What kind of male friendship? A case study of Joey and Chandler in Friends
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This is a paper presented at the 4th European Feminist Research Conference in Bologna, October 2nd 2000. It draws its conclusions from my MA (Econ) thesis in Women's Studies at the University of Manchester, UK. It was presented at the 4th European Feminist Research Conference in Bologna, October 2000.
The Northern American television series Friends shows six twenty-something men and women, sharing two flats in the middle of New York's Manhattan. Even though the series can be interpreted as conveying heterosexual values aimed towards a younger, mainstream audience, I argue that the relation between two of the men, being flatmates, is possibly representing different models of male friendships than usually seen in these kind of series.
Personal disclosure and intimacy among heterosexual, Northern-European and American men tend to be restricted to specific arenas and situations, such as blissful moments at the football pitch or in situations of external crisis. Joey and Chandler's constant negotiating of degrees of intimacy is among the plots in the series. However, their relation stands out from the crowd compared to other series' narratives of relations between men.
Joey and Chandler can be interpreted as widening the degree of acceptable personal disclosure, rather than being threatened by it. One might claim that they are opening up spaces for new ways of doing heterosexual masculinities, struggling to define modes of acceptable communication in their strictly heterosexual context.
I am scrutinising a few scenes from selected episodes, discussing these issues from a sociological point of view, informed by cultural theory.
My main question is whether Friends is just another television series handing over conventional sexual and social identities, or whether we actually are witnessing new attempts to expand male, heterosexual behaviour for personal disclosure with other men, without worrying too much about homosexuality.
What kind of male friendship? A case study of Joey and Chandler in Friends
This paper looks into friendships between men as portrayed in the Northern-American television series Friends. My main focus of analysis will be a particular scene where two male protagonists struggle with how to deal with emotional engagement with each other, and why they find this problematic.
Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) and Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) are roommates and one day Joey decides to move out from the flat. This is a moment of emotional crisis and I shall read it from three perspectives. The two first perspectives are predictable ways of reading men's friendships: First, interpreting the scene as representing homosociality and 'buddy' scenarios makes Friends a highly conventional and heterosexual founded series. Secondly, one may conceptualise Joey and Chandler's relation as denoting homoeroticism, that is, an interest in each other that exceeds normal friendship, (usually sexual interest). During the nineties, the second point of view has become an increasingly popular way of questioning the compulsory heterosexual foundation of men's same-sex relations on a friendship level. There is however a danger of oversimplification using these standpoints. They tend to isolate men as incapable of displaying emotions, or the opposite; when men socialise with each other, there is a hidden homosexual desire colouring much of male socialising. I argue men's friendships are more complex than simply reduced to this polarity.
In contrast, I present male intimacy as a third alternative for reading Joey and Chandler's friendship. This view aims to avoid the traps the two previous perspectives easily fall into. I believe Joey and Chandler may be representing new ways of men dealing with each other, which includes a higher degree of emotional presence as its central component.
My focus in this paper will only briefly include the third male protagonist Ross Geller (David Schwimmer). Neither shall I focus on the three female central characters Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow), Rachel Karen Green (Jennifer Aniston) and Ross' sister Monica Geller (Courteney Cox). I am not dismissing their impact on Joey and Chandler's friendship, but space does not allow me to delve properly into their situations. [Friends has been aired since 1994 and is currently embarking on its seventh season in the United States]. This is not to be understood as if I write off their impact on how we interpret Joey and Chandler's relation. I should also mention that the sequences discussed in this text are mostly taken from the second season (aired during 1995-1996 in the United States, one year later in Europe). In other words, my reading needs to be interpreted as signifying a small percent out of more than 150 episodes over the last years. The series, audience, script-writers, media capitalism and politics surrounding the series has changed over the years. This influences what is finally turned into an episode and how we interpret it.
The crucial moment
In the case of Joey and Chandler, their behaviour is positioned in relation to a certain ideologies of gender. Karen Walker (1994) has pointed out that there are significant differences between what we say and what we do. Sue Hill likewise focuses on definite contrasts in the collective 'tough' masculinity and the individual men's experiences and attitudes (Hill 2000:259). This is seen in the sequences I am analysing. The main sequence I scrutinising is taken from an episode where Joey decides to move out from the apartment he is sharing with Chandler (Episode 216 [aired in the second season of the series, 1995 in the United States and 1996 in the United Kingdom]). His decision is partly caused by an argument they have after having been at a party of one of their acquaintances. The host of the party is moving out, and offers Joey his flat. At that time, Chandler suspects that Joey actually prefers to move, but he does not want to raise the issue directly. That would make him display emotions and a fear of revealing that he had invested possibly too much into their relationship as flatmates. He rather asks whether Joey likes the current situation of the two of them living together. They discuss it in a manner similar to couples quarrelling on a surface level about more underlying aspects of their relationship. They are unwilling to face an explicit confrontation on their potentially differing degrees of personal and emotional investment in each other. Arguments about silly things operates on a metaphorical level, and they end up discussing their relation on this level. (I shall present an example of this when Joey and Chandler argue about eggs and juice, read: their relationship, under the section of 'Male intimacy'.) In the sequence mentioned above, Joey realises that their preferences of living conditions are differing at the moment. He declares 'I'm 28 years old, I've never lived alone, and I'm finally at a place where I've got enough money that I don't need a roommate anymore.' (Joey to Chandler in episode 216).
Towards the end of the episode everyone helps Joey in carrying his goods downstairs, and Joey and Chandler are left on their own in the flat for a few minutes. They say goodbye and it all feels odd. They do not know how to part properly in a way that seems alright for both of them, and after some hesitation and awkward silence, one of them simply mutters, 'bye, see you at the café' and Joey leaves, shutting the door behind him. For a few seconds Chandler is left standing in the middle of the flat, devastated, sad and lonely. Then Joey throws the door open, runs in again and embraces Chandler, giving him a big hug.
Homosociality and homoeroticism
The conventional way of interpreting this scene is that two buddies are parting, there has been a quarrel, and they need to say goodbye. As they leave, they slap each other's backs, as mates do, and then part. Writers on theories of homosociality usually claim that these kinds of scenes reflect that men are incapable of displaying emotions (Goldson 1995; Fuchs 1992; Hammond and Jablow 1987; Sherrod 1987). This perspective is understood as 'non-sexual attractions held by women and men for members of their own sex' (Bird 1996:122) Sharon Bird also argues that men's same-sex socialising is normally deeply coloured by homophobia, avoidance of emotional disclosure and maintenance of hegemonic masculinity (ibid). Men's power structure relations between layers in society, as well as on interpersonal levels through exclusions of women, gays and inferior versions of masculinities. The gendered cultural ideologies and models for 'proper' masculinities serve as influential structures that men (and women) must position themselves within (Murrie 1998; Gilmore 1991). This is what Robert W. Connell conceptualises as hegemonic masculinity, more precisely, 'the maintenance of practices that instutionalize men's dominance over women' and how it is 'constructed in relation to women and subordinate masculinities' (Connell 1987:185-6). Understanding men's relations as reflecting homosociality, is to take for granted that they bond by activity and are goal focused (Fuchs 1992; Nardi 1992).
A problematic aspect of the term 'homosociality' however, is that it excludes homosexuality and consequently becomes heterosexist and homophobic. According to Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, one of the central issues in homosocial relations therefore becomes paradoxical: relations between men must simultaneously deny and fulfil what terms 'male homosocial desire'. That is, 'the continuum from heterosexuality to homophobia and back again' (Sedgwick, cited in Fuchs 1992:194). Naturally this brings about some interesting self-contradictions. Sedgwick questions how it is possible to clearly draw the line between 'liking' and 'desiring' men's company.
Martti Nissinen echoes this as he wonders whether distinguishing theories of homoeroticism and homosociality is useful. He explains homoeroticism as 'ůmen's and women's mutual erotic interaction also on the level of roles and practices, even without a thought of homosexual orientation.' (Nissinen 1998:17) While Nissinen doubts that the concept of homoeroticism is useful in a heterosexual setting, he explains why the concept of homosociality may work better when studying heterosexual men: 'Erotic expressions of sexuality may or may not be included in homosociability, which encompasses also different sexual identities' (ibid). Where should we place the dividing line between these concepts? The concept of homosociality describes men's socialising as being strictly governed by a heterosexual logic. This means that any hints of reading men's interaction as representing other desires are frowned upon. Within the paradigm of homosociality, men can only express emotional attachment or approval of other men in case of an external crisis or in activity-related situations. In contrast, the main reason for using the concept of homoeroticism is because it recognises the difficulty of differentiating liking and desiring. Steve Neale contextualises this:
This makes the perspective of homoeroticism very tempting and potentially fruitful in disrupting the conventions of reading men from a homosocial point of view.
Returning to the goodbye scene between Joey and Chandler, one may interpret some ambiguities in their relation from these points of view. Their argument is coloured by accusations carried out during the same episode that Joey never expresses his 'love' of the apartment he is sharing with Chandler (working as a metaphor for not loving Chandler). They are also discussing who is the rightful owner of various goods. Their disputes are reminiscent of a heterosexual couple splitting up, disagreeing about material goods and picking on the less likeable aspects of their lover. Mark Simpson (1994) has questioned the compulsory heterosexuality ascribed onto many settings and protagonists where a certain sexual identity is taken for granted, and how it precludes opening up for the multiple readings of a scene. This is relevant for the account of Joey and Chandler as well. Their friendship may be more ambiguous than it first appears if we attempt to stretch the concept of homosocial bonding. The series recounts for other occasions where Joey gives Chandler presents of symbolic value. He gave him a golden bracelet, inscribed with 'my best bud' (Episode 214), Joey bought two big leather chairs and a wide-screen television for the flat (Episode 215), as well as a baby chicken (Episode 321). Having received the bracelet, Chandler reacted in a way that simulated gay camp from a hysterical heterosexual standpoint, labelling it a 'woman repeller'. He was uncertain of how to deal with the situation of being given a gift he was not keen on wearing. Chandler felt he looked gay. This was reflected later in the episode when a woman was flirting with him in the group's regular hangout, Café Perk. Then suddenly, she noticed his bracelet and abruptly walked off, finding him either gay or kitsch.
It may seem absurd to claim that Joey and Chandler are actually gay. Nonetheless, my aim is to highlight alternative angles regarding what is possible (and justifiable) to read into texts. I told a fellow student about Joey's presents to Chandler, and she spontaneously reacted 'Of course, the bracelet is an engagement present, proving Joey's love, and the chairs and television are marriage presents, contributing to the material state of the household. The chick is their first child, conceived by Joey'. Then she laughed, recognising it as a slightly subverted interpretation of their relationship. One might disagree completely with this somewhat 'taken out of the air' analysis. Nevertheless, it points us to a central issue of how people read texts differently. Therefore (naturally, some may claim), Joey and Chandler's relationship opens up for contradicting interpretations. Most importantly, who has the right to do a privileged reading?
I understand the concept of intimacy as 'close associaton, privileged knowledge, deep knowing and some form of love' (Jamieson 1998:93). By male intimacy I think of men sharing personal feelings with each other in such a way so that disclosure has an intrinsic value (see Sandell 1996:29). My understanding of the latter version is taken from Jillian Sandell's interpretation of the work of Hong Kong action film director John Woo. She interprets male interaction taking place for example in Woo's Hard Boiled (1992) as coloured by 'aimless' socialising. That is, their social relationship per se is interesting. No action is needed, the dialogues and time spent together becomes more interesting, as well as how their relation works out, develops and encounter problematic and joyful moments. The exchanging emotional interest in each other, displaying notions of care and dependency of the other, are alien elements within the paradigm of male homosocial relations. In Hard Boiled disclosure of personal feelings takes place outside the context of activities or action. Similar things can be said to describe Joey and Chandler's friendship. Generally, Joey and Chandler's depiction is centred around their jokes and everyday dealings at the level of conversation. Activity-driven socialising is the exception. Sue Hill (2000) suggests that research ought to pay attention to the value and significance of the seemingly unimportance of 'chat' and 'fun factor' in men's socialising. These things, highly present between Joey and Chandler, are usually seen as proving that men are incapable of displaying emotions, as well as only seldom delving into interpersonal, deeply touching conversations. Hill sees these aspects as men's possibly different ways of dealing with emotionality. The contrast between the two models then seems to be the following: In the normal buddy scenario intimacy occurs as a consequence of male interaction, while in Joey and Chandler's situation it is regarded as a mean in and of itself.
Reading the goodbye scene from this perspective, Joey and Chandler probably noticed that their first farewell was far from satisfying. They stood clumsily at each side of the table simply nodding to each other. The awkward atmosphere lasted for some seconds, then Joey went out the door leaving Chandler behind. When Joey returned and gave Chandler a proper embrace a few seconds later, the mutual homophobic tension was momentarily released, and they parted in a satisfying manner. However, they were both aware of their profound friendship tie being under pressure and facing an uncertain future.
In this example Joey and Chandler are struggling to express themselves through establishing an intimate body language, as well as telling each other that they care for each other and are going to miss one another. This seems to come easy for women, while heterosexual men find this a troubled area of communication. Bob Connell (1995) touches upon the same tension-laden field when he interviews four white, heterosexual, middleclass, Australian men in their late twenties. These men claim to have acknowledged the existence of sexism and turned pro-feminist through their involvement in lasting relationships with what Connell labels 'feminist' women. (Regrettably, he does not give a thorough explanation of what makes the women 'feminist', or the men pro-feminist.) Nevertheless, these men, according to Connell, have a constant bad consciousness about not being able to do much about sexism and gender inequality on a structural level in society. Moreover, they express a desire for better relationships with other men, but are struggling to establish them. One reason, Connell mentions, is the classic barrier of homophobia, as the men express that there are few ways of expanding patterns and ideologies of male socialising without touching upon the ambiguous territory of sexual identities. He discusses how these men had changed their attitudes towards women and women's issues. Unfortunately this had not given them any clear line on homosexuality. Therefore, Connell writes:
The troubling aspects of male social interaction become increasingly plausible in the following episode (Episode 217). Here Joey returns to Chandler's flat to ask whether he can move in again. Joey misses Chandler, but he does not know how to express his feelings for Chandler, who has already found himself a new flatmate, Eddie. Joey realises there is little chance of moving back in again due to this, and leaves feeling down and out. Eddie's presence brings out the element of jealousy in their relationship, and they start quarrelling over petty things. Some days later (though in the same episode), Joey stops by to pick up his mail. Eddie is serving Chandler 'eggs à la Eddie', and Joey comments that he thought Chandler liked Joey's eggs best. Eddie leaves for work, Joey is about to serve himself some juice, but the carton is empty. He then suddenly explodes, complaining about there being no juice. Chandler sarcastically answers 'there's more juice in the fridge', whereby Joey protests 'this is not about juice anymore'. What follows brings to mind jealous lovers embarking on underlying problems in their relationship, where these are triggered by minor details, as I discussed earlier.
Prior to this situation for example, both of them were separately 'counselled' by their other friends. Joey asks Phoebe and Monica (at Café Perk, their regular hangout) for advice regarding suggesting to Chandler that he could move back in again. They recommend him to give it a try. In his confrontation with Chandler, Joey seems to be looking for ways of expressing how he misses Chandler, and that he did not think that he would be replaced by a new flatmate so soon. It is only a few days since Joey moved out. Rachel reflects this by commenting in the others' presence: 'It'll never last, he's just a rebound roommate', mocking the notion of Joey and Chandler's situation reflecting a couple splitting up, rather than two friends. When Ross and Rachel gives advice to Chandler (in his flat), Ross expresses, 'You're just gonna have to accept the fact that you're just friends now, OK, you're not (hesitating) roommates anymore' (Episode 217). Ross' wondering about which terms fit to describe Joey and Chandler's relationship reflects this. To him they seem to signify something more than being plain friends. 'Roommates' means something different than friends to him. Nevertheless, does it include what they have? There are few alternatives within male, heterosexual socialisation for emotional disclosure apart from sports and similar activity driven relations, and this seems to come to Ross' mind. Ross ponders between categorising Joey and Chandler's friendship as 'just friends', or something else, and he ends labelling them 'roommates', still hesitating. None of the terms includes what he thinks Joey and Chandler's relation signifies. Unfortunately, there are few other ways of putting it, which troubles Ross, as well as heterosexual men generally, because men's relations then quickly turn ambiguous (see Connell:ibid).
In this situation neither Joey nor Chandler wants to disclose that they actually miss each other, and that they would prefer moving back in together. This would alter the power balance in their relationship. Joey cares about Chandler, but he was the one choosing to move out. Chandler, on the other hand, is the one who was left for the love of another (flat), and therefore will not admit that he misses Joey. The flat may work as a metaphor expressing the problems Joey and Chandler encounter trying to establish a certain emotional presence together. Joey interprets Chandler finding himself a new flatmate so soon, as signifying that he did not care that much about Joey after all. This is especially relevant if one interprets the flat as a social space where heterosexual men can interact more closely and less ridden by homophobic anxiety. Being roommates may also work as an arena where men can display emotional presence within safe settings, an unambiguous scene where small, everyday details are laden with symbolic values. However, this possibility relies on some sort of fidelity. Simply switching from one person to another as Chandler does, is unacceptable to Joey, and he protests. Whose eggs Chandler prefers plays a vital role in a complicated web of relations.
Exchange of gifts reflects a pattern more recognised as central to women's friendships, as accounted by Pat O'Connor (1992). In this way, Joey giving Chandler a bracelet and the chicken, as well as the more communal leather chairs and wide-screen television, may rather reflect intimate disclosure than homoerotic desire. Men tend to exchange favours rather than gifts, because gifts have ambiguous strings of intimacy attached to them (Nardi 1992). The economy of intimacy in contemporary Northern Euro-American societies is to a great extent channelled into and structured by the sphere of heterosexual couples. Due to this, men's mutual emotional disclosure usually needs a 'safe' context where this can take place. Exchanging favours like 'eggs à la Joey' is one such thing, while more overt expressions potentially challenge underlining structures of men's relations. These actions may be read as essential in structuring Joey and Chandler's friendship.
From this point of view it is also understandable why Ross never becomes close to neither of them, while Joey and Chandler develop a '[t]rust, faith that confidences will not be betrayed and privileged knowledge will not be used against the self' (Jamieson 1998:9). Ross does not share their flat and does not take part in their specific economy of intimacy. Can it be this simple? Probably not. Interestingly though, when Chandler and Monica decide to live together, Joey starts searching for a female flatmate (Episode 602). There is never any question of sharing the flat with a man. That would somehow threaten what Joey and Chandler's relation signifies.
The power of popular culture
Joey and Chandler's socialising in Friends may not necessarily represent anything radically new about men's social behaviour. I am rather suggesting that the series' description of two men engaging closely in each other's lives perhaps conveys an attempt to explore different discourses for displaying emotions among heterosexual men, challenging the strict borders of sexualities that tend to structure much of men's social interaction (Steinberg, Epstein and Johnson, 1996). Taking into account the huge popularity of the series in the United States and across Europe (leaving out other countries in this example), makes the series interesting in having a wider impact on society than one might first assume. [Rai 3, the Italian state television's homepage on Friends, refers to the series as the second most viewed situation comedy in America in 1999]. In relation to this, Jane Arthurs claims that it is crucial not to dismiss attempts to reinvent mainstream popular culture, giving voices to less heard depictions of, in this case, men's friendships. Her focus is whether Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise (1991) should be judged as a feminist film or not. She argues positively that it should, writing 'Thelma and Louise does not offer a radical alternative to patriarchal cinema, but rather moves inside it to disrupt the codes of gender in Hollywood film.' (Arthurs 1995:104). By broadcasting a show like Friends, different masculine virtues are diplayed and power relations are questioned. In our case, Friends may represent an effort to subvert sexual conventions and ways we may assume some sexual preferences as 'normal/natural'. Ross' ex-wife for instance, had just left him for another woman when the series started in 1994. She is what Margaret Marshement (1997) ironically refers to as a 'lipstick lesbian'. That is, a good-looking and amiable lesbian, instead of the stereotypical, media(ted) view of lesbians as angry, non-feminine and outdated radicals. Jillian Sandell (1998) criticises Friends' for giving an unreal and absurdly normalised picture of sexual difference. On the contrary, perhaps this is a way of showing that sexual difference can be familiarised. Then maybe descriptions of gays and lesbians can exceed the polarising pictures often depicted by television and on screen: Either as victims (Philadelphia, 1993; Tom Hanks as a gay man dying of AIDS, fighting for justice), or exceptional lives (Boys Don't Cry 1999; a young woman in sexual identity crisis, attempting to live her life as a man, but is finally killed because of her sexuality). [Footnote: Exceptions, to mention three: American Beauty (1999), the only 'normal' characters in the film is a gay couple living next door the main protagonists; Gimme Gimme, British television series about a straight woman and her gay flatmate; Ellen, American television series presenting a straight forward lesbian].
On the other hand, Lynne Joyrich (1996) criticises John Fiske (1987) interpreting another American television series, Miami Vice, in severely ignorant manners. Fiske claims that the incoherent narrative of the series, where style and fashion occurs as more important than story lines, Miami Vice is disrupting the ideals of hegemonic masculinities. What Joyrich claims Fiske turns a blind eye to is 'the close-ups of women's breasts' (Joyrich 1996:93). [Footnote: Robert Hanke (1990) claims a similar view when criticising another American sit-com, thirtysomething for representing a 'negotiated version of hegemonic masculinity that is able to express and contain elements of liberal feminist ideology while remaining complicit with dominant gender ideology. (Hanke 1990:231)]. Similarly, much of Joey and Chandler's conversations include subtle homophobic jokes and comments, acted as if they are acceptable performances. This contradicts the picture of Friends portraying 'new' masculine narratives. It may also characterise a conversion of homophobia into a more politically correct discourse, never expressed explicitly (see Brendan Gough 2000). Furthermore, Sandell (1998) is perfectly right in her critique of Friends being unable to deal with for example racial difference, not to mention that all of the cast 'happens to be' attractive, slim and beautiful. Am I overlooking the fact that the series may simply be echoing conservative, heterosexual ideologies? Maybe. Nonetheless, I believe it may be read in contradicting manners, and perhaps some of the spectators find Joey and Chandler's struggle interesting because it reflects their own situation. Moreover, Arthurs writes '[c]ultural politics need to take account of what is achievable within existing structures at the centre as well as the margins.' (Arthurs 1995:104) Thus, perhaps popular culture is a space which is useful for promoting alternative cultural ideologies of gender, since it works on another level than average academic textual discourse does (Fiske 1987; Arthurs 1995).
I have attempted to mould out contradicting aspects of Joey and Chandler's relation in the television series Friends. This paper only deals with a couple of sequences showing Joey and Chandler practically isolated in their actions. Nonetheless, I have tried to show the significance of Joey and Chandler's new flatmate Eddie as structuring their behaviour and how he triggers notions of jealousy and fidelity. Homophobia is present as an undercurrent in their relationship, but it is not the main structuring element. Joey and Chandler's possibly in vain emotional investment in one another touches upon crucial issues of power in interpersonal relations. This is reflected in how both of them avoid directly raising issues of commitment, but communicate through using metaphors such as the flat and preparing food as representing their relationship. Whether one chooses to read the series as representing homosociality, homoeroticism or male intimacy (or something completely different), naturally structures the argument. Nevertheless, I am aware of the fact that Friends may be seen as re-formulating traditional gender patterns, men being the focus and the women human furniture and scenery, rather than the driving force of the series.
Whether we are actually witnessing new attempts to expand male, heterosexual language for emotional disclosure with other men depends on the reader. A perspective that pays attention to the context and social reality of people's interaction may better tease out how heterosexual men deal with troubled, emotional engagement. Sticking to perceptions that polarise men as either emotionally detached or repressing their homosexual part of their identities too easily slips into generalised statements. In this case, popular culture may offer new angles and ideas for men to engage in working out degrees of male intimacy within their friendships.
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Vegard Iglebæk (30) is a Norwegian citizen and completed his MA (Econ) at the University of Manchester in 2000. He works at the Centre for Gender Equality in Norway, where he is engaged in issues related to youth, gender and education. For further details, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out www.likestilling.no. [This mini-biography was updated in August 2004].