queer theory, sexuality, transsexuality, essentialist, binaries.
This research paper is an attempt at understanding whether the introduction of queer characters in television sitcoms have influenced the society over the period of its portrayal and if yes, how such an exposure has sensitized people to a certain extent in understanding and accepting so called deviances in sexuality and gender. Another aspect being examined by the researcher is related to how specific characters from the sitcom ‘Friends’, have been made to fit into certain set categories and how they are perceived by people in their immediate environment. The assumption behind analysing these characters, though they are fictional, is the fact that they are a figment of a human being’s imagination and that the study of which would provide an insight into the then existing notions of people regarding queer characters. This in turn would provide a basis on which one can understand how the concept of queerness has evolved and how it still is evolving.
Previous research done on sitcoms and even those done specifically on ‘Friends’, have mostly examined gender stereotypes and gender roles, but have not looked into queerness of characters or queerness in society either. So, this paper aims to narrow down the focus to queer characters and queer theory to bring to light certain new ways in which one’s gender, sexuality and identity in a social structure shapes people’s mentalities toward these concepts that may or may not seem alien.
‘Queer’ and what it means:
The word queer literally means strange or unusual and it has been used over time to denote anything or anyone who tends to project a deviance from the select normality of socially defined standards. Over the years, the word queer has also been informally (and more offensively, somtimes) used to denote homosexuality and homosexuals (gays and lesbians). Today, the word queer encompasses more than just homosexuality. It has started to point towards anyone who is essentially ‘not heterosexual’.
Just as how one may define something in terms of binaries, where one idea is defined in terms of what another is not, the word queer has no set definition of what it is; rather, it is defined in terms of what heterosexuality is ‘not’. In simpler terms, Queer has begun to function as an umbrella term which includes cross-dressing, hermaphroditism, gender ambiguity, gender corrective surgeries etc.; the identification of which, opens up the idea that there exists a spectrum where it is not just binaries that work in society, say, in terms of black and white, but also a range of grey areas.
It has become quite common to use the terms gender and sexuality interchangeably giving rise to innumerable conflicts of interest. The idea that gender determines one’s sexuality, identity and orientation in itself poses a juxtaposition to the very framework of modern society. As per the essentialist view, it is often assumed that a person’s sexual preference would be natural and essential to a person’s personality. In a broader sense, Queer Theory “focuses on mismatches between sex, gender and desire” 1. There is always a tendency to club the aforementioned three terms into one and the same thing, and the conclusion that one arrives at, due to this unhealthy manner of interchanging three very different concepts result in its potentially disruptive, politically incorrect amalgamation. While this becomes problematic in contemporary times, with various aspects of queerness being examined in detail, it would suffice to say that clarity in terms of queerness related to one’s gender identity and sexuality has been made highly complicated, when the simplest way to look at deviances is with a rational perspective.
The entire idea that a particular gender should and will be directly linked to a particular sexual orientation is what has overly complicated the understanding of other kinds of sexual orientations. Certain portions of the society have delineated the idea of the end product; or the idea that the only outcome of sexuality is procreation, hence establishing that the absence of procreation in the setting of a same sex relationship makes the entire point of that relationship unnecessary.
Friends (stylized as F•R•I•E•N•D•S) is an American television sitcom, created by David Crane and Marta Kauffman, which aired on NBC from September 22, 1994, to May 6, 2004, lasting ten seasons in total. The show revolves around six 20–30-something year old friends living in Manhattan. The series was produced by Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions, in association with Warner Bros. Television. The original executive producers were Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffman, and David Crane.
The six main characters, out of which three are male and three are female, are in themselves quite interesting when studied through the lens of gender theories, gender roles and gender stereotypes. Each of these characters seem to fit into at least one stereotype prescribed by society to each of the binaries of the male and female gender.
The focus for the sake of this research paper has hence been shifted, not to the mainstream characters in the show, but towards other characters such as Helena Handbasket (Mr. Charles Bing) or Carol or Duncan Sullivan.
With regard to the methodology used during the course of this research, the researcher has analysed various episodes of the television Sitcom, ‘Friends’, wherein there are appearances made by queer characters. The researcher has considered these episodes as visual texts which was looked at to understand and enforce (or disregard) the underlying idea that being queer should not be seen as a sexual deviance or an abnormality. Hence the research is textually oriented, being analysed with the concepts of queer theory hand in hand.
The characters from the show who were picked for the purpose of analysis are as follows:
· Helena Handbasket Bing/ Charles Bing:
She (previously ‘he’), is Chandler Bing’s father and is a homosexual character throughout the show. Somewhere in between, she goes through sex reassignment surgery to become a woman.
· Carol and Susan:
Carol is Ross’s ex-wife who realises that she is a lesbian after a couple of years of being married to him. She falls in love with a woman named Susan, and later gets married to her.
· Duncan Sullivan:
He is Phoebe’s ex-husband who is an ice dancer and believes that he is gay due to his profession. He later realises that he has always been straight and then confides in Phoebe that he had been deluding himself from the beginning.
· Melissa Warburton:
She is a bisexual character, who is the childhood friend of Rachel Greene. She is extremely reluctant to admit to that side of herself which likes women.
An interesting observation noted through the course of this research is that, the tight circle of the ‘Friends’ clique, somehow did not include characters who were not heterosexual, neither did they include characters of a different ethnicity (albeit joey, who is Italian-American, which is still, part American and White). While the main characters have been portrayed in a certain way, it is a possibility that the reason behind not portraying one of them as being queer, was due to the existing social conditions during the course of the show. The show had begun and ended during the dawn of the 21st century when it still was going through a gradual phase of acceptance that had not completely been realised.
Other characters such as Chandler’s dad, Mr. Charles Bing/ Helena Handbasket Bing, who performs in drag shows and possibly has gone through sex reassignment surgeries to become a woman is shown as being gay. Another character, Carol, Ross’s ex-wife is also shown to be a lesbian, her partner being Susan.
It can be noted that homosexuality was slowly being considered as a possible category in opposition to heterosexuality while trans sexuality was still considered a no man’s territory.
The fact that gender has been sexualised over time to meld it into being synonymous to desire has become quite clear throughout the study. Another point of observation enforces that sexuality is indeed a social construct.
· Jagose, Annamarie (1996). Queer theory an introduction (Reprint. ed.). New York: New York Univ. Press. ISBN 978-0814742341.
Barry, P 2002, Lesbian/gay criticism, in P Barry (eds), Beginning theory: an introduction to literary and cultural theory, Manchester University Press, Manchester, pp139-155.
· Sandell, J. (1998). I’ll be there for you: Friends and the Fantasy of Alternative family. JSTOR, 39(2).