In the 1990s there was a resurgence of the “all-American sitcom”. Situation comedies have been a popular form of television since the media was developed. They are characterized by two camera shots, singular sets that are only viewed from a few angles and a cast of (hopefully) hilarious characters. In the 1990s popular sitcoms included: Friends, Drew Carey Show and Seinfeld. These were all popular American television programs portraying America. But portraying what vision of America? Look at the cast of Friends: Ross, Chandler, Joey, Rachel Monica, and Phoebe: all white characters.
Why don’t these characters have any minority “friends”? What happened to programs such as the Cosby Show or the Fresh Prince? Why were (and why are) all-white television shows so popular in America and what happened to minority-based shows? Today’s television depicts popular white America while leaving out minorities. The lack of ethnicity on television shows, such as Friends, gives America an inaccurate idea about minorities. Americans live in a society where ethnicity is frequently depicted as sinful.
People are not shocked to see minorities being arrested or convicted on the news. Frequent viewings of the “news magazine” Dateline reveals a pattern of African-American and Mexican men being labeled as murderers. What would be the public’s reaction if they went to watch television and saw six minority “friends” on a show just after watching an all-white neighborhood rioting on a news program? Friends reinforces the humorous “all-American” lifestyle. Six white, unmarried, young Americans live together and grow their relationships with one another.
The cast poses all the qualities that people enjoy. Number one, the characters are all beautiful or handsome. Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, and Lisa Kudrow are all irresistible female actresses while Matthew Perry, David Schwimmer, and Matt LeBlanc are all good-looking actors. They all fit into the mainstream glamour of today’s media. People look up to and imitate popular actors and actresses as these. Remember the rush to copy Jennifer Aniston’s haircut? People frequently quote Matt LeBlanc’s character Joey: “How you doin’? Viewers revel in the romantic relationships of these characters, longing for Rachel to chase down Ross at the airport; longing for someone to chase them down at the airport. Television shows like Friends create a sort of dream-world, or alternate reality, that viewers long to escape to and copy in their own lives. The biggest issue with viewers trying to copy the world of Friends is that this show is incredibly white. The group of “friends” are never seen with any minorities. They hang out at a cafe/bar in a large city.
On occasion, if you pay close attention, you just might see an African-American or Mexican -American in the background. In one episode Joey has a part in a play. When the scene was over I had counted three minorities’ heads in the background, while I didn’t have enough time to count the crowd of whites. In the same episode, Rachel finds a new boyfriend (guest Ben Stiller) who is also white. Thus, all relationships portrayed on Friends are of white couples. This strongly reinforces the immorality of interracial relationships.
People in society today do not see a homogenous portrayal of all-white society as they walk down a city block. Near the end of the series, Ross did begin a relationship with a fellow scientist, an African-American woman. The relationship was comedic and short-lived. While this is a step toward including minority characters on an all-white show, it should be seen as an exception and not true inclusion. This is not to say that the prominence of all-white sitcoms meant there were no sitcoms representing minorities. Several smaller broadcast stations and cable stations in the 1990s featured sitcoms with all-black casts.
While these shows were championed by many critics and viewers alike, this is just another form of segregation. On one station at 8pm a viewer can see an all-white show, and on another station at 8pm the viewer can see an all-black show. What is missing is the integrated sitcom. Friends was popular because the cast was funny, pretty and relatively successful. Even if some of the characters did not have powerful, high-paying jobs, they lived like they did. Is it realistic for a struggling actor or coffeehouse server to live in large, Manhattan apartments?
No, but the viewer doesn’t apply that type of logic to the show. Instead, the viewer just processes the nice apartment, funny and beautiful group of friends. These descriptions are then associated with white people. While white people have always had prosperity and superiority applied to their characters throughout American history, Friends simply reinforces this, it does not redefine it. However, a critical viewer should look at this role of Friends and expect more from a popular show in the 1990s. Remember the saying “it’s the 90s”?
That very phrase was meant to prove how forward-thinking, liberal and progressive the era was. Yet the television shows proved otherwise. As a viewer of popular American television, I myself have come to the conclusion that these shows impact the viewers directly and indirectly. We copy the clothing and hairstyles we see. We internalize the preference of being white. We copy the catch phrases. We internalize the idea that white people hang out with white people on powerhouse NBC and that black people hang out with black people on the weakling CW.
Television’s functional role is to play what the public wants to see, and ratings tell the stations what they want to see. However, television also reinforces values and interprets them. Viewers will have the value of white people hanging out with white people reinforced, while minorities stay hidden. With this one can come to the conclusion that television displays a lack of ethnicity. Americans of all races can have an unjust idea about ethnicity and how races interact with each other.