Friday, August 10, 2012

Friends and Feminism: Rachel Green and her Independence Arc

Rarely do I have deep thoughts about Friends, the TV show.  It's a show I grew up with, and I watched it with the basic reflection: did I like it?  Did I laugh?  Okay, good.  Only recently, eight years after their final episode aired, have I started to really think about the storytelling decisions on Friends - mostly because now I can't help it.  It's like watching Friends with a completely different set of lenses, looking at a show with great writing for the quality in the writing itself and not just for laughs.  The other day, I caught the Pilot and an episode from Season 3 back-to-back, and together they illuminated a lot about Rachel Green's early arc.  Of course, it's something I had never really processed before, and it gave me pause me to think about its execution and continuation in later seasons.

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.

But I still can't shake the notion that when you look at it in terms of Rachel's original arc, the ending is dissonant. Rachel giving up a career promotion to stay with Ross becomes slightly underwhelming, especially given his pre-established insecurity towards Rachel having something that he's not included in.  Some part of me wants Rachel to have jetted off into another adventure of independence, bursting through the door of a French café and changing her life, the way she did in Central Perk ten years previous.  But forsaking the specialness of Rachel's belonging to the group of six isn't satisfying, and I can't blame the writers for wanting her to stay local.  Maybe if Ross and Rachel had a conversation about trying to make their relationship work in symbiosis with Rachel's career, I'd be less picky.  Maybe if there'd been some resolution to what broke them up in the first place, at some point in the seven years' interim, it'd be easier to overlook.  Maybe if there hadn't been a constructed cliffhanger around Rachel having to choose, at the last minute, between Option A (Ross) and Option B (career) with no possible negotiation, there wouldn't be a lingering feeling that the writers didn't quite pay off Rachel's original intent as well as they could have.

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?


  1. I have something to add. I believe that the choice between career and love has nothing to do with feminism, and you should shove that sexism down your throat. Men are people too. Thank you, and farewell!

    1. I don't believe you understand what sexism is, dear. If you'd look at a dictionary (which I assume you don't), you'd know that sexism is "prejudice or discrimination based on sex" (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary). I also do not know if you understand any of the points made by the author of this post. Not at any point within this post did the author display any kind of "prejudice" or "discrimination".

      All the author did was describe some significant events in the character arc of Rachel (and, in extension, Ross), link the writing choices made within the context of the show with feminism, and ask the question, "Why did Ross' character arc trump Rachel's at the very end?"

  2. Also, great, thoughtful piece, Doctor! As always, your thoughts are quite illuminating, especially on the Rachel/Ross part of the series. I definitely did find myself asking the same question you ask in this article, and maybe also wondering how different the ending would be had the show ended with Rachel starting her new job in Paris, and everyone's lives continuing in the wake of all the changes happening in their lives. Would the part with the keys and the closing the door one last time have had the same effect if, instead of all of them going to the coffee house, it was hanging over their heads that once they closed that door, it was hanging over their heads that times were changing?

  3. I find it interesting that what is deemed "sexist" is a woman choosing love over a career. Isn't feminism about a woman's right to...CHOOSE? I consider myself a feminist (mostly, although I often don't agree with the loudest feminist political voice), but I don't want to chase a career. I work because I need to work. When the day comes where my husband makes enough money, we will have babies and I will stay home with them. Eventually, I'll volunteer and get a part-time job. These are not the dictations of a narrow-minded leash-holding husband. They are MY choices. It seems too often that feminists aren't for a woman's right to choose so much as they are for a woman's right to choose that which most other feminists believe she should choose. Isn't it MY choice? Ross didn't MAKE Rachel stay. She CHOSE to stay. At a time in her life, she made the CHOICE to pursue a career and she conquered that dream well. Then, she decided to pursue love. How does that make her less enlightened or less feminist?


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