[Content Note: Nice Guyism]
I've been re-watching Friends recently, ever since Mom got done with the complete box set and I've been largely confined to bed rest. I mostly like the show, despite the god-awful laugh track, and here is a note from me to television producers: Stop Using Laugh Tracks. I hate them. Hate, hate, hate. With a really good show, with something I like, with something like Friends, I can just barely manage to tune out the laugh track; with something I struggle with, like Big Bang Theory, the laugh track is the final nail in the "wouldn't I rather watch the Food Network anyway?" coffin. Stop using 'em. Hate-hate-hate.
Which isn't to say that, minus the laugh track, Friends is perfect. It's not. Despite being sort of progressive (depending on your circle) at the time for featuring a lesbian wedding and at least acknowledging in conversations and sub-plots that gay and trans* people exist, the six main characters are all still white, straight, and monogamous, with four ending the series "coupled-with-children", five ending the series as flat-out coupled, and six ending with the acknowledgement that "coupled-with-children" is clearly the ideal state for them to ultimately achieve. Diversity! The series is also deeply color-averse (background shots are usually entirely monochromatic casting) and the fat phobia on display is blatant to the point of being almost triggering for me. Ugh.
But zipping past all that, I still enjoy Friends. I like the quips and the one-liners and the close-knit relationship dynamics and the overall avoidance of zany It's Not What It Looks Like sitcom antics in favor of more palatable (for me) zany Guest Star Of The Week antics. But I don't like Ross Geller.
Ross Geller is one-sixth of the Friends circle, and is ironically one of the linchpin members of the group: he's the brother of Monica Geller, the college buddy of Chandler Bing, and the sometimes-lover of Rachel Green. I say "ironically" because, once the friends are established, Ross strikes me as the most expendable of the entire group, frequently going out of his way to hurt, offend, or upset the other members. He has a particularly antagonistic relationship with outliers Joey Tribbiani and Phoebe Buffay, and consistently speaks down to them for their "alternative" (i.e., not-middle-class) lifestyle choices. However, in a group where feelings are rarely hurt past a simple end-of-episode apology, everyone manages to make nice and plod along.
I dislike Ross largely because of the relationship dynamics he has with Rachel Green, but it's worth pointing out that I dislike Ross less than I used to. When Friends first aired, I hated him with the searing passion of a thousand fiery suns, but now that I know a little more about Nice Guyism and the traps the writers were falling in to, characterization-wise, I have a little more distance. But I still don't like him, and my dislike has at least as much to do with Ross' pervading Nice Guyism as it has to do with how much I like Rachel Green.
I like Rachel Green. I could write a whole post about how much I like Rachel Green. I'm not sure we're supposed to like her, but I do anyway and the writers can shove it if they so desire. I like that she walked away from a privileged and sheltered life because she realized that it was built on lies and unhappiness. I like that she found an old high school friend -- the one person she knew in the city who wasn't left stranded at her abandoned wedding -- and asked if she could move in with her. I like that, unprompted, she decided to get a job of her own, and bounced back and rolled with the punches when she abruptly realized how untrained she was to hold a job. I like that she never gives up in her quest to attain fulfillment, and that she takes real and frightening steps to improve her life and her career.
Rachel is persistently asserted by the writers to be shallow, selfish, and spoiled, but her on-screen actions belie that characterization. She willingly attends the wedding of her ex-fiance (Barry) and her ex-maid of honor (Mindy) as a bridesmaid, despite being anxious and fearful that she will be humiliated. She overcomes her fear not because she wants to establish herself in society again but because she feels that she owes this favor to Mindy. When Barry publicly humiliates her at the reception (including with a blatant lie about her having syphilis), she takes the high road for Mindy's sake rather than dragging Barry and Mindy through the mud with the truth that Barry has been chronically unfaithful to both women.
In a flashback episode, it is revealed that despite being the most popular girl in school, Rachel still maintained a close friendship with social outcast Monica, even going so far as to attend prom together as a double date, which is unusually inclusive behavior for a girl who was supposedly conscious only of her own class, social standing, and upward mobility. And persistently throughout the series, Rachel reacts to bad news -- from everything to Ross' infidelity to her own unplanned pregnancy -- with quiet aplomb and a strong consideration for the feelings of her friends, preferring to do her mourning in private, so that they will not be drawn into her problems. None of these serious life-defining moments in the series characterizes Rachel as shallow and selfish to me, and thus I end up taking Rachel's actions as more valid than the writers' assertions. I like Rachel.
And thus we come back to Ross. For as much as I love Rachel Green, he (supposedly) loves her too. From the very first episode to the very last, the driving conceit is that they should -- nay, must -- end up together, for theirs is a love that occurs only once every generation. They are star-crossed, they are fated, they are in TV Guide's Best TV Couples of All Time list (Trigger Warning: Full list contains examples of rape and domestic violence). Their closeness as a couple makes Rachel happy, and if I respect her as a character (and I do), then I must (and I do) respect her choice to be with him. But that doesn't mean I like him. And it doesn't mean he's not a Nice Guy.
Ross isn't honest about his feelings.
One of the really frustrating things about Nice Guyism is the unwillingness to own one's own feelings and wants and needs. We see this in things like this XKCD, where the 'friend' points out that he fears rejection and so has decided that the best way to establish a relationship is via stealth methods. By being "friends" with the girl he is interested in, he hopes to zip in there in a vulnerable moment and become boyfriend-by-default rather than lay his feelings on the table and face real rejection.
A defining character point for Ross is that he's been "in love" with Rachel Green for ten years without saying anything to her. I think this is supposed to underscore his shyness and her unattainability, but there's a fine line here between "star-struck lover" and "creepy" and Ross is dancing on it as far as I'm concerned. He scores grown-up honesty points by asking Rachel outright on her first night at Monica's if he could ask her out sometime, and Rachel openly agrees, but then Ross backs away and never follows up on it. For all the persistent and gut-churning arguments that Ross later has with his guy friends about whether or not he is in and can escape "the friend zone" (an irritating framing if I've ever heard one), the fact of the matter is that it's he -- and not Rachel -- who is stalling on the relationship question. In a conversation with Joey, Ross insists that he's inching towards a relationship with Rachel:
Joey: It's never gonna happen.When Rachel is told that Ross loves her, she is genuinely shocked because Ross has been hiding his feelings so well. (This despite her recognizing that he had a secret crush on her in high school, with the implication that Ross has gotten more adept at hiding his feelings.)
Ross: (innocently) What?
Joey: You and Rachel.
Ross: (acts surprised) What? (pause) Why not?
Joey: Because you waited too long to make your move, and now you're in the friend zone.
Ross: No, no, no. I'm not in the zone.
Joey: Ross, you're mayor of the zone.
Ross: I'm taking my time, alright? I'm laying the groundwork. Yeah. I mean, every day I get just a little bit closer to...
Joey: Priesthood! Look Ross, I'm telling you, she has no idea what you're thinking.
Monica: I think this is so great! I mean, you and Ross! D-did you have any idea?There's an ongoing implication in Ross' arguments for why he's pursuing Rachel secretly that indicates that he fears rejection so much that (despite being given outright encouragement from Rachel already) he's decided that the 'stealth boyfriend' approach is a safer bet for him than simply laying his cards on the table and letting Rachel decide what she does and doesn't want out of life. And anytime that you have to essentially trick someone into a relationship with you, it doesn't seem to me to be a strong and auspicious start to the relationship. And in the meantime it's hard to dispel the implication that Ross almost prefers an unattainable Rachel who can be safely worshiped from a distance over an actual Rachel who then has to be lived with and treated like a real person. Which bring me to the point that Ross' "love" for Rachel isn't convincing to me.
Rachel: No! None! I mean, my first night in the city, he mentioned something about asking me out, but nothing ever happened, so I just... (to Joey): W-well, what else did he say? I mean, does he, like, want to go out with me?
Joey: Well, given that he's desperately in love with you, he probably wouldn't mind getting a cup of coffee or something.
Rachel: Ross? All this time? Well, I've got to talk to him. (gets up to leave)
Ross doesn't empathize with Rachel.
In your bog-standard zany sitcom setup, Ross leaves town to attend an expedition in China -- an expedition that has no phones and no means of contact. During this period of isolation, the beans are spilled by Chandler to Rachel that Ross loves her, and Rachel takes the week to decide that she wants to make a go of it with Ross. But when she shows up at the airport with flowers and a smile, Ross is disembarking with a new girlfriend, Julie. Rachel attempts to cope with the situation, but ultimately leaves a drunken message on Ross' answering machine in which she attempts to receive closure so that she can move on with her life. When Ross discovers the message, he has to decide whether to stay with Julie or attempt to forge the relationship that he has (supposedly) been longing for going on ten years now.
Ross' friends convince him to make a pros-and-cons list to help him decide, and Ross comes up with a list of informed flaws. He decides that Rachel is "spoiled", "ditzy", "too into her looks", and "just a waitress". (Joey chimes in that her ankles are chubby.) Of course, Rachel finds the list and is deeply hurt by the contents, but somewhere in all these zany sitcom antics, the whole thing becomes heart-breakingly real. This isn't something that can be just swept away with an apology, a kiss, and a fade to credits like so many other sitcom misunderstandings. Rachel is crystal-clear about the fact that Ross has hurt her.
Ross: Rach, come on, look, I know how you must feel.The situation -- like all of Ross' transgressions over the series -- is set up make Ross as blameless as possible. The list wasn't his idea, and he participated under a good deal of peer pressure. His words were warped and condensed and stripped of context. He's really-deeply-truly such a Nice Guy! But at the end of the day, we still have a situation where Ross -- who has been "in love" with Rachel for ten years -- still sees all these flaws in the object of his affection. I think that he genuinely believes that seeing these flaws makes him a realist (after all, all people have flaws!) and that wanting to be with Rachel makes him a romantic (because he loves her in spite of her flaws!), but I'm not convinced.
Rachel: (near tears) No, you don't, Ross. Imagine the worst things you think about yourself. Now, how would you feel if the one person that you trusted the most in the world not only thinks them too, but actually uses them as reasons not to be with you.
Ross: No, but, but I wanna be with you in spite of all those things.
Rachel: Oh, well, that's, that's mighty big of you, Ross.
Rachel's "flaws" as Ross sees them are almost entirely accidents of her birth and culture. She's a waitress because her parents raised her to go straight from under their wing to her future husband's care. Ditto her "ditzy", non-intellectual nature, despite being consistently smart and witty over the course of the series. She's into her looks because she's been raised in a patriarchal culture that values beauty above all else. And whatever residue of spoiledness that remains in the wake of Rachel's abandonment of her childhood home smacks more of culture shock than deliberate willingness to put her needs above others.
Sure, Ross could view these things as "flaws", despite where they came from and how. But he could also look to his sister, Monica, and do some introspective compare-and-contrasting. Monica has spent her entire life being punished for not conforming to American beauty standards. She has been hurt and shunned and shamed, by her schoolmates, her close family, and her extended family. Even now that she has managed to conform to the ideal, she still receives strong emotional abuse and pressure from her family to place her looks before anything else, including her career, in order to land an "acceptable" husband -- here defined by looks, wealth, and marriage market status rather than emotional compatibility. Monica, as a result, could be reasonably considered to be just as "into her looks" as Rachel, and isn't shown to be much more intellectually-driven or career-focused than Rachel, despite having a head start on both these things.
Ross has a golden opportunity to look at the parallel lives of his sister and his lover and realize that, wow, my culture is fucked up when it comes to how we treat women. He could see that Rachel and Monica are both told by society that careers are less important than husbands, and that good looks are the only way they'll be allowed to succeed and be free from social abuse. He could see that women who express an intellectual bent are deliberately isolated and shunned in society (even more so than he is for liking "geek" things). He could then see how all those cultural factors have shaped both Monica and Rachel, and he could appreciate how they are trying to push back against all that bullshit. And then, he could help.
Instead, he participates in the patriarchy and further entrenches Monica and Rachel in their struggles by buying into the idea that women "should" be reaching an impossible ideal: beautiful, but unaware of it; intellectual, but not intimidating; driven, but not selfish. The conglomerate demand, which Ross actively participates in, is that Rachel be beautiful at all time in every way (no chubby ankles!) without being too concerned with her looks. She should be career-driven to be more than "just a waitress", but in no way should she be spoiled or self-entitled or led to believe that she deserves more out of life than, well, a job as a waitress. (She should also be willing to drop her career the minute it interferes with her love life.) The list that Ross composes about Rachel reaffirms all the stereotypes about her that she has been told all her life. That Ross wants to be with her "in spite" of those things doesn't matter, because every man who has ever been with her has wanted to be with her "in spite" of those things. He is not unique in that regard.
Rachel doesn't need a man who loves her in spite of these flaws; she needs a man who recognizes that these particular "flaws" aren't flaws. They're a combination of bullshit patriarchal expectations and mutually exclusive unattainable ideals. If Ross -- or any other man -- wanted to 'help' her overcome them, the answer is not to layer one more set of You Must Change expectations on Rachel; the answer is to start undermining the patriarchy and providing a counter opinion to all those constant pressures. I'd respect Ross more if he seemed to grasp that, and I'd certainly see his desire for Rachel as based in something more genuinely close to "love". As it is, I only see a man superficially drawn to a pretty woman, while privately wishing she would conform more closely to his ideal of a perfect mate. That's not The Greatest Love Of My Generation in my book; that's plain-and-simple physical attraction.
(Nothing wrong with that, but don't sell it as True Love when it's not, you know?)
Ross doesn't support Rachel.
The List sticks in my craw for another reason, and it's because Ross genuinely doesn't want Rachel to grow and change. Change is hard, and it affects the people closest to you. Ross isn't ready to support that, and ultimately their relationship is torn apart because of it.
When Rachel expresses her dissatisfaction at being "just a waitress" and unable to break into the career of her choice (fashion) due to her lack of schooling and relevant job experience, Chandler and Joey recklessly advise her to quit her job so that she'll be sufficiently motivated to find a new one. Through a series of coincidences and good Samaritanism, Rachel ends up landing her dream job through the help of a man named Mark who she met at Monica's diner.
Ross, who is consistently shown to display jealous tendencies (in large part to his last marriage ending over an affair), immediately begins hectoring Rachel and undermines her confidence by telling her that Mark only got her a job because Mark wants to sleep with her. When Rachel refuses to listen to Ross' suspicions, Ross becomes increasingly emotionally aggressive by sending her excessive gifts (including a barbershop quartet) and showing up at her office unannounced in order to assert his ownership over her. Eventually, he escalates the situation by shouting at Mark, and Mark leaves the office for another job. (I think we are meant to presume that this move is unrelated to the Ross drama, but there isn't in-show clarification either way.) Despite this apparent "win" for Ross, he continues to aggress against Rachel for working late hours, and he still shows up unannounced at her work in order to assert his perceived rights as a boyfriend.
Rachel: You had no right coming down to my office Ross. You do not bring a picnic basket to somebody’s work! Unless maybe they were a park ranger!And I want to be clear about this: having a relationship with someone who has a demanding job can be hard. Really hard. Legitimately hard. Couples can seriously struggle with issues surrounding work, and I don't want to minimize that.
Ross: Yeah, well excuse me for wanting to be with my girlfriend on our anniversary, boy what an ass am I.
Rachel: But I told you, I didn’t have the time!
Ross: Yeah, well you never have the time. I mean, I don’t feel like I even have a girlfriend anymore, Rachel.
Rachel: Wh, Ross what do you want from me? You want me, you want me to quit my job so you can feel like you have a girlfriend?
Ross: No, but it’d be nice if you realized, it’s just a job!
Rachel: Just a job!
Rachel: Ross do you realize this is the first time in my life I’m doing something I actually care about. This is the first time in my life I’m doing something that I’m actually good at. I mean. if you don’t get that...
Ross: No, hey, I get that, okay, I get that big time. And I’m happy for ya, but I’m tired of having a relationship with your answering machine! Okay, I don’t know what to do anymore.
Rachel: Well neither do I!
Ross: Is this about Mark?
Rachel: (shocked) Oh my God.
Ross: Okay, it’s not, it’s not.
Rachel: Oh my God. I cannot keep having this same fight over and over again, Ross, no, you’re, you’re, you’re making this too hard.
But Rachel has been working at this new job for a couple of weeks. She has her one (and possibly only) chance to break into the career of her choice, despite her utter lack of education and previous relevant work experience. If she does well, here and now, she could be set for life; if she does poorly, she may not have another chance. Yes, it's hard work. Yes, it's likely to be a strain on the relationship. But Ross of all people -- Ross, who has a doctorate -- should recognize that there are times when sometimes you have to knuckle down and work really really hard for a goal. That doesn't mean he should stay with her no matter how unhappy he is. It doesn't mean he shouldn't express his needs to her openly and honestly. It does mean he should not jeopardize her career and her confidence by continued micro-aggressions and showing up unannounced and unwelcome at her office whenever he feels like it.
And there's something else. It might be a small thing, but to me it's not.
Ross doesn't say "I miss you". He says "I don't feel like I have a girlfriend". And once again I have the impression that Ross doesn't love Rachel-Green-the-person nearly so much as he loves Rachel-Green-the-status-symbol. We don't have a man saying to a woman, "what can we do to both be happy?" and then listening to the response and working out a system. We have a man saying to a woman, "this is how boyfriends and girlfriends are" and then expecting the woman to conform to that expectation or otherwise face being a bad or non-existent girlfriend. For a man like Ross, who has consistently-if-reluctantly risen to the challenge of redefining his ideas about fatherhood, brotherhood, and husbandry to balk at this chance to redefine what it means to be a boyfriend is particularly telling to me: Rachel's needs as a person simply aren't being valued in this equation. Instead she has been reduced to a generic object: Is the Girlfriend present at the anniversary? If no, is the Girlfriend cheating?
And I don't think "I don't feel like I have a girlfriend" can be parsed down to simply "I miss you". Ross can't say he misses Rachel, because the format of the show demands that they spend hours of each day together. The group eats breakfast together in Monica's apartment, hangs out in the afternoons at the coffee shop, and goes out for dinner and theater together in the evenings. Ross and Rachel sleep together -- full, stay-the-night sleep, not just sex -- on a regular basis, to the point that Monica complains that Ross never leaves her apartment. So Ross isn't Not Seeing Rachel, but rather he's Not Seeing Rachel For Girlfriendy Outings. Which is still a valid thing to be unhappy about. But it's something that he's unhappy about over a small time period -- no more than two months -- after a year-long relationship with a woman he's wanted to be with for ten years, to the point that he's willing to jeopardize their relationship and her career.
That's not what I call "supportive".
Ross doesn't respect Rachel.
There's a lot of things this bullet point could be applied to, but here I'm not talking about The List.
Right after the quote above, Rachel famously announces that maybe they should "take a break" and Ross leaves the apartment. When he finds Joey and Chandler at a party, he proceeds to get drunk and ends up sleeping with a sexually aggressive woman at the party after believing that Rachel is sleeping with Mark. The next morning, Ross tries to convince everyone to keep the incident secret from Rachel, but Rachel finds out anyway and decides that she can't continue to try to make this relationship work because she's too hurt by what she perceives as Ross' infidelity. Again, the situation is deliberately framed to make Ross as innocent as possible, so I'm not going to argue that one way or the other because I think it's a red herring. Let's say Ross has done nothing wrong. That doesn't change the fact that he doesn't respect Rachel in the wake of the incident.
Rachel doesn't owe Ross a relationship. She doesn't owe him forgiveness for what she perceives as any wrongs he's done against her. She does owe Ross basic human decency and dignity, and she immediately provides that for the sake of her relationship within the group. (We have also previously seen, at Barry and Mindy's wedding, that Rachel consistently tries to take the high road in relationship fights as far as public displays are concerned.) Rather than accept that, Ross immediately embarks on a campaign to argue and shame Rachel into forgiveness (and therefore reconciliation) with him. In The One Without The Ski Trip, we hear this exchange:
Joey: Well Ross was hangin’ out over at our place, Rachel comes over to borrow some moisturizer from Chandler...."She should of forgiven him by now." Ross is now, apparently, dictating the level of hurt that Rachel is allowed to have -- according to him? according to society? certainly not according to her! -- in response to his actions. Regardless of whether his actions were right or wrong or neither, he has no place to tell Rachel how she "should" feel about them. Later in the episode, we see Ross deliberately enlist others in an attempt to pressure Rachel on the issue:
Chandler: Yeah y-you, how hard is it to say something? Rachel came over to borrow something.
Joey: Anyway! Her and Ross just started yelling at each other.
Phoebe: Wait. Why was he yelling at her? He’s the one who slept with someone else.
Joey: Well, I guess he says that because they were on a break when it happened, that she should of forgiven him by now.
Ross: We were on a break!The correct answer to this (and I'm sorry the writers didn't include it), is that Ross can go date Monica or Joey. But flippant answers aside, this is really inappropriate behavior. It's not alright for Ross to enlist others in an attempt to shame Rachel into a position that makes Ross more comfortable. This is especially egregious considering that there's no evidence whatsoever that Rachel is talking about Ross to the others behind his back -- but Ross, by definition here, has to have been talking to at least Monica and Joey about it. Who is being respectful here and who is not?
Rachel: Y'know Ross why don’t you put that on your answering machine!
Ross: Hey-hey, it’s valid okay? And I’m not the only one who thinks so, Monica agrees with me.
Rachel: (to Monica) What?!
Monica: (shyly) I don’t know.
Ross: That’s what you said last night.
Monica: What I said was, was that I understood. Joey’s the one who agreed with you!
Ross: (to Rachel) Look, both Joey and Monica feel the same way that I do.
And lest it seem like I'm making a mountain from a molehill, there is the exchange with Carol -- Ross' ex-wife -- earlier in the episode. Remember when, a season before, Rachel's ex-fiance Barry spread rumors about her leaving him because she had syphilis? Well, Ross has decided that promiscuity is the best way to shame a woman who refuses to conform to his wishes:
Carol: Listen, we both know you’re gonna do it ‘cause you’re not a jerk. Okay? So you can either sulk here for a half hour and then go pick them up, or save us both time and sulk in the car.The only way I can interpret this is that Ross went looking for sympathy, and told a heavily re-edited and re-cut version of events designed to make Rachel out to be the guilty party for doing something he knows she did not do, and leaving out the real and actual reason for their break-up because he knew that his ex-wife would not approve and wouldn't offer up the required sympathy if she did know. The fact that this falsified version of events would only hurt Rachel's reputation and her other interpersonal relationships either didn't matter to Ross or was a bonus feature.
Ross: No, Rachel doesn’t want me to....
Carol: Look, I-I-I am sorry that Rachel dumped you ‘cause she fell in love with that Mark guy, and you are the innocent victim in all of this, but don’t punish your friends for what Rachel did to you.
Ross: Yeah, you’re right.
Carol: (on phone) Phoebe hang on a second Ross wants to say something. (listens) What? (listens) (to Ross) You slept with someone else?!
Ross: We were on a break!!! Okay!! (grabs the phone) We were, we were..., (calms down) yeah. Where are you? I’ll find you. (hangs up)
Carol: You slept with another woman?
Ross: Oh, you-you’re-you’re one to talk.
This kind of behavior is not respectful. I'd even go so far as to call it emotionally abusive.
All the above happens within the first three seasons of Friends. Whether or not Ross receives a character growth arc later over the series is debatable. I do, for the record, think that abusive people can change -- but I also think that they have to recognize they are abusive before that can happen. (And I absolutely do not-not-not think that their victims "owe" them anything, like forgiveness or more chances.) I am, however, far from convinced that the Ross we end up with is functionally different from the Ross we began with. If Rachel-the-character believes that he makes her happy, then I respect her decision. It is, after all, hers to make.
But on a more meta-level, I hate that so much of this isn't apparent to audiences and writers. No matter what you think of Ross and Rachel, I do not and cannot view them as a top ten "best couple" or as a love story driven by fate and starlight and greatness. I resent the writerly "talking up" of Ross over and over again in episodes as such a great guy, such a love-struck romantic, someone who is destined for and deserves good things. To people who view him as a good guy, I have no beef; to people who view him as a good guy and therefore deserving of Rachel (or the girl of his choice) as some kind of award for good behavior, I regard as concernful. Women and sex and relationships are not -- and should not -- be viewed as some kind of trophy for winning at life. That's really a root problem of Nice Guyism, the idea that if you pay your dues, karma will hand you a smoking hot girlfriend and a nice house in the suburbs.
It's alright to have that dream, the one with the girlfriend and the suburban house, but don't fall into the trap of thinking that it's owed you. Don't start thinking about that girlfriend as less than a real person with real needs and real feelings and a real life outside of you and instead objectify her into your Girlfriend-shaped doll.
Don't, in short, be a Ross Geller.