Every once in a while, discussions about Friends’ lack of diversity resurface somewhere on the Internet. They are, of course, not without merit: The hit comedy series ran on NBC for ten seasons, and across all 235 episodes of the series, a prominent Black character was featured in… nine (Aisha Tyler, in case you can’t remember). Series creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane have been called out for years about this, and they never really responded to the criticism. But now, Kauffman decided to take a look back and came to the conclusion that, surprise, surprise, the criticism was valid.
In an interview to The L.A. Times, Kauffman – who also co-created Netflix’s long-running series Grace and Frankie – admitted that dealing with criticism of her hit show was “difficult and frustrating”. Back then, and long after Friends ended, Kauffman and many other people didn’t see what the issue was in having a show centered around Caucasians – even though the story was set in arguably the most diverse city in the U.S., New York.
“I’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years. 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. [...] It was after what happened to George Floyd that I began to wrestle with my having bought into systemic racism in ways I was never aware of. That was really the moment that I began to examine the ways I had participated. I knew then I needed to course-correct.”
Kauffman’s course-correction comes in the form of a $4 million pledge to her alma mater, Brandeis University. The donation is directed to the launch and support of an African American studies department, which aims to “study the peoples and cultures of Africa and the African diaspora.” Kauffman admitted she feels “guilt” over the time it took her to learn, and fully acknowledges that she should have noticed the obvious years before:
“It’s been amazing. It surprised me to some extent because I didn’t expect the news to go this wide. I’ve gotten a flood of emails and texts and posts that have been nothing but supportive. I’ve gotten a lot of ‘It’s about time.’ Not in a mean way. It’s just people acknowledging it was long overdue.”
It’s important to remember that Friends’ lack of diversity extended far beyond Black characters. Aside from featuring little to no characters from other races, the show had a problem dealing with LGBTQIA+ characters: Same-sex relationships were often treated as punchlines, and Chandler’s (Matthew Perry) transgender parent (played by cisgender actor Kathleen Turner) was a frequent target of transphobic jokes.
In all fairness, we’re drawing attention to Friends but writers and producers were hardly concerned with representation for many years. Other landmark series such as Sex and the City and Seinfeld (just to name a couple) severely lacked diversity, and it also took creators a long time to acknowledge that this is a product of systemic racism. Now, it’s clear that streaming services and network TV have been making a point of having a diverse cast and crew, and even though it’s way past time that almighty producers realize they need to course-correct TV history, we can’t help but celebrate when somebody with clout becomes another voice for representation in media.
You can stream all episodes of Friends – as well as the Friends: The Reunion special that tiptoed around the diversity issue – on HBO Max.