- Carola Kolbeck
From Exclusivity to Accountability - Critiquing My Comfort Shows
© Illustration by INJECTION - Alicia Lupieri
Watching our favourite sitcoms on repeat is comforting and safe. But are the predominantly white and straight shows such as Friends, Sex and the City, et al. the cornerstones of persisting exclusivity in our society?
Some years ago, I went through a horrendous breakup. I was filled with pain and grief and consumed by negative thoughts, which stopped me from sleeping. To distract myself, I started watching Friends and Sex and the City all evening, every evening. And when I watched the whole series, I started from the beginning. I found comfort and distraction in some of the most iconic TV series of all time and spent hours crying hopeful tears that, one day, I, too, would find true love.
Fast forward to the present, I still occasionally watch those series. Although I know exactly what’s coming, I still laugh in the same places or cringe at the same scenes. It’s familiar; it’s easy. But why exactly are sitcoms and soaps so comforting for us to watch? According to science and psychology, this is quite normal. Dr Danielle Forshee explains that recognising human emotion helps us form attachments to those fictional characters - if we can identify with their emotions, then we start creating a bond. What is more, some even claim that those bonds can decrease feelings of loneliness. This could certainly explain the comfort I used to get from watching those characters live their fictional lives: I could sympathise with them and feel less alone.
Lately, however, I have been feeling uncomfortable watching the series, acutely aware of the lack of diversity in them. Although both Friends and Sex and the City feature black and brown actors and have some characters representing the LGBTQ+ community, their presence feels more like a token gesture than an equal amount of coverage. It never bothered me; it didn’t even occur to me (such is privilege as a white, cis-gendered and straight woman). But with the growing momentum of Black Lives Matter, growing racism and my own awareness of the underrepresentation of marginalised and oppressed groups in society, I can't watch those series anymore without wondering why on earth they are just so, well, white and straight.
As my own feelings are shared by some in society, the diversity question has been brought up with both, creators and actors of those popular TV shows,
Friends, which enjoys frequent reruns on TV, published a reunion episode that garnered much delight from fans but also a lot of criticism over its mainly white cast. Friends co-creator Martha Kaufmann recently admitted that she would have made many different decisions today but maintains that the choice of an all-white main cast was unintentional, whilst producer Kevin Bright opined that the chemistry of those 6 actors had been the deciding factor and he didn’t regret the choice.
As one of the only actors to speak out, Kathleen Turner comments on her role as Chandler's dad and reflects on why she took the role in the first place in the late 90s: she acknowledged that there are others that would be more suitable to play the part of Chandler’s transgender father these days. Whilst the creators and cast of friends blame “our experience when we were young and in New York” for the outcome of Friends, it leaves critical viewers wondering if ignorance and lived experience in a white-privileged society is enough to justify the obvious lack of diversity.
Ironically, And Just Like That, the spin-off series of Sex and the City, has been criticised by fans and the media alike for having ‘died of wokeness’ and that characters have become too politically correct. McCain, a columnist for the Daily Mail stated that the new series ‘is wokeness superficially shoved down your throat to make a point about wealthy white liberal women 'evolving' into the political climate of 2021.’ The cast was quick to respond and pointed out that times are different. With a less white main cast and the LGBTQIA+ community proudly represented, And Just Like That may have turned a corner into more inclusive comfort viewing, but will future series follow suit? And to pose another important question: Should we boycott Friends et al., burn our boxsets and delete their series link from our TiVo boxes?
I have to admit that I don’t have the answer. What I can say, however, is that I am now acutely aware of the absence of diversity whilst whiteness and white privilege slap me in my white face. Am I grateful for feeling less comfortable? Yes. I can critically engage with all the facts and acknowledge the faults of society that fed and still feeds modern television. Maybe it all comes down to taking responsibility and keeping conversations about diversity and racism open. Learning from the past and doing better are things we all can do to ensure that inequality may one day become a thing of the past. After all, my own discomfort is nothing in comparison to the lack of representation in TV and film faced by a huge amount of the world’s population.