Look, I get it. There’s been so many pieces on Friends’ tone-deaf issues since the sort of revival of the series on Netflix. Of course, many of the show’s attitudes feel dated: it aired from 1994 to 2004, which is to say a lifetime ago. The show has issues up the wazoo: sexism, gayphobia, Ross, a complete lack of diversity for a show set in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, Ross… Besides, most, if not ALL sitcoms are guilty of making fun of fat people. We are an easy target and many people fail to grasp or recognize the real issue of fat discrimination.
So… Given all the other problems with the Friends series and the Ross character in particular, why do I focus on those scenes so much?
Well, first, let me give you a refresher on the scenes in question. It’s the first episode of season 8, Chandler and Monica just got married, and we are at the post-wedding reception. Ross invites another wedding guest—pretty, tall, and thin Mona—to dance, when a little girl cuts in and asks him to dance instead. Mona ooohs and awwws, so Ross, wanting to impress her, agrees to that one dance, which turns into many when other little girls want their turn to hop on his feet for a twirl on the dance floor. When Ross gets done with what he thinks is his last dance with little girls, in comes Gert: a fat, red-haired, spectacle-wearing (I’m surprised they didn’t give her braces on top of that!) little girl asking for her turn. When Ross acquiesces without the part where she hops on his feet, she asks why she can’t have a dance like the other little girls. Ross relents, and we watch him suffer through the dance while Gert yells for him to move faster, much to the canned laughter’s hilarity.
Those scenes piss me off for several reasons, which I will do my best to explain here. I was a little fat girl like Gert and I totally understand her feeling of wanting to do what other girls get to do. I was the only fat little girl in my immediate family. I remember wanting so much to have the freedom that my pretty blond sister and my thin step-sisters had. So many things that were easy for them were incredibly difficult for me, ranging from playing on the seesaw swings to being able to wear the latest fashions. So many times, I wish I could just be like other little girls and not have that relentless worry about my body. That’s the one big thing that those scenes completely miss: when you’re the fat little girl in a group of thin, pretty little girls, you are painfully aware of that difference, and that awareness starts at a very early age (pretty much from the first days of kindergarten, if not even earlier). By my best estimation, Gert is probably around 9 years old, meaning that she would definitely be aware of her size difference. Now, that doesn’t mean that this would stop her desire to be like other little girls, but it would definitely change her expectations on that score. Yet, the show depicts her as an obnoxious little girl, expecting Ross to move faster, faster, FASTER, with zero awareness of her weight. The episode ends with Ross being supported by his friend Joey as he limps his way off the dance floor and Mona being impressed by how sweet Joey is acting, much to Ross’ astonished anger. I mean, he danced with a FAT little girl, suffered BODILY HARM in the process (so much so that he’s now LIMPING), and yet his friend might get the hot, thin woman? Outrageous!
I know that many people would argue that comedy is comedy, and that I shouldn’t take a sitcom like Friends too seriously. And I mostly agree with that statement. But the cruel way with which fat experiences are portrayed for comedy intent is yet another way in which our reality is erased and confined to a punchline. Fat people are a horrible and painful obstacle normal people have to trudge through in order to get to that desirable finish line. Here, Gert is yet another casualty in the war against fatness.