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‘Friends’ Marta Kauffman apologises for trans misrepresentation

Kauffman has vocalised her regret over misgendering Chandler Bing’s trans parent – played by Kathleen Turner – for the first time. 

Well, it’s finally happened. After decades of wince-worthy jokes and a cast as white as Wonderbread, ‘Friends’ co-creator Marta Kauffman is addressing the show’s past mistakes.

It may be long overdue, but the many controversies of ‘Friends’ – not least the blatant misogyny, lack of diversity, and questionable takes on everything from queer identity to weight – have also become the props that keep it above water, paddling incessantly into daytime re-run slots.

Off-colour jokes like those aimed at ‘fat Monica’ (a rake-thin Courtney Cox wearing an obnoxiously bad fat-suit) have become the cornerstone of the ‘Friends’ legacy. Joey Tribiani’s constant objectification of women has – in some twisted way – been integral to his character’s popularity (infamous ‘women are like ice-cream’ analogy notwithstanding).

Other problematic storylines, like the insensitive treatment of ‘Fun’ – then ‘incredibly dull’ – Bobby’s struggle with alcoholism would rather be forgotten by most, swept under the carpet of forgettable episodes that only resurface during the most desperate of binge-watches.

But one character arc in particular has been re-addressed this week: the misgendering of Chandler Bing’s ‘father’, played by Kathleen Turner.

Turner’s character was a drag artist working in Las Vegas under the name ‘Helena Handbasket’, but was constantly referred to as ‘Charles Bing’ or ‘dad’ during her stint on the show.

Using male pronouns to describe a person who presents as female has stirred controversy amongst modern viewers, who deem the treatment of Helena transphobic.

While the show’s stars have addressed ‘Friends’ handling of various social issues over the years, co-creator Marta Kauffman has finally spoken out for the first time about Bing’s representation.

‘Pronouns were not yet something that I understood’, Kauffman said. ‘So we didn’t refer to that character as she. It was a mistake.’

Prior to Kauffman’s recent apology over trans misrepresentation, Kathleen Turner had already admitted she wouldn’t accept the role of Helena if it were offered to her in 2019. ‘Of course, I wouldn’t do it [today] because there would be real people able to do [that part].’

Turner also told ‘Out’ that the show didn’t age well and ‘no one’ took it as a serious piece of social commentary.

But other stars, like David Schwimmer – who played Ross Geller – have defended ‘Friends’ after recent backlash. ‘I don’t care, ‘ he told The Guardian in 2020. ‘That show was ground-breaking in its time for the way in which it handles so casually sex, protected sex, gay marriage and relationships.’

Schwimmer’s comments spotlight an important debate that underpins popular culture like ‘Friends’. When shows continue to attract a new fanbase well after their final air date, are we fair to hold them to the same standards as shows released today?

‘Friends’ was certainly progressive for its time in some ways. But other storylines, like the lack of Black characters and the treatment of women, can’t be explained away. And disregarding modern criticism of the show only validates its problems.

Kauffman’s apology is a positive step forward. By addressing the mis-gendering of a trans character, she has shown critics how outdated pop culture can right past wrongs. This follows a recent pledge to donate $4 million to Brandeis University’s African and African American studies department over ‘embarrassment’ for the show’s lack of diversity.

‘I’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years’, Kauffman told the Huffington Post at the time. ‘Admitting and accepting guilt is not easy. It’s painful looking at yourself in the mirror. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know better 25 years ago.’

Kauffman’s co-creator Kevin Bright has defended ‘Friends’ casting choices, stating he ‘would have been insane not to cast those six actors’. But Kauffman has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from viewers, and takes pride in her decision.

‘I’ve gotten nothing but love. […] I’ve gotten a lot of ‘It’s about time’. […] It’s just people acknowledging it was long overdue.’

 

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