In the Pilot, Rachel Green runs out on her wedding to free herself from her fiancé, and cuts up her credit cards to emancipate herself from her father. She's all about independence! Which is super awesome. I never quite appreciated how great Rachel's story is from the perspective of feminism, and the show makes good on that construct early on. Marlo Thomas, one of the original television figures of feminism on "That Girl," was cast to play Rachel's mother. Inspired by her daughter's liberation, Mrs. Green filed for divorce and wanted to take on New York City like her daughter. Her best friend Mindy came to town, and even though Rachel encouraged Mindy to take a similar stand of independence, Mindy doesn't make the same choice, and returns to Long Island and her wealthy (cheating) fiancé. In short, it's well-communicated that Rachel was intended to go from her father's house to her husband's house, and her bid for freedom from that in the Pilot was a conscious decision to emancipate herself and change the course of her own life, for better or worse. How great is that?
Fast-forward through her job at the coffeehouse, and starting to date Ross in Season 2. In Season 3, she finally gets a foot in the door for a dream career: she starts working at Bloomingdales. Trouble is, the guy who's helping her with networking and transitioning into the job has a crush on her, and Ross is threatened by him. It's paltry jealousy jokes for most of the arc, but a rather enlightening argument takes place at the end of "The One with Phoebe's Ex-Partner." Ross insisted on going with Rachel to a fashion seminar, and embarrassed her by falling asleep and calling attention to himself. Finally, we understand the true conflict:
Rachel: Y'know if what I do is so lame, then why did you insist on coming with me this morning? Huh? Was it so I just wouldn’t go with Mark?
Ross: No. I... I wanted to be with you. I feel like lately, I feel like you’re slipping away from me. With this new job, and all these new people, and you’ve got this whole other life going on. I know it’s dumb, but I hate that I’m not a part of it.
Rachel: It’s not dumb. But, maybe it’s okay that you’re not a part of it. Y'know what I mean? I mean it’s like, I like that you’re not involved in that part of my life.
Ross: That’s a little clearer.
Rachel: Honey, see, it doesn’t mean that I don’t love you. Because I do. I love you, I love you so much. But my work, it’s for me, y'know, I’m out there, on my own, and I’m doing it and it’s scary. But I love it, because it’s mine. I mean, is that okay?
Ross: Sure. (as he hugs her, he mouths an outraged "no")
This exchange is glorious, because it connects Rachel's Season 3 identity with her S1 original intent, two years later. Rachel has something that is her own. She's finally moved forward on her journey, found a worthwhile investment of her talents, and is expressing her independence with success. It's frustrating that Ross protests this. It's wonderful that Rachel rebuffs his protestations with reassurance not only in her feelings for him, but also in her own self-confidence, empowerment, and identity. It is magnificent, that Rachel doesn't budge on the idea that maybe she's not doing this relationship properly because Ross isn't a part of every aspect of her life. She's all about independence! It aligns with her original intent, and is executed fantastically. It's enough to bring a happy tear to my eye.
What sucks is that Ross doesn't really accept that sentiment, and everything blows to smithereens anyways. Their devolution as a couple continues because of Ross' inability to get past the Mark jealousy, and in the infamous "we were on a break" miscommunication, he sleeps with the copy girl while Rachel is under the impression they're still together. They break up, and the rest of the series is dedicated mostly to their dance around each other until they finally get back together for good in the finale. Rachel's independence arc crops up at various further points as well, mainly resurrecting when she gets pregnant with Ross' kid and decides to raise the baby as a single mother.
What I realized, though, is that the show's final cliffhanger - and romantic resolution to Ross and Rachel's love story - creates a situation where Rachel has a job opportunity in Paris and is going to leave Ross behind. She's accepted the position, after having been fired from her job at Ralph Lauren and turned down for a job at Gucci, and of course Mark returns to remind us that Ross has jealousy issues. The prospect of Rachel leaving for Paris is too much, especially after having slept together one last time, and so Ross makes the grand gesture at the airport. She "got off the plane," and decides to stay in New York with him.
I know that there are a lot of attenuating circumstances at the end of a complicated 10-year relationship, with Emma, and with Friends being largely the love story between Ross and Rachel. I'm not saying that Rachel should have shouted at Ross in French and then stormed off to the plane to prove her independence. You could argue that Rachel's independence arc had to evolve and transform to stay fresh, and that it's unrealistic to expect an absolute and inflexible character arc out of a show that intended to relatably reflect the trials and successes of every day life. You could also argue that Rachel fulfilled her journey towards independence in the sum total of her seasons on the show, and one single gesture does nothing to refute that. I definitely see the validity in all of these points.
Ross' story on Friends is about standing up for himself and finding love in the wake of his divorce. Rachel's is about standing up for herself and finding independence in the wake of an unhappy life directed largely by expectations of womanhood. So why did Ross' arc trump hers, at the very end?