Picture this: two single men settle in to watch a movie in which other muscle-bound men in various states of undress run around chasing each other (Die Hard 2). By the end of the borderline erotic film, both men are spent and fall asleep in each other’s arms, tucked into the crook of their oversized couch. They wake up and declare it the best nap of their lives. They continue to sleep together in secret until they are accidentally discovered by their friends, who sport disgusted and bemused looks. The audience explodes with canned laughter.
Picture this: an out of work actor lines up an audition for a play. The part is that of a well-dressed, well-travelled fashion connoisseur and given the actor’s usual attire of sauce-stained t-shirts and unwashed jeans – he goes to a friend for help. She works for a department store and happily dresses him – shirt, tie, washed and precisely creased pants. All is going swimmingly till she suggests that he carry a bag to complete the ‘look’. At first the actor is horrified, argues that men don’t carry bags. Then he slings the black leather strap across his shoulder and is transfixed with how good he looks. He carries the bag everywhere and his friends mock him with incredibly clever quips like calling the bag a purse and asking if it has room for his makeup. The audience explodes with canned laughter.
Picture this: a woman tells her ex that she plans to marry her new girlfriend. The man scoffs and asks – what? Like wife and wife?! A man is horrified when his infant son wants to play with a Barbie. The same man is horrified when his girlfriend befriends a lesbian. Another man takes dance lessons and afterwards his friends ask whether he is gay yet. A man refuses to invite his queer parent to his wedding. New parents interview potential nannies and encountering one that is a man, the new father asks whether he’s gay. A man sings the soundtrack to the musical Annie while his friends hide giggles behind their hands. A man bakes Madeleines (a French biscuit) and another man asks suspiciously why he couldn’t have made something more masculine, with chunks. Again and again, the audience explodes with laughter – haha, aren’t gay people just the funniest?! Isn’t it just hilarious when men don’t conform to masculine stereotypes?
If you haven’t guessed yet, all of the above scenes happened across the 10-year span of the TV show Friends. The sitcom revolved around six seemingly hopeless friends who spent more time drinking coffee than anything else. As an audience, we were invited to laugh along as they struggled to deal with everyday life, though I gotta say – six attractive heterosexual white people who have long term secure housing in the middle of New York and relatively consistent employment? Gosh, sounds like a hard life! Ross has a PhD by the time he’s 25 for heaven’s sake!
Friends consistently relied on homophobic tropes to provoke laughter and stimulate the plot. While this isn’t exactly surprising – most sitcoms of the 90s used laughter to carry out subtle gender policing – Friends was interesting in its juxtapositioning of man-on-man intimacy and homophobia. The men on the show loved each other deeply, were shown rallying around one another in times of need, discussing their fears, hugging, yet each of these moments of intimacy were undermined by laughter at the idea of men becoming close.
Male friendship in contemporary Western society is likewise bound up in this contradiction of closeness without emotional entanglement. Indeed, modern Australia prides itself on mateship, the idea that men look out for one another. Arguably, it also prides itself on homophobia, the idea that love between men is unnatural and should be met with violence. So how is it that these two ideas come to co-exist?
The answer is, as with most difficult questions, because of the patriarchy. The social system of privileging men over others is upheld and sustained through male friendship. Men are more likely to hire men for jobs because they like them. Men are more likely to bestow authority and responsibility onto other men because they think they’re like, totally rad, you know? Male intimacy is how the wage gap goes unchecked.
There is nothing inherently sinister about male friendship, though, nothing that insists that men getting close would have a negative effect on everyone else. Homophobia is the devious, evil ingredient that makes the patriarchy function as violently as it does. Without homophobia, men might all like each other so much that they would start sleeping together. All of society as we know it might start unravelling at the seams. Without the disgust of the other Friends, Joey and Ross’ penchant for napping together might have blossomed into something more beautiful and romantic.
Instead homophobia prompts laughter and all potential for romance is dashed. Male friendship and arguably – masculinity itself – is kept safe through the rejection of femininity and latent homosexuality. That rejection of femininity and the alignment of gay men with the worst form of femininity allows the right kind of men to maintain their position of power in society with just a little help from their friends. The hierarchy is thus constructed and protected, over and over again. The audience explodes with canned laughter.
It might be easier to forgive Friends’ faux pas if homophobia weren’t still somewhat of a sitcom staple. Modern Family, for all of its diversity, still plays out uncomfortable stereotypes and depicts Phil’s longing for the approval and friendship of his father-in-law as a borderline queer – and decidedly creepy – desire. How I Met Your Mother (or, Friends 2.0) dedicated an entire subplot to Marshall and Ted pretending to be in a couple in order to sell an apartment, because what could be funnier than two men with a baby trying to buy a home? Haha, gay people and their antics!
Perhaps worst of all is The Big Bang Theory, in which two of the central cast, Raj and Howard, are described as being in an ‘ersatz homosexual marriage’ (S2, Ep15) because of their co-dependent friendship. Cue laughter. The two are inseparable, which would be sweet if it weren’t so clearly supposed to be hilarious and if the characters didn’t spend so much time stamping their feet and yelling; ‘No Homo!’
Friends let its male characters desire physical closeness, desire intimacy, and then admonished them through social disapproval for doing so. It let them get so close and then slapped their hands away. It let Ross and Joey fall asleep in one another’s arms and then shook them awake with the sound of fake and forced laughter. Homophobia and jokes about gender aren’t necessary for laughter and good times, but they are necessary for upholding the patriarchy and reinforcing sexism.
Anyway, we all know the show would have been a thousand times better had it just been about Phoebe fighting crime and singing songs.
Gemma Killen is a PhD Candidate in Gender Studies at the Australian National University. Her current work focuses on the ways in which queer women’s identities become embodied and are made meaningful in online spaces. In 2015, Gemma moved to Canberra from Adelaide where she wrote for the Adelaide University magazine OnDit. She was also published in Wet Ink, an Australian magazine for emergent creative writing. As a writer, Gemma wants to produce gender-focused work that is accessible and creative.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.