The lack of diversity in Friends is an issue.
People of Color (POC) are few and far between and in the 10 years and 236 episodes, only two come to mind with memorable roles: Helen Morgan (Julie) and Aisha Tyler (Charlie Wheeler).
It’s certainly not the first all-white sitcom, given Cheers ran for 11 years (1982-1993) and I’m not even sure there’s a non-speaking background character who’s a person of color. And it’s an issue that still pervades the sitcom genre considering How I Met Your Mother picked up where Friends left off and ran for 9 years (2005-2014) with an all-white cast and The Big Bang Theory ran for 12 years (2007-2019) with one full-time cast member that was a POC (Kunal Nayyar), however the series went so far as to add two additional full-time cast members (both white).
While the 80s, 90s, and 00s were predominantly white, the 10s have turned a corner. New Girl (2011-2018) featured an increasingly diverse cast especially Season 3 onward and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2013-present) easily has one of the the most diverse casts of any sitcom, each character with their own strengths, weaknesses, and level of authority.
All that said, looking at Friends (’94-’04) in 2020, to me, it seems as though there’s a way to diversify the cast while being true to the characters as well as providing a new take on the overall theme of friendship.
The Necessary Disclaimer
I am not an expert on racial identity. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a person of color. I have, however mild, been discriminated against for how I look, but my “race” is classified as “white” and I have absolutely had the benefit of white privilege.
I also know sitcoms are meant to be easily digestible entertainment that typically avoids heavy issues. But “ignoring” the issue — as many sitcoms have opted to do — doesn’t solve the problem. Moreover, plenty of comedians have found a way to discuss heavy subject matter with levity, in a way that can challenge stereotypes, offer honest introspection, and still be hilarious. Friends has an example of this in The One Where Rosita Dies in which Phoebe talks a stranger out of committing suicide.
Additionally, I am not saying race should define these characters. I think diversity is good because entertainment should reflect life. Having a group of friends who come from different backgrounds, incomes, and skin color all suffering the same problems as everyone else fights inequality. It feeds people’s subconscious, providing images of what daily life looks like; that the “melting pot” and “diversity” should be the norm.
While race should not define the characters, I think there’s a way that diversifying these characters’ identities can add to the character — again, being true to Friends but able to exist on its own.
All this said, I cannot be more clear: this is a sensitive topic and I am not qualified to solve it. I am also not trying to solve the problem, only provide an idea. If offense is taken, know that it is out of ignorance, not malice, and I am eager to learn how to better speak to and about race representations in media. Please reach out be it an email or comment.
With that disclaimer out of the way, here’s an idea for how to diversify the cast of Friends.
Make Ross & Monica Black
Starting with Monica, replace the insecurity and pain of her “weight” with her “race” and a dialogue like this could easily be rewritten:
Rachel: I mean why, of all people would you want to go out with Chip?!-TOW The Cat
Monica: Look, you and I went to different high schools…
Rachel: Okay, that doesn’t help me, because we went to the same high school.
Monica: You went to one where you were popular, and you got to ride off Chip’s motorcycle, and wear his Letterman jacket. I went to one where I was pulled over on my way to homecoming.
A dialogue like this serves the same purpose as in the original series — offering motivation for why Monica wants to go on a date with Chip — but provides greater gravity for why Monica wants to play this “Chip Matthews” thing out. It’s emotional, relatable, and doesn’t obfuscate the narrative or characters, instead it adds a layer to Monica’s motivation and provides deeper insight into her and Rachel’s relationship — in that Rachel didn’t/doesn’t “see” race.
Additionally, one of the ongoing meta-talking points of Friends is the fact that Monica and Rachel’s apartment is inconceivable (on their wages) in New York. It was absurd in 1994, and cartoonish today. In Friends, Monica explains that she inherited the apartment from her grandmother and, due to rent control, she’s able to keep renting at a fraction of what it’s worth.
For Monica (in the series), she takes pride in this deception. If Monica were black, then due to the inequality, this would feel like a win against a longstanding injustice, finding a loophole in a system that has otherwise been unfair. This could even add to recurring side characters like Mr. Treeger (Michael Hagerty); it would never need to be explicitly stated but it could be that he supports this despite knowing Monica is not her grandmother because he too is aware the system is unfair.
Moreover, the relationship of Monica to her parents could have a lot more nuance. Rather than Monica’s mom “not loving” her, it could be more that Monica’s mom was not “outwardly affectionate” to ensure Monica never became overly confident to protect her from an unforgiving world.
For Ross, his racial identity was chosen partly by happenstance (since I started with Monica), however, Ross also makes the most sense given the alternatives are Joey and Chandler. If Chandler were black, it’d feed the stereotype of the wise-cracking black friend and although Joey could work as a black character, he could end up playing into a stereotype.
This leaves Ross who, has achieved the life he has through hard work.
As a sitcom, Ross can represent the best (and optimistic) outcome which is a good juxtaposition to his sister. Additionally, a key element of Ross’ character is his occasional dogma (example: doesn’t want his son playing with a Barbie or wants to impose his traditions (see Holiday Armadillo) on his son, etc.). These dogmatic Ross stories could be reworked to provide insights into Ross’ culture and upbringing.
Additionally, Ross being black could make the Ross / Rachel romance all the more powerful since…
Keep Rachel Green White
Rachel’s a character that works because, while she’s a caricature in the first season, she has the greatest arc of all the Friends, going from a spoiled and privileged white kid to a self-made businesswoman.
Rachel working from the ground up, not getting everything she wants, and her friend-naissance with Monica would be all the more impactful as a result.
With Monica and Rachel, it makes their “falling out” (i.e. why Monica wasn’t invited to the wedding) make more sense and the idea that Rachel and Monica must claw their way up to make rent could open up a lot of stories about underlying white privilege and becoming more equal together (not by putting either down).
Monica: Come on, Rache. When a guy says he’s going to call, it doesn’t mean he’s going to call. Has this never happened to you?-TOW The Dollhouse
Rachel: Well they always called.
Monica: Hm, bite me.
But regarding the Ross / Rachel romance, I don’t think either family needs to be racist, but it adds a new dynamic given how the first few seasons play out vs the last few. For instance, Ross spends the first 3 seasons “teaching” Rachel, but once she establishes herself and gains independence the two start falling apart.
And again, none of this needs to be explicit since a sitcom’s job is to show snapshots of lives anyway, but much could be inferred from this kind of relationship…
Sidebar: There’s a part of me that would hope it’d play out like Jordan Peele’s Get Out only without the horror element.
Make Joey Asian-American
Now, I know Joey comes from a “big family” where he’s the brother to 9 sisters, but the fact is, the sisters are only used in 2 episodes (TOW Chandler Can’t Remember Which Sister and TOW Monica’s Boots) and their main function is to indicate that Joey is family-oriented. Making Joey Asian means you don’t necessarily need to have 9 sisters, so long as he maintains that strong familial bond.
Plus, without going too deeply into stereotypes, there is a certain level of expectations for Asian-Americans from their parents.
Aligning with Confucian ideals, Asian American children fulfill their duties of filial piety and interdependence by doing well in school and finding a steady job as compensation for their parents’ sacrifices and financial difficulties as first-generation immigrants (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002)–Donna Poon
And it goes against “type” by having Joey going out on his own.
Chandler: When they were all over you to go into your father’s–TOW The Boobies
pipe-fittingbusiness, did you cave?
Chandler: No. You decided to go into the out-of-work actor business. Now that wasn’t easy, but you did it!
Additionally, making Joey, an aspiring actor, Asian would open the door to another social issue, i.e. the fact that there’s not many Asian-Americans in film/TV.
Joey is also the character who might also be better off gender-swapped. Not solely to have less of the “man-sleeps-around” stereotype but if Joey was cast as Awkwafina’s character (Peik Lin Goh) from Crazy, Rich Asians, it’d write itself.
Ross: Why do you have to wear underwear tonight.
Joey: It’s a rented tux. I’m not gonna go commando in another man’s fatigues.
Rachel: You have a cocktail dress in your trunk?
Peik Lin Goh: I’m not an animal, Rachel.
Rachel: How was your day?
Joey: I discovered I’m able to count all my teeth using just my tongue.
Rachel: What are you doing tonight?
Peik Lin Goh: I dunno, probably go to FedEx or something.
Kate: I love Jennifer Banmurray’s work. She’s so brilliantly incisive when it comes to deconstructing the psyche of the American middle class.
Joey: Oh, forget about it. She rocks!
Neenah Goh: We were inspired by the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles-Crazy, Rich Asians and Friends
Peik Lin Goh: And Donald Trump’s bathroom.
Make Chandler Latino
There’s so much to unpack with this one. At his core, Chandler’s jokes put him in his own little world.
Phoebe: What am I sitting on?-TOW Ross’s Sandwich
Chandler: Top of the world? Dock of the bay? I’m out.
Phoebe: (taking undies out of the couch) Ew! Ew! Undies!
Often times, when Chandler makes a joke, his friends don’t even react. He makes jokes often for his own benefit. In Spanish, so much of the humor is based around the fact that the jokes are double entendres. Even if Chandler never speaks a word of Spanish, it’d be an amazing in translations to see the spirit of that humor carry over.
Additionally, Latin & Hispanic families tend to have multi-generational households and this would provide a sliver of motivation for why Chandler has roommate at all — considering he doesn’t need one. It’s not something that ever needs to be mentioned, but it could have a cultural significance as perhaps living alone just never felt “homey”.
Chandler’s mother could remain a novelist but they could also inject some more culture by having her be a screenwriter for an ongoing telenovela.
And as for Chandler’s dad, there could be a greater gravity to his coming out, since, in Latin culture (broadly) there tends to be a strong emphasis on religion. It can change Chandler’s homophobia — another pain point for many rewatching the series — into something more personal that he wrestles within himself.
Phoebe is… Phoebe is.
I mean ideally you’d find someone so mixed that no one has any idea.
To reach this conclusion, I thought it’d make the most sense to have Phoebe be white and then you have this balance between Rachel – Monica – Phoebe. Wherein Monica’s had to struggle, but never had to live on the streets but because she can appreciate that Phoebe has suffered, the two forged a lasting friendship on that foundation. I’d worry however that that’d send a subversive message that white people have seen the best and worst of both worlds, undermining the inequality Monica has suffered.
Furthermore, if Phoebe’s race was tied to Eastern roots, it’d reinforce stereotypes with her massages and pansori-esque trills and lack of belief in “western” medicine, etc. Meanwhile if Phoebe was black, it might support a negative stereotype given her family situation of dad running out, growing up on the streets, etc.
So my short answer is, I can’t think of a race that would work for Phoebe, but in a way, that’s great. Phoebe’s basically lived a thousand lives and is an amalgamation of myriad cultures. So whoever plays her best could get the part and then it’d be on the casting director to change the perceived races of her grandmother, biological father, biological mother, “technically” step-mother, twin sister, and step-brother.