The One With The Feminist Critique: A Closer Look At Rachel Green’s Character
The popular sitcom Friends aired in 1994 for ten full seasons. Its final episode had an estimated 51.1 million viewers in the United States alone (Foxnews.com). The television series won 56 awards including a number of Emmy’s, but the show is influential in more than just the entertainment world (The Internet Movie Database). The sitcom has an impact on American culture between its popular catch phrases, “The Rachel” haircut and the local hang out depicted in almost every episode. Although the writers of the sitcom conform to some traditional gender roles, the series as a whole has proven to reduce the notion of a “normal” woman that has been used to oppress women in this patriarchal society. After analyzing the sitcom Friends through a feminist lens, I realized that the overall show is written in opposition to the gender binaries that are traditionally used to oppress women. The television series is about six friends- three male and three female. They are “all in their mid-twenties as the series begins, living in Manhattan and struggling to establish and maintain satisfying careers and romantic relationships” (Spangler, p 217-218). Each character has his or her own distinctive qualities that make them interesting and unique, but I will focus on only one of these characters- Rachel Green. Rachel changes drastically from the first episode to the last, but she starts out as a snobby rich girl who uses “Daddy’s credit card” and abandons her fiancée at the altar. Rachel has an on and off relationship with her best friend’s brother, Ross, throughout the show. By the 9th season, Ross and Rachel end up having a baby together, Emma. The writers of Friends successfully avoid portraying traditional gender roles in Rachel’s character. This paper argues that the television series Friends represents an improvement in the portrayal of women on television, especially through the character of Rachel.
Feminists and researchers have criticized television for advancing the notion of a “normal” woman by portraying male characters as extremely masculine and female characters as the opposite. This depiction of traditional gender roles on television has further promoted the idea of being a “normal” woman or a “normal” man to viewers. This fallacy in our culture has been a significant source of oppression of women. In 1974, a woman named Sandra Bem created a “measurement scale to rate stereotypical traits associated with character depictions” (Glascock p 174). The scale called the Bem’s Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI), allows people to classify others in terms of their masculinity or femininity. The most hopeful and healthy rank is androgynous, or having high levels of both (Glascock p 174). In 1979 Hollands Preevers conducted a study using the BSRI scale. He discovered that “lead male characters… were perceived as ‘supermasculine’ while females were rated similar to those in Bem’s normative sample” and that “it was females who were typically stereotyped by the media” (Glascock p 174). However, Rachel Green defies these statistics as she refutes the stereotypical gender roles of women. Rachel, as Lynn Spangler states, is, “obsess[ed] with sex” (Spangler p 220). She exemplifies actions of a Third Wave feminist in her sex life. She has many sexual partners, one of which, Paolo, she sleeps with the same day they meet. She expresses her relationship with Paolo as simply “just about raw, animal sex” (The One With the Cat). Her sexual freedom exhibits a liberated woman, free from the oppression of “slut-bashing” and the stereotypes that often come with women who sleep around. The writer’s never include scenes where Rachel is called names or looked down upon because of her sexual freedom. One episode (The One with Rachel’s Big Kiss) even included Rachel describing a time she kissed her female friend at a party in college,. This indicates that experimentation is acceptable; it exemplifies that Rachel’s character does not depict the stereotypes that other sitcoms portray to oppress women.
Women have always been oppressed in the workforce. According to Ellen Bravo, Gloria Santa Anna, and Linda Meric, “women in this country still earn less than men for equivalent jobs.” (Bravo p 180). These issues are addressed and challenged in the show Friends. When Rachel first appears on the show, she is unemployed. She depended on her father’s money, and was not planning on changing her lifestyle. After conversing with her friends, she is convinced that she has to start working. She had always dreamed of a job in fashion, but she had to start somewhere, so Rachel works as a waitress at the local coffeehouse. She soon meets a man named Mark, who gets her a job at Bloomingdales. After much hard work, she finally lands a job at Ralph Lauren, and by the 7th season she is promoted. She receives her own office and personal assistant. The success Rachel achieves in her career is an inspiration to all women. It is an improvement in the portrayal of women in the workforce on television. In 1974, studies were conducted about the portrayal of women on television. “Tedesco found that prime time television portrayed a higher proportion of unemployed women then unemployed men” (Brain, p 21). The same researcher also found that in professional roles male were over represented by 43%, “with 58% of men in daytime television having professional roles, compared with 15% in the general population”. At the same time, women were only over represented by 19.4% (Brain, p 21). Rachel is successful, she has a high-powered job, and she is able to work her way up and earn this success. The writer’s defied all stereotypes that women cannot work and cannot be successful through Rachel’s character.
The writer’s of Friends also address feminist issues when Rachel goes on maternity leave. According to the article An Overview of Women and Work, “many women today lose their job’s when they give birth”. In the show (The One Where Rachel Goes Back To Work), after Rachel has a baby, she comes back to her office two weeks early to pick up something from her desk. She finds that a man is in her office. He completely redecorated and taken over her job while she was gone. She is forced to come back to work earlier than she planned because she felt threatened by this new employee. Rachel brought her new born baby into work with her because it was too short of notice to find a babysitter. Her boss insisted that she give a presentation immediately, even though Ross was planning on picking Emma up in less than two hours. Rachel could not leave her daughter alone, so the boss suggested that someone else present in place of Rachel. Rachel’s job was threatened because of her new born child. Still, Rachel pushes through and manages to keep her job and take care of her baby. Rachel’s character is portrayed as a strong woman who does not need a man to fulfill her. She is able to rise to the challenge of balancing work and motherhood, which is commonly seen as unacceptable in our society. People judge working mothers because they doubt that women can handle the task. However, the television show Friends normalizes the idea of mothers in the wrokforce. This demonstrates an improvement of all mothers in the workforce by addressing this issue of job loss and maternity leave.
Rachel is a single mother who expresses freedom of sexuality, and who maintains a high status job. These three qualities in Rachel make her character a feminist figure and a role model. According to Lynn Spangler, “television and other media are important parts of our culture, both reflecting and influencing our personal and public lives” (Spangler p xiv). The sitcom Friends is able to influence our lives in a positive way, rather than reflecting the gender stereotypes that oppress women every day. Friends effects the veiwpoints of both men and women. Women are given hope because of Rachels character, and men are able to respect women because of the way Rachel is portrayed on the show. The character Rachel, represents the improvement of the portrayal of all women on television.
Below I included the scenes from the episode 'The One Where Rachel Goes Back To Work'. The writer's address feminist issues in maternity leave. Notice that Rachel is very determined and does whatever she can to keep her job. The writer's end up including the last scene where she is able to do her presentation, and is able to represent woman in the work force afterall.