The One With(out) the Gender Binary: Rewatching “Friends” and “Coupling”
By Sam MooreSeptember 15, 2020
Twenty years ago, the romance sitcom Coupling first aired on the BBC. The show was designed to be, in my dad’s words, a “British rip-off of Friends,” and, at first blush, that comparison pretty much makes sense. Both shows are about (white) sextets, who seem to spend all their time hanging out and very little of it working. Both shows are about relationships, their minutiae, highs, and lows. Both shows are about sex, but Coupling is much more willing to entertain and poke fun at the perversions of its characters. And, perhaps most strikingly, both shows are incredibly gendered. Friends and Coupling both present friendship and romance as a kind of battle of the sexes, offering male and female vantage points of any given situation, covering everything from first kisses to the definition of foreplay. What’s most interesting about this is the extent to which the battle lines of gender are so rigidly defined; there’s Male and Female, with very little room for nuance in these classifications, and certainly no space for any idea of an experience that exists beyond those two gendered poles.
There’s a scene in Friends that illustrates this perfectly. In “The One With the List,” just after Ross and Rachel kiss for the first time, the two of them share this fact with their friends. Ross tells the guys, and Rachel tells the girls. Needless to say, their responses are very different. When the girls find out, they ask a lot of questions; they want details about how it happened, how it felt, and what it meant (and Monica is strangely enthusiastic about her brother’s sex life). When the guys find out, there’s only one detail that they’re interested in:
Ross: And, uh, and then I kissed her.
These polar opposites seem best defined by the old adage that men are from Mars, and women are from Venus, which makes me wonder what planet anyone who might not think of themselves that way might be from. Certainly not from Earth, if the view of the world put forward by our sitcoms is anything to go by. These shows do their best to sidestep or make jokes out of anything that violates their binaries. The go-to example for this is probably Chandler in Friends. He’s the least stereotypically male of the guys in the show — something often illustrated through his lack of sexual relationships in comparison to say, Joey — and early on, it’s made clear that these deviations from the norm are, in more ways than one, a little queer. In “The One Where Nana Dies Twice,” we find out that Chandler has what everyone else calls, a “quality,” some sort of vague, undefined trait that everyone seemed to think made him gay. Much later on in the show’s run, when he’s married — to a woman, I hasten to add — and makes an offhand comment about the songs in Oklahoma!, and that same wife responds by saying, “are you trying to tell me that we’re moving to Tulsa, or that you’re gay?”
Queerness is something that both Friends and Coupling attempted to explore, but both shows more often treated queer characters as foils helpful only for further outlining the bounds and norms of straightness. It’s notable, then, that both shows quite literally begin with narrative run-ins with queerness. Obviously Friends features Ross’s lesbian ex-wife Carol, and her life partner Susan; it’s fine that their lives aren’t explored in great depth since in the scheme of things they’re pretty minor characters, but Carol’s queerness is seemingly always explained through the prism of heterosexual Ross, or used as a punchline to describe the end of Ross’s first marriage. And Coupling has Jane, an eccentric bisexual who the show’s straight man, Steve, struggles to break up with in the first episode. Jane never dates a woman — which in itself is fine; bisexuality shouldn’t come with receipts and whenever I get asked about it I roll my eyes into the sun — but her orientation is used as fodder for the male fantasy that comes up the most in Coupling: a threesome. It makes sense that Coupling would keep coming back to this. In a particularly memorable comic monologue, during which Steve explains the plot of the pornographic Lesbian Spank Inferno to a table of guests at a dinner party, he also tells them the cornerstones of the male psyche: “women, stockings, lesbians, and Sean Connery best as James Bond.” After all this time, it’s so nice to finally know what it is about the concept of maleness that’s alienated me: men just have terrible taste in Bonds. I’ll always be ride or die for Roger Moore, the one man who seemed to understand that the pre-Daniel Craig version of the character was incredibly silly.
As these attempts to game the sexualities of Carol and Susan and Jane suggest, Friends and Coupling define their ideas of maleness through a kind of heterosexuality that could best be described as rampant. It’s no wonder that in Coupling, the comically well-endowed Patrick is told that he has “the sexual politics of a Viking attack.” But that description seems to apply to every character in Coupling to some degree, especially the men. One of the ways in which the show is relatively open-minded — especially for an early 2000s sitcom — is that it’s willing to explore the sex lives and fantasies of the female characters as well as the men; it doesn’t quite reach the “one of the boys” egalitarianism of Seinfeld, or FX’s criminally underrated fantasy football sitcom The League (which, incidentally, features one of the best female characters in the history of TV comedy), but it allows all the characters, regardless of their gender, to indulge in their perversions. The problem is the extent to which these perversions, and the conversations around them, tend to fall back onto rigid definitions of gender and sexuality.
Coupling has a well-documented obsession with threesomes, and Friends has a thing for them too, with Joey trying to explain to Ross that the solution to his broken marriage is a threesome with Susan and Carol, an exploration of female queerness that’s incredibly striking in its male gaze. And in Coupling, Jane tries to use them as a way to stop Steve breaking up with her in the first episode — he describes it as not being talked about “once in the entire relationship. I begged” — and one of them is an integral plot point to another episode. The best way to think about threesomes in Coupling is through a kind of blunt, heterosexual mathematics: if sex with one woman is straight, just think about how straight sex with two women would be. In the season two episode “Jane and the Truth Snake,” Patrick plans to break up with his girlfriend — over the phone — because she rules out any possibility of a threesome in the future; as he puts it “how can a relationship survive when there’s no hope?” But after he leaves the message on her answering machine, she finds him and says that she’s changed her mind, she wants a threesome. The punchline of the gag, and the episode, is that what she wants is a threesome with Patrick and Jeff (the oddball male in the group, full of anxiety and Seinfeldian additions to the lexicon). The final shot of the episode is Patrick tied to the bed, with Jeff and his girlfriend standing in the doorway, screaming in horror.
Sitcoms from the '90s and early 2000s have their fair share of gay panic. The trope seemed to remain in vogue even after it was wonderfully sidestepped and deconstructed in Seinfeld’s “The Outing” in 1996. Friends in particular is pretty notorious for this. Of course, Chandler’s assumed sexuality comes up early and often, but there are whole episodes that are driven by gay panic, and that panic is often rooted in deviations from the norms of maleness. There are two episodes that stand out for this; “The One with the Nap Partners,” which aired in 2000, and “The One with the Male Nanny,” which aired two years later. Interestingly, both episodes feature Ross heavily in their gay panic plots; this makes sense, the show often seems to use quote-unquote gay stories as a way of exploring Ross’s wounded masculinity. Both of these episodes treat ideas around friendship, intimacy, and sensitivity as inherently gay, because of the ways in which they contradict the definitions of maleness that the show prescribes to. And gay in this context has nothing to do with gayness in a queer lens, and everything to do with the schoolyard classic of saying “that’s gay” in response to a whole laundry list of things, a knee-jerk that evolves into hearing people whisper “faggot” under their breath when you walk past them in a corridor at 16. I didn't hear slurs when I was 16 because of Friends, but the strictly enforced limitations of gender and sexuality on popular TV shows like Friends and Coupling helped to shape the corridors through which those slurs floated.
I think about “The One with the Male Nanny” a lot. It was one of the first times I heard any kind of reference to bisexuality on TV (I hadn’t seen any of Coupling yet, but my dad had mentioned it a couple of times). Of course, this is never talked about when it comes to a character who’s actually queer, but instead that their sensitivity must somehow make them queer — in the sense of sexuality and peculiarity — because of the extent to which it deviates from the norms of maleness. At the end of “The One With the Male Nanny,” some combination of incredulous and unconvinced, Ross says to Sandy, the eponymous Nanny, “you gotta be at least bi.”
This is the problem with the lines of allegiance drawn by a battle of the sexes; it leaves no room for anything that doesn’t fit its easy definitions of male and female. Both Coupling and Friends are full of scenes where the men and women separately deconstruct their romantic entanglements. Coupling does this better; it’s quicker and draws out the differences between the characters in a more organic way, with the dialogue of the men and women each acting as a kind of mirror image of the other. What both shows tend to do with this is put the men and women in different spaces while they have these conversations; in Coupling, the men are in a pub and the women are in a wine bar. The geography of the battle of the sexes is a perfect exploration of just how binary it is; there’s literally no space, physical or otherwise, to exist outside of being either male or female as it exists in the land of neurotic, sexually frustrated sitcom characters. Even when characters get together in longer term relationships, their lifestyles or worldviews rarely merge. They occupy the same ends of the binary as before, but now they share a living space. This happens in both Friends and Coupling; Chandler marrying Monica doesn’t stop the gay jokes, and Steve and Susan’s long-term relationship doesn’t do all that much to bring them closer together. In the second season of Coupling, Steve and Susan are planning on getting some furniture, and much of what Steve does is torture himself about the fact that men “cannot have opinions about fabric.” The why behind this is never explained, it just seems to be an accepted part of the male psyche, like a fetish for lesbians or a preference for Connery’s Bond.
Like I said, I’ve never loved Connery’s Bond. And he’s one of those things, those cultural defaults, which can be used to define maleness. People do it with everything from spy films, to porn, to pop albums. I remember lots of jokes about Kylie albums, or anything by girl groups from the early 2000s; the idea was that the women on the covers were the reason to buy the albums if you were, to borrow the phrase that came up a lot at the time “a red-blooded man.” The problem is that this kind of culture — and indeed, the way in which it’s responded to — makes it seem like that’s the only kind of man it’s possible to be. That’s the thing with the battle of the sexes. In the end it’s difficult to see that there are any winners, when nobody’s willing to walk across no (wo)man’s land to see what might exist in between the binaries that they all seem to hold so near and dear to their hearts.
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