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After Years Of Diversity Criticism From Friends Fans, Its Co-Creator Talks 'Accepting Guilt' And How She's Changed

Friends playing poker.
(Image credit: HBO Max)

Friends may be one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time, but it’s pretty universally agreed-upon that the series that aired from 1994 to 2004 was seriously lacking in diversity. The show centered around six white, heterosexual 20/30-somethings —who were also thin, attractive and had bafflingly few money problems — traversing adulthood's highs and lows in New York City. While co-creator Marta Kauffman has said the show was a product of its time (and her own ignorance), she's come to accept that guilt along with taking some action.

It wasn’t just the fact that Rachel, Monica. Phoebe, Ross, Joey and Chandler were straight and white on Friends, as most of New York City’s Greenwich Village was, too, which was a stark contrast to the real-life demographics of NYC. Marta Kauffman talked about taking ownership of that mistake nearly 20 years since the series finale aired on NBC, telling the L.A. Times (via the New York Post):

I’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years. Admitting and accepting guilt is not easy. It’s painful looking at yourself in the mirror. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know better 25 years ago.

Marta Kauffman, who created Friends with David Crane, said that after George Floyd’s 2020 murder increased racial tension and racial awareness around the country, she knew she “needed to course-correct.” One way of doing so involved pledging $4 million to her alma mater — Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts — to create an endowed chair in the school’s African and African-American studies department. In doing so, she reportedly telling the university: 

It took me a long time to begin to understand how I internalized systemic racism. I’ve been working really hard to become an ally, an anti-racist. And this seemed to me to be a way that I could participate in the conversation from a white woman’s perspective.

The university announced that the Marta F. Kauffman ’78 Professorship in African and African American Studies “will support a distinguished scholar with a concentration in the study of the peoples and cultures of Africa and the African diaspora” and “assist the department to recruit more expert scholars and teachers, map long-term academic and research priorities and provide new opportunities for students to engage in interdisciplinary scholarship." One can only hope the six core Friends characters would have been interested in such a course during their education.

But she said she knows taking this step does not absolve her of her past mistakes, of which she can now see were many, with the series. Marta Kauffman also promised a different experience on future projects. In her words:

I have to say, after agreeing to this and when I stopped sweating, it didn’t unburden me, but it lifted me up. But until in my next production, I can do it right, it isn’t over. I want to make sure from now on in every production I do that I am conscious in hiring people of color and actively pursue young writers of color. I want to know I will act differently from now on. And then I will feel unburdened.

Marta Kauffman may have admitted to being ignorant of Friends’ diversity issues at the time, but David Schwimmer said it was an issue he was well aware of as the show was filming, and it was the reason he fought strongly for his character to date women of color. Ross dated Julie (Lauren Tom) early in the series, then had a relationship with Charlie (Aisha Tyler) later on, but those two actresses were the only people of color to have major recurring roles in all 10 seasons. That said, Schwimmer has defended the series for being ahead of its time in other ways, including its portrayal of sex and gay marriage.

Friends’ representation issues haven’t stopped some people from loving the series as fans continue to watch it endlessly in syndication and on streaming with an HBO Max subscription, but it’s important to recognize the issue so the worlds we see on television can now better reflect the people who actually live there. Check out our 2022 TV Schedule to see what shows are premiering soon.

Heidi Venable
Heidi Venable

Mom of two and hard-core '90s kid. Unprovoked, will quote Friends in any situation. Can usually be found rewatching The West Wing instead of doing anything productive.