I loved Friends during its 1994–2004 run, but when I started re-watching the sitcom thanks to its Jan. 1 arrival on Netflix, I steeled myself to be disappointed. I knew that from our modern vantage point, the fashion and technology would feel, at times, obsolete. (Ross’s Season 3 “laserdisc marathon”!) I suspected some plotlines would be a little creaky, too: Ross’s relationship with an undergrad, say, and Monica in a fat suit. But as a longtime fan, I worried most about Joey.
Joey’s “thing” was that he was an inveterate womanizer; in the pilot, he compared women to ice cream, and told a mopey Ross to “grab a spoon.” In the year 2015, would this kind of horndogginess play? The trope of the leering lothario just felt so old, so unfunny, so painfully CBS. But as I watched, I was soon reminded of Joey’s other qualities: His warmth, his happy-go-lucky confidence, and his love of jam. Joey is great! Sure, he loves beautiful women, but somehow his openness and goofiness—and Matt LeBlanc’s performance—still make him easy to watch.
You know who isn’t easy to watch? Chandler Bing.
Indeed, of all the aspects of Friends that seem trapped in the past, Chandler Bing is the most agonizingly obsolete. Once he may have seemed coolly sarcastic, the gang’s designated “funny one.” But through the eyes of a 2015 viewer even vaguely cognizant of modern gender politics, he’s also the cringe-worthy one.
Chandler, identified in Season 1 as having a “quality” of gayness about him, is endlessly paranoid about being perceived as insufficiently masculine. He’s freaked out by hugs, and by Joey having a pink pillow on his couch. (“If you let this go, you’re going to be sitting around with your fingers soaking in stuff!”)
In retrospect, the entire show’s treatment of LGBTQ issues is awful, a fault pointedly illustrated by the exhaustive clip-compilation “Homophobic Friends.” But Chandler’s treatment of his gay father, a Vegas drag queen played by Kathleen Turner, is especially appalling, and it’s not clear the show knows it. It’s one thing for Chandler to recall being embarrassed as a kid, but he is actively resentful and mocking of his loving, involved father right up until his own wedding (to which his father is initially not invited!). Even a line like “Hi, Dad” is delivered with vicious sarcasm. Monica eventually cajoles him into a grudging reconciliation, which the show treats as an acceptably warm conclusion. But his continuing discomfort now reads as jarringly out-of-place for a supposedly hip New York thirtysomething—let alone a supposedly good person, period.
When it comes to women, Chandler turns out to be just as retrograde as Joey, but his lust comes with an undercurrent of the kind of bitter desperation that I now recognize as not only gross, but potentially menacing. Chandler is painted as a self-loathing loser with women, until he finally snags Monica at the end of Season 4: He was 19 when he first touched a woman’s breasts, for example. And so, it’s Chandler who suggests deciding “who has the nicest ass” in the ski trip episode in Season 3. It’s Chandler who chooses a roommate because his sister is a porn star. And it’s Chandler who for years dates Janice, a woman he openly loathes. Janice is repellent, but well-adjusted people don’t have trouble staying out of relationships with repellent ones. It’s Chandler’s fault that he strings her along for episode after episode, mocking her even as he’s too weak to stay broken up with her. (At one point he flies to Yemen to avoid her.) If an actual friend behaved this way, I’d be tempted to slap him. After all, if we’ve learned anything in the last few years, it’s that nerds are not necessarily sweet and lovable; they can also be misogynist jerks, or worse.
Maybe by 2015, Chandler would have gotten some therapy and read some Roxane Gay. He could grow up, embrace his softer side, apologize to his father, and become a confident and comfortable adult. Maybe he’d even become a friend worth keeping for sweet, dim, loyal Joey. But looking back on Chandler in the ’90s and early 2000s, well: Could he be a bigger creep?