equal. The cream does not necessarily rise to the top. The dynamics in Hollywood writers’ rooms, exposed by Lyle’s lawsuit, go a long way in explaining not only the ubiquity of raunch on television, but the overall poor quality of work done by those who win the competitive positions.
As the Writers Guild of America wrote in an amicus brief on behalf of those being sued by Lyle, the successful output by writers is “few and far between, especially in television: a typical network will order 125 pilot scripts for an upcoming season. Of those 125 scripts, only 20 will be produced. Of those 20, only four or five will become a series, only one will last for one year, and only one in 20 of those that make it into series will stay on the air for five years.” The Guild declined to point out that even of those very few shows that last for one year, most are of appallingly poor quality. They succeed only because of the lack of quality in the competition.
The Guild – made up of writers who either carry out or manage to put up with misogynist raunch in the workplace – argued that what Lyle found to be a sexually offensive and oppressive atmosphere in the workplace is simply free expression that inevitably takes place during the creative process, and that this process must not be interfered with by the courts. Yet clearly it is this atmosphere that is interfering with creativity, as well as fairness and equality, in the writers’ room. Why don’t they connect the dots?
The answer to this question can be found on the “Friends” script cover where the title was changed to read “penis.” TV networks, producers and writers don’t primarily aim for quality. They aren’t simply in pursuit of profits. And they don’t just cater to the lowest common denominator. They aim to teach us something – “This is the most important thing you’ll learn on Friends.”
Dissident voices that bravely emerged in response to Lyle’s suit, critical of the raunch-driven, sexist and racist status quo, reveal that not all industry insiders want things to continue this way. The question now is: without help from the courts, how can the status quo be changed?