Growing up in the 90s, I’ve watched “Friends” most of my life, and I identify with each of the main characters in different ways.
I love fashion like Rachel. I’m a little OCD like Monica. I eat like Joey, make cheesy jokes like Chandler and have strong convictions like Phoebe.
But the character I’ve always identified with the most is Ross. Sometimes I’m ashamed to admit that because there are a lot of Ross-haters out there. He has some qualities that people find unattractive—his (occasional) condescending tone, his squeaky voice and his annoying big brother antics with Monica.
But if I’m honest with myself, it’s true. I, too, am a Ross. I am the type of hopeless romantic who believes in “lobsters,” and the type of geek who would muse to my crush about what it might be like to “live forever as a machine.”
I am a smart person, and I’m proud of it. I love learning. I love reading. I basically write research papers for fun, and I occasionally “kick back with a puzzle.”
But even though I consider myself the intellectual, Ross-type, I couldn’t disagree more with David Hopkins’s viral blog claiming that “Friends” inspired anti-intellectualism in America with Ross as the show’s “tragic hero.”
I understand that Mr. Hopkins wrote this blog to make a larger point about issues like Kim Kardashian on CNN, or the smart-shaming and bullying that really does happen, and I applaud him for that.
In an era where our President-elect and members of his cabinet have blatantly denied facts like climate change, it’s even tempting to nod along with Hopkins and agree that, “Yes, this blatant rejection of logic might have gained momentum in the 90s when ‘Friends’ was rising in popularity.”
But even for us dramatic Ross-types, it’s a bit extreme to say that a sitcom “triggered the downfall of Western Civilization.” So I’d like to defend my favorite show, and suggest that Hopkins’s ultra-intellectual perspective is actually part of the reason society rejects logic in the first place.
In case you haven’t read the blog, Hopkins makes the case that Ross’s storyline in “Friends” tells the tragic tale of a smart man being ridiculed by his less-intelligent friends and ultimately lured into their world of frivolous nonsense. He calls Ross “a family man, a man of science, a genius who fell in with the wrong crowd.”
Well, let’s start with the obvious. First, Ross was never a completely sane or purely intellectual to begin with. This is the guy who started a boy band with Chandler in college, and then tried to make it New York as a dancer, so Ross is hardly the esteemed intellectual Hopkins paints him to be, even at the beginning of the show. And to be honest, his character doesn’t evolve much throughout the 10 seasons.
If you want to talk about characters evolving, let’s talk about Rachel who goes from spoiled Long Island brat living off daddy’s credit cards to self-sufficient, single mother with a powerful career in New York. But never mind that. Hopkins dismisses her as a girl who “likes to shop” and is clearly not worthy of our hero Ross’s affections.
Let’s move on. Hopkins’s other points revolve around conspiracy theories concerning the show’s theme song “I’ll be there for you” and its would-be song, “It’s the end of the world as we know (And I feel fine).”
In my experience as a “Friends” fan, these songs represent the shows greatest qualities: its dedication to consistent, constant companionship, and it’s willingness to take the ups and downs of first-world life with a light heart.
“I’ll be there for you” is about people telling each other that they have someone to call, someone to go through life with. And yes, when you’re single in your 20s, there are a lot of deceptive and disappointing moments in your love life and your career to warrant the song’s lyrics. Trust me.
But having deep, consistent friends you can call at a moment’s notice really does make it better somehow. Not perfect, but better.
Maybe Hopkins has never felt that, or maybe he has, and thinks it doesn’t matter. But to me, and other “Friends” fans, it does, and that’s what makes this show so important to us. It reminds us of the people who will always “be there” for us, and despite the obvious (sometimes exaggerated) flaws of the actual “Friends,” their relationships are extraordinary.
Perhaps it’s my romantic Ross-side coming out again, but I truly believe that watching “Friends” as a teenager helped me build stronger, more loving relationships, so when I did encounter serious things, like illness or death in the family, I was more capable of getting through it.
“Friends” also helped me develop a healthy, level-headed tolerance for smaller upsets with an attitude that says, “You know what? Life is too important to be taken seriously sometimes.” That’s where the “End of the World as We Know” idea comes in. If there was an underlying, secret message of “Friends,” it’s the idea that life is not perfect, but you might as well make the best of it. I’ll be there for you. Go ahead and cry when you need to, and when you can’t cry anymore, you can always laugh.
Growing up, “Friends” was my escape. While others preferred more serious shows like “CSI” or “60 Minutes,” I opted for a silly sitcom about nothing.
That’s how the show has been criticized, right? No plot, just beautiful people sitting around a coffee shop, talking about basic-white-girl struggles.
Well, you know what? That was exactly what I wanted at the time. As someone preparing to go into the news industry—with daily headlines about murder and destruction and greenhouse gases—having a relaxing, goofy pastime like “Friends” helped me unwind, so I could spend my working hours addressing real problems.
That’s not anti-intellectual. That’s taking a break. And maybe that’s why a serious character like Ross would choose to surround himself with less intellectual friends in the first place.
Ross is the esteemed professor who happens to enjoy the occasional Sir Mix-a-Lot rap, and falls in love with a woman who can balance his high-strung, serious tendencies with a little easy-going, fun-love.
People like Hopkins seem to think that in order to be smart, you must only enjoy highly intelligent things and associate with highly intellectual, academic peers.
But actually, that’s the exact type of echo-chamber mentality that has triggered the so-called “downfall of the Western Civilization,” if you want to put it that way.
Contrary to Hopkins’s logic that having less intellectual peers encourages ignorance, studies show that the real reason people choose to blatantly ignore facts is because they associate those facts with people or ideas that they have already chosen to reject.
For instance, if I believe that a certain type of person is wrong from the start, it’s harder for me to accept anything that person does or says as right—even if it is factual.
It’s part of the reason we see a disregard for facts like climate change among people who are clearly educated.
Therefore, the problem with anti-intellectualism is less of an issue with smart people having less smart friends and more of an issue with group think—even smart group think.
Ross didn’t “fall in with the wrong crowd.” Ross was the academically inclined guy who chose to be close friends with people who thought differently than he did. A hippy like Phoebe. A sarcastic data-processor like Chandler. Even a simple guy like Joey. These people challenged him (unintentionally sometimes), and they didn’t just nod along with everything he said as his academic peers might.
I’d argue that what “Friends” lacks in physical diversity, it makes up for in diversity of thought and personal history. Phoebe grew up with nothing; Rachel grew up with everything. Ross and Monica are your typical boy-girl siblings; Chandler grew up the only child of divorced parents with a gay dad. Ross and Joey are intellectual opposites.
You don’t see many guys like Ross who keep Joeys in their inner circles these days, or vice versa. Instead of having a couch of friends with different backgrounds, we’ve already taken Hopkins’s advice and surrounded ourselves with people who share our ideas, fears and educational achievements.
But maybe our politics wouldn’t be so divisive if we loved people who were different from us and weren’t afraid they would make us “insane.” And maybe intellectual ideas wouldn’t be rejected by society if the intellectual community didn’t ostracize anyone who doesn’t consider themselves highly intelligent to begin with.
No, Ross’s isn’t a tragic hero—an intelligent man “persecuted by his idiot compatriots.” Actually, he’s a good example for intellectual people to follow.
Stop trying to be heroes ,and start engaging with the Joeys, Chandlers, Rachels, Monicas and Phoebes of the world on a personal level.
If that makes us all part of Hopkins’s “dumb, dumb world,” then I really do “feel fine.”