Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman speaks on Chandler’s Dad, transphobia and racism in the hit show
Friends co-creator addresses those problematic elements of the hit show.
The much-hyped Friends reunion in 2021 was watched by a gigantic 29% of streaming households in the United States.
It saw the actors behind all six iconic characters get back together and included guest appearances from some huge names, including Lady Gaga who did a rendition of cult-classic ‘Smelly Cat’ with Lisa Kudrow.
The show is still adored by many and considered ‘comfort viewing’ by those who feel nostalgic towards its heyday, but it hasn’t evaded criticism with time.
Friends, like many of its counterparts from the same era, has not aged enviably in many regards. Certain storylines (the whole ‘manny’ fiasco for example), or lack of storylines (that a show anywhere, let alone one set in NYC, could feature so few people of colour, the fact no queer characters were shown positively, the list goes on…).
On the queer front, of course, the 90s was a different time and the reunion itself made a point of showcasing LGBTQ+ fans who, in VTs, shared how the show had helped shape who they are.
However, despite the reunion eliciting overall positive responses from fans, the celebrity cameos from Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and the K-pop group BTS mysteriously disappeared from the special, along with the LGBTQ+ fan contributions, when it aired on Chinese streaming sites.
Now, Marta Kauffman, who co-created Friends with David Crane, has shared her regret over the portrayal of Chandler Bing’s dad, a transgender woman named Helena Handbasket, played by Kathleen Turner.
Throughout Friends’ ten-year run, multiple jokes are made about Helena’s sexuality and gender, with Chandler consistently speaking to or about her with male pronouns and terms. In one memorable scene, Helena’s ex refers to her as “Charles”, in a way that made light out of her distain for the character’s transition.
Kauffman mentioned Helena during an interview for BBC World Service’s The Conversation, which is available from July 11.
She said: “We kept referring to [Helena] as ‘Chandler’s father’, even though Chandler’s father was trans,” she recalled. “Pronouns were not yet something that I understood, so we didn’t refer to that character as ‘she’. That was a mistake.”
In a 2019 interview on Watch What Happens Live, Kathleen shared her own view on the matter, revealing she wouldn’t take on the role of Chandler’s dad now.
“Of course, I wouldn’t do it [today] because there would be real people able to do [the part],” she explained.
Per Radio Times, Kauffman also addressed criticism over Friends’ lack of diversity, with Kauffman recently pledging $4 million to African and African American Studies out of “guilt” over “having bought into systemic racism”.
“Over the course of the last few years I’ve gotten to the point where I can say unfortunately yes, I am guilty of that. And I’ll never make that mistake again,” she said.
“I was clearly part of systemic racism in our business. I was unaware of that, which makes me feel stupid. That was a very valid, extremely difficult criticism which still… I get emotional about.”
“If I knew then what I know now, there are certain things I would have changed. But I didn’t know them and I have since learned.”
In 2021, in an article for Buzzfeed, a contributor wrote, “I am obsessed with Friends, I’ve watched each episode at least 50 times in my life. And as a Black person, whenever a Black character appeared on the show, it was practically burned into my brain because of how excited I was to see someone who looked like me”, then going on to list “All the Black characters in Friends“.
It notes the character Charlie Wheeler, played by Aisha Tyler, who appeared in nine episodes, the “second longest run for a POC character in Friends” (the first being Ross’ love interest, Julie, from the early seasons).
And the character Kristen, played by Gabrielle Union for just one (still iconic) episode.