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Theology of the Body in ‘Friends’

February 3, AD 2016 6 Comments

The classic TV sitcom, Friends, is iconic for its long run, humor, and relatable characters that made everyone feel they were part of the “gang.” Friends also pushed the envelope, dealing with themes that America was just beginning to delve into in the 1990s. Taking a supportive and liberal approach to topics such as hook up culture, marriage and divorce, “alternative” families, and homosexual relationships, Friends dealt openly with themes previously considered taboo.

Yet, in the 10 seasons Friends ruled TV, the show made a compelling argument against all the social changes it tried so hard to support. Homosexual relationships, hook-up culture, and the redefinition of the family played prominent roles in each of the characters’ lives, yet, it is apparent that each of these elements were inherently bad for the characters on multiple levels. This ironic social commentary opens the door for a rich engagement with Pope Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, the themes of which play out in many of Friends’ characters and episodes. The relationships of the six characters provide an in depth social commentary as their friendships help one another to grow in maturity throughout the show. In the interest of time, I want to focus on the experience of one of the main characters: Chandler. 

We learn early on that Chandler’s parents divorced and his father left to become a drag queen in Vegas. This, understandably, sows many issues in Chandler that are most obviously noticed in Chandler’s inability to celebrate Thanksgiving. Since that was the day he learned of his parent’s separation, it has been irreparably ruined for him. Indeed, we see that Thanksgiving brings up enormous emotional scarring in Chandler that is hard for him to handle at best and completely debilitating at worst.

Chandler’s issues with his parents become more apparent as the show progresses. We see that Chandler is riddled with insecurities regarding his sexuality, social abilities, and worth as a person. He is incapable of maintaining long-term relationships, and finds intimacy threatening. He focuses on casual dating and one-night stands, resulting in a promiscuous and concupiscent character early in the show. This “concupiscence signifies … that the personal relations of man and woman are one-sidedly and reductively tied to the body and to sex” with no deeper intimacy established (TOB 259). This inability to establish long-term relationships is a reflection of Chandler’s “concupiscence [which] brings with it the loss of the interior freedom of the gift [of self]” (TOB 259). In fact, it isn’t until Chandler makes peace with his father that he is able to move forward and prepare for marriage to Monica. By mastering his fear of commitment, history of promiscuity, and the wrong he was dealt in childhood, Chandler is able to be vulnerable to his wife and “become a gift” which is only possible “if [man and woman] each masters himself” (TOB 259-60).

Chandler’s relationship with Monica also helps him engage with his sexuality in a healthy way. This allows him to establish the confidence so drastically undermined during childhood. Just as Adam in the tobgarden, in his original solitude, stood in “search of his own ‘identity’” and “falls into his [sleep] with the desire of finding a being similar to himself” so too does Chandler search for his own identity, only to find it when he awakens from his concupiscent torpor and enters a relationship with Monica (TOB 159). For Adam, it is only in the creation of the female Eve that he is finally able to understand himself as “male”, and rest in “the identity of human nature” (TOB 161). Likewise, Chandler struggles to establish his manhood before dating Monica. Yet, in the context of a woman who challenges Chandler to grow as a person, he does find his masculinity and rests in that knowledge. As Adam understands his “particular value before God [as] male first and … second because he is for ‘woman’” (TOB 161) so also Chandler finds a value in his role of male in his relationship with Monica.

Chandler’s character also makes a strong argument against alternate families. Chandler is dealing with the effects of his father’s homosexuality, his parents’ divorce, and his father being “replaced” with a womanized version of his father as a drag queen. Likewise, Ben, Ross’ son, has a mother who is homosexual, his parents got divorced, and his father is replaced with the woman of Susan. Since episodes focused on Chandler are repeatedly aired in close proximity with episodes focusing on Ben, it seems that, knowingly or not, Friends makes the statement that Ben will be dealing with the same problems as Chandler for a very long time. In many ways, Chandler’s experience prefigures Ben’s and establishes a strong stance against homosexual relationships. Chandler’s parents, “by violating the dimension of the mutual gift of the man and the woman … cast doubt on the fact that [every person] is willed by the Creator ‘for himself,” a doubt that plagues Chandler long term (TOB 259).

Finally, only Ross and Monica’s parents are still married, which is reflected in their children’s relationships. Monica and Chandler are able to get married and stay married only because Monica “coaches” Chandler in the ways of healthy relationships. While Phoebe does get married, it is only after several seasons of observing Monica and Chandler’s marriage and often inquiring into the inner workings of their relationship.

Furthermore, while Monica is able to establish a healthy and long-lasting relationship with Chandler, Ross’ marriage breaks apart and his separation from his wife subsequently causes him to lose his consistency and identity as a man. As the show progresses, we see Chandler’s and Ross’ characters reverse rolls. Chandler grows into the easy-going, good guy that Ross was at the beginning of the show and Ross slowly devolves into an insecure and awkward character.

It is significant that we learn in the first season that at the time of his divorce, Ross had only ever had intercourse with Carol, his wife. Since this fundamental human bond has since been broken, Ross continually tries to return to the married state his soul desires. Since Ross wants to know that the relationship is “for keeps,” every relationship he enters gets too serious too quickly on his part. John Paul II notes that in such situations, the over-sentimentalizing of relationships are often their downfall: “the ideal is more powerful than the real, living human being, and the latter often becomes merely the occasion for an eruption in the subject’s emotional consciousness of the values which he or she longs with all his heart to find in another person”(L&R 44). Ross becomes progressively more emotionally needy and awkward in relationships and makes a deity out of his idea of the perfect relationship, an effect consistent with the spiritual turmoil that these broken relationships are sowing. However, since Ross is anxious for marriage and many of the women he meets do not share his goals, the relationships Ross begins throughout the course of Friends never result in anything long term since “love between two people is quite unthinkable without some common good to bind them together” (L&R 28). In contrast, we see Chandler become healthier and “more Chandler” as his healthy relationship with Monica progresses, while Ross becomes more and more dysfunctional as relationship after relationship fails.

While Friends presents great food for thought on the Theology of the Body, there are definite week points in the show. For example, the indissolubility of marriage is never truly resolved which is problematic. Nevertheless, there are many other situations in the course of this sit-com that lend themselves to deeper analysis. I’ve only focused on one character and the other five have as much to offer as Chandler. I myself have only scratched the surface!

About the Author:

Emma graduated cum laude from Hillsdale College in May, 2013 with a BA in Philosophy. She is happily married to a wonderful man and lives in Michigan.
  • Charity

    Emma, I think it is a bit obvious you are manipulating certain aspects of the show to fit the examples you want, which makes for a “week” (please see first sentence of your last paragraph) article.

    If you are going to suggest the episodes with examples of Chandler’s dysfunctional childhood are aired closely with episodes of Ben’s childhood, it may be good to show a few examples. Chandler’s character’s foundation was being presented in the first few seasons, which happen to be the seasons Ben was most involved in so there may not be a direct correlation between those two story lines. It is also referenced several times it was the disappointment of the abandonment of his father, ie., not coming to his school events, that hurt Chandler greatly. You make the point that Chandler has issues because of his troubling childhood, but you don’t touch on Phoebe’s childhood, which many would consider equally or more troubling. Perhaps that’s because you are only using certain aspects of this show to showcase your point?

    Emma, you juxtapose Ross and Chandler’s characters to show Chandler growing in maturity in regard to his sexuality and his relationship and you say that Ross’s character deteriorates in that respect, but that is simply not true. Yes, the show covers many of Ross’s up’s and down’s in relationships, but the entire series ends with Rachel and Ross becoming a couple. The relationship Ross began with Rachel may have had it’s trials and taken a long time to come to fruition, but ultimately Ross ends up with Rachel, in a healthy relationship that showcases their love for one another, their daughter, and the idea of a happy family. With that said, I am confused why you didn’t touch on this at all in your second to last article. You also dont address why Monica has a great example of two loving parents that grounded her in her relationships, but Ross, who had the same parents, did not benefit from their example? In addition to that, Monica seems to struggle with her relationship with her parents throughout the entirety of the series while Ross is portrayed as the “golden child” who had a great relationship with his parents, so it seems odd that you’d still argue Monica is more positively influenced by her parents relationship than Ross.

    Fans of the show may see the discrepancies in your article, but for people who have not, your article is misleading and simply dishonest. I think its great to showcase the teachings of theology of the body in pop culture and modern society, and I believe there are many instances of it, but please use ones that are real instead of making what could be a great argument completely useless.

    • Emma King

      I’m sorry you found the article disappointing, but I don’t think your points undermine the thesis at all. I stated a couple of times that there were many, MANY other instances in the show that showcase TOB. I would have loved to delve into Phoebe and all of the other characters. In fact, this article started out as a survey of all 6 of them, but that became too massive to handle. Since this is a blog, space is limited and the author’s ability to delve into the show is therefore limited by space. I really would like to write a book about TOB in “Friends,” since there is so much, but unfortunately the nature of online writing is such that you can only do a survey of the topic rather than an in-depth treatise. I chose Chandler because TOB in his character was more obvious than the others. This doesn’t mean that I think TOB was more present in his story-line, simply more obvious.

      I think if you read JP2’s Wednesday Catechesis (TOB), you would find much of what is discussed in his writing, and this article, truly reflected in “Friends.” It was frustrating for me, as well, trying to identify the specific episodes coupling Chandler and Ben. While I was watching the show, it was a theme that both my husband and I picked up on, and when I went to write this article I tried to locate the specific seasons and numbers of episodes to strengthen my stance, as you suggest. However, since “Friends” had 236 episodes, you can imagine the difficulty trying to re-watch the entire show and pinpoint the specific seasons and episodes. If I were to write the aforementioned book, I would definitely take the time and effort to identify those episodes, but for a blog, it is something that can be left to summary. Sure, it may weaken the point a bit, but it shouldn’t be enough that the reader suddenly sees the whole post as wrong or unbelievable, especially given that it is a blog, which is inherently more colloquial than formal, academic writing. This is especially so since many fans of “Friends” watch the show often and can easily go back and watch the show looking for those trends if they so desire.

      My point with Ross was that he desired the relationship that his parents had and he knew what to look for in relationships. He longed for the long-lasting commitment he saw in his parents’ relationship, and the more that DIDN’T happen, the more his soul “paid” for it. I coupled him and Chandler together to illustrate that growth in a healthy relationship helps even those with broken sexuality/backgrounds to become more human, while those whose sexual relationships are continually hurt are negatively impacted long term. If you watch Ross’ character over the course of the show, he starts out a happy, well-adjusted guy. A bit of a dork, but a solid character. As the show progresses he becomes more and more awkward. For example, there is one episode where he tries to make a point that he is good at flirting and he fails miserably when trying to flirt with the pizza delivery girl. As Ross enters relationships he consistently moves too quickly and tries to make relationships work that are obviously doomed from the get go (i.e. when he tried to date his student, as an example). My point was not to get into a long discussion on Ross, since as I mentioned earlier, as well as in the post, space is limited.

      I disagree with many of your propositions about the show (specifically what injured Chandler in childhood and how that is made clear in the show), which goes to show that many will relate to it and have things in it hit them differently. Many times Chandler would make jokes about how his father was a cross dresser (he made a joke relating his father’s behavior on Friday nights to that of a bachelorette party, and at his wedding he made a comment to his father that he looked “pretty, too” after commenting that his mother looked nice and his father got upset. There are other examples, but those should suffice for this specific post) and referenced his lack of a father-figure constantly throughout the show. Sure, that’s seen in his father’s lack of physical presence, but one can take the stance that his father wasn’t simply PHYSICALLY absent, but masculinely absent as well. The physical absence then signifies or reflects the lack of FATHER that Chandler experienced in many regards, not simply in a physical way.

      The article is not dishonest simply because you don’t automatically see in “Friends” what I saw in it. I am a big fan of the show and was pleasantly surprised when I saw these themes popping up. They weren’t something I was looking for when I sat down to watch it, rather they were themes that continually came up as I progressed through the show. I discussed this theses with many scholars who are far more learned in areas of TOB than I, and they agreed that there was definitely something there. Many people who have spent years studying TOB agreed that “Friends” was reflecting many of its tenants and thought this would be an interesting angle to take on the beloved show.

      Not saying that you don’t have some good critiques. I probably should have spent the hundreds of hours re-watching “Friends” to reference the seasons and episodes regarding Ben and Chandler. But I didn’t, and this is blog, so it’s probably a forgivable oversight. I would also reiterate that simply because these themes didn’t pop out at you automatically does not mean that they aren’t there, and you may enjoy re-watching the show with a copy of TOB in hand! 🙂

      • Charity

        I understand that this is a blog, so naturally the style of writing and content would be different than an academic article or a book; however, if you really believe there to be many, MANY instances of TOB in friends, it may be helpful to provide at least a brief synopsis of the other themes. I’ve also read many other blogs and “online writing” that delve a lot farther in detail that this article did, so you frequently bringing up that fact that this article is a blog in your response doesn’t change the fact that you purposefully chose to manipulate the material in “Friends” to fit your thesis and left out anything which directly opposed that.

        I’m also not quite sure why you couldn’t locate the episodes with Chandler and Ben’s themes that were aired closely together, that is material found simply by a google search, which I am assuming you know how to do. Also, most fans would immediately know, as I stated earlier, that Ben was only in a small number of episodes from the series, and generally all in the first few seasons, so even if you had to watch them to find it, I am sure it would not have been too daunting a task. I was taught to strengthen my arguments with actual proof, not just hope people would take my word – when I read the article and you provided no reference or proof for your statement and then couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide any in your reply, I immediately question the validity of your claims. I have read many blogs that were able to address larger topics and still provide reference and proof for their readers, I don’t believe it is too much to ask.

        Now that you clarify and state what you meant when referencing Ross’s character I understand your point and believe it aligns with the rest of your blog. However, I disagree that his character becomes “more awkward.” I understand the point you are trying to make, but it just does not seem to fit with the examples you’ve given. We see multiple flashbacks to Ross in his college age years and he is equally, if not more, awkward then, (ie., when he tried to make small talk with Rachel at the Geller’s house and she walked away, when he tried to look cool and Monica made fun of him at Thanksgiving during college, and when he was ready to take Rachel to prom and she left him standing on the staircase with flowers on video camera.) Contrary to what your article said about Ross becoming more awkward over the course of the show, I think we see a great character development and it ends with him in a happy, committed relationship. It you didn’t have enough time or space in your article to address Ross’s character development correctly, you shouldn’t have addressed it all. My point in bringing this up is that you manipulated certain aspects of Ross’s character to fit your thesis and illustrate your point, which I take issue with.

        I agree that Chandler’s dad being transgender definitely had an impact on him and was something Chandler struggled with throughout most of the series, illustrated in the episodes nearing his and Monica’s wedding. However, again it seems you left out critical material to showcase your thesis more pointedly. The physical abandonment of his father was touched upon in the series as well, and you would have only needed to add one small phrase in order to include that.

        I don’t think the article is dishonest because we saw different themes in “Friends,” I think it is dishonest because you only comment on what supports your claims and purposefully leave out any and all material that could provide proof of anything otherwise. I would enjoy the article if it touched upon more complex and not obvious themes in the series and point out and overcome any possible flaws in the thesis without needing a comment to bring up any discrepancies. I am also very interested in whether the scholars you discussed TOB in were also viewers of “Friends” and whether you presented a more formulated, solid thesis argument to them than you wrote here.

        I believe your article has some good points; however, they could have been formulated on a stronger foundation and illustrated with more clarity. Again, I’d like to reiterate that I wouldn’t expect you or want you to re-watch thousands of hours of “Friends” episodes to write a blog article, but perhaps a quick google search would help (I just did one myself and it only took me about five minutes to get a general timeline of the episodes regarding Ben and Chandler that you reference.) I may actually grab my copy of TOB and watch a few episodes just for fun; although, you may enjoy putting down your copy and enjoying the comical themes of the show, as they were intended, a bit more.

      • Emma King

        I think you’re manipulating the show as much as you claim I am if you’re going to make the argument that Ross becomes MORE normal as the show progresses. Sure, he and Rachel end up together, but I have pretty big problems with how that’s resolved, too. Which, we could get into, however, this blog isn’t about Ross. Moreover, the small portion of this article that is about Ross isn’t somehow negated because I didn’t spent paragraphs upon paragraphs outlining his plot line. There is enough info in there for a reasonable comparison between Chandler and Ross. Sorry I didn’t talk about the characters you wanted me to talk about.

        Thank you for recommending Google. I hadn’t thought of that before now, so I’m glad that you presented that tool. Go figure. You’d think I would have thought of that, living in the 21st century. Glad there are people like you to point that out….. Seriously? I did use Google. I used Netflix. I even found a website that gave all of the episodes in order with a brief summary. However, the plot lines of Ben and Chandler in the episodes I was referencing often weren’t included in the episode summary. Sometimes it was an episode focused on Chandler, often times those episodes had Chandler as a subplot, which wasn’t included in the episode summary. While Ben is primarily presented in the first season, there are a few episodes in later seasons where Ben appears. Even then, there were several episodes that I did find that demonstrated this point, but trying to summarize the plot lines enough to make the point took so much room and were enough of a rabbit trail that I felt it better to leave it to summary.

        Dishonesty is a pretty harsh claim to make, especially since you haven’t taken the time to truly understand what I was saying in this post. It may be disappointing to you that there wasn’t more concrete evidence, but sorry, I ain’t perfect and this article wasn’t written specifically for you. I too was taught to support my claims, but again, figured that there was enough other evidence to let it slide. Perhaps that was a bad judgement call, but it’s certainly not enough to merit the anger and accusations coming from you.

        I used specific examples that clearly illustrated my point. I wasn’t trying to cover anything up or cherry pick the show to my liking. Rather, I was using elements of the show that clearly demonstrated what I was saying. That’s what happens in writing: you use examples and quotes to clarify and support the claim you’re making. While you have to be careful that you don’t manipulate the material, it’s also understood that you won’t present every single instance of XYZ. I didn’t manipulate the show. I used elements that were clear examples of my thesis. That’s a pretty big difference. Again, if you don’t want me to cherry pick, I would have to go into every single episode, and that just seems a little ridiculous.

        You can keep berating me about this, but I don’t see the point. If my article has the power to make you this upset, I can’t imagine what an ongoing conversation with me would do! So, with that, I’m done. I’ve defended my piece, and the rest I’ll let lie in peace.

      • Charity

        If you would like to not discuss anymore that is fine. With that said, I will say, I am not “angered” by your article, although you seem to be quite angry with my response to it, especially in your last comment. I have read your other articles and I have seen your responses to other people’s comments and there is a common thread of refusal to admit to any wrongdoing, accusing anyone who critiques your work of pettiness, and needing to have the last word – very unprofessional. If you are going to post these sort of articles then have a little humility and accept not everyone agrees with you; because you put your work online for the public to read then you will need to allow others to comment upon said work without attacking them. My last response wasn’t angry, as you characterized it, nor do I believe “Friends” is unambiguous, I just believe you could have and should have done a better job writing your article. You are making claims about the show without providing the evidence to support those claims, I am sorry if you like to make excuses for yourself because its a blog but that’s simply not good enough. And yes, “seriously” about the google suggestion – if I could find the information online in five minutes then I am sure you could have within a few moments, as well. Considering you are the one who wrote the article I would’ve hoped you had taken the time to do so in the first place and since you admitted in your first reply to my comment you did not do this research, I think you could benefit from being reminded to use the resources provided to you. I am sorry you are so uncharitable in your responses and cannot take criticism, that is a shame but please don’t try to displace your anger onto me and my comments. Now, I am sure none of my comments matter anyways because they will be deleted as many other critical comments on your articles have in the past, as well.

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