Yitzchak Blau

Six Narcissists Talk about Sex with a Laugh Track

In 2011, I published an article entitled “Modern Orthodox Arguments against Television,” and I now add an appendix focusing on specific shows. Friends (1994-2003) was one of the most successful sitcoms of all time and was widely watched in Modern Orthodox circles. Admittedly, I have only seen a small fraction of the 236 episodes but they have proven sufficient to catch the show’s animating spirit. This seemingly innocuous and humorous show may wield more pernicious influence than we imagine.

First, the six main characters act predominantly in self-centered fashion. In one episode, Rachel and Chandler steal delicious cheese cake delivered to another woman in their building. They then fight over dividing the cake and Rachel, having dropped her half, knocks over Chandler’s portion. In a different episode, they all go in on buying lottery tickets but Monica buys extra for herself and Chandler without informing the group.  During an argument about how to divide the tickets, Monica declares that if she wins, she could always simply buy new friends. In one final example, one episode features the wedding reception for Chandler and Monica. Joey spends his time trying to impress a theatre professional among the guests while Ross is busy dancing with little kids in order to curry favor with a pretty colleague of Monica. Focusing on the enjoyment of the bride and groom seems to not be on the radar. Note that their selfishness finds expression vis a vis each other and not just towards those outside their inner circle.

Now I am not taking the absurd position that moral programming must only show virtue and not vice. Of course, vice is part of the human condition and we often learn more from studying it closely. Furthermore, the foibles of humanity serve as a good source of humor. However, Friends holds up these characters as models of admiration. A subtext of the show is “would it not be great to be single, good looking, relatively carefree, and living in Manhattan”. It is not an accident that many viewers tried to copy Jennifer Anniston’s haircut. Possibly, this emulation could include the profound narcissism.

One counter-example may actually strengthen the point. I believe that Lisa Kudrow’s character, Phoebe, exhibits the most social responsibility and care for others among the six friends. She is the offbeat one who lives in her own universe. Furthermore, she lacks the model-like beauty of Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston, the two other female leads. Thus, she probably was the character least likely to inspire the desire for emulation. In other words, only the wacky exhibit authentic moral responsibility.

Secondly, the show is dominated by sexual references. Take a survey of any episode and count what percentage of jokes revolves around the bedroom. The sense of relations as something intimate between loving spouses is not in the picture. In one episode, Ross is frustrated because he has not slept with a woman in half a year. Joey tells him a story he can use which is guaranteed to lead to the bedroom. Later, Ross accidentally tapes his love making with Rachel.  When Ross and Rachel argue over who initiated, the six decide to all watch the tape together.  Voyeurism overcomes any sense of privacy or intimacy.

What is the potential outcome of such messages? Sex is not associated with enhancing the beauty of a caring relationship but with the purely physical pleasure of a one night stand. Secondly, sex becomes an overly dominant factor in evaluating relationships, something that can hurt marital bonds of loyalty.   Finally, it often leads to the objectification of women; indeed, the public loved discussing the dress or haircuts of Monica and Rachel.

Interestingly, several critics have gone after Friends recently for featuring six white characters and for its treatment of LGBT issues.  This reflects the narrow perspective of contemporary liberal groups in which only certain moral questions are worth asking. From their perspective, Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Moor Othello or the Jewish Shylock becomes far more important than his beauty of expression and psychological insight. I suggest that the woke critique of Friends misses out on the most problematic aspects of the show, narcissism and over sexualized discourse. If Modern Orthodoxy employs a discerning eye in what we adopt from the surrounding culture, we should consider dropping Friends from our play list.

People clearly need some light entertainment and eschewing Friends does not entail reading The Brothers Karamazov as the alternative. Sporting events constitute mindless enjoyment that is neutral rather than negative. Alternatively, one may find programs of some worth that still entertain and enable relaxation.  The world of television includes options incorporating humor, action and suspense while offering far superior material. Since I do not follow the current programming, I will utilize an example from a while back.

.Both the original Star Trek (1966-1969) and Star Trek: the Next Generation (1987-1994) inspire the audience to think and feel. While the old version can be simplistic and dated, it includes meaningful themes. The Enemy Within conveys how dependent we are on our aggressive drives for accomplishment and Captain Kirk’s closing speech in Mirror MIrror makes a compelling case for the logic of freedom over tyranny.

The second iteration conveys ideas with greater subtlety. Chain of Command II explores the psychology of torture, The Drumhead conveys how growing fears lead to witch hunts, and Darmok portrays communication with a race that only speaks in metaphor. As noted, the show also impacts emotionally.  In Relics, Scotty exemplifies how the elderly feel useless while The Inner Light powerfully expresses the desire of a dying civilization to be remembered.

Obviously, the show does not always rise to these heights and many episodes are pure entertainment. Nonetheless, on overall balance, Star Trek combines entertainment with an attempt to say something significant. It does not prize narcissism nor is it dominated by sexual themes. In contrast, even a devoted viewer of Friends would be hard pressed to cite a single scene that stimulated deeper thoughts or inspired more profound emotions. Given the disparity, the best of Modern Orthodoxy should discriminatingly choose among the Netflix fare, preferring higher quality forms of entertainment.

I understand that these shows from some decades ago may not be at the forefront of today’s TV conversation. At the same time, each one is currently available on Netflix and this year’s Friends reunion drew a tremendous amount of media attention. Thus, they remain relevant choices. More importantly, contemporary viewers can apply the methodology employed here to analyze the worthiness of the current fare.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.