On New Year’s Day, Netflix delighted 90s kids by announcing that they now have all 236 episodes of much-loved sitcom Friends available for our viewing pleasure.
The move was well-received by a majority of people, who were all eager to relive the show that originally aired between 1994 and 2004, however, within days of Netflix adding it to their catalogue the fierce backlash began.
Cries of offensive jokes, discriminative storylines and problematic characters soon swept social media, with ‘woke’ millennials who were watching the show for the first time taking issue with Friends’ representation of the LGBT+ community and accusing it of misogyny.
Long-time fans have argued that being offended by jokes that were made up to 24 years ago is problematic in itself, pointing out that the sitcom was actually progressive for its time in its representation of same-sex couples, single mothers, surrogacy, adoption and even drag queens, and can’t have been expected to live up to the political correctness standards of 2018.
Still, Friends is far from the only TV programme from the 90s and early 00s that got away with controversial or problematic representation, and here we take a look at some other TV storylines that broadcasters would never air today:
1. Queer as Folk 1999-2000
Russell T Davies’ TV series about three gay men living in Manchester was revolutionary when it first aired on Channel 4 in 1999, and although it was groundbreaking in many instances – the very first episode sees a gay man and lesbian woman have a baby together – it was also no stranger to controversy. At the time, Queer as Folk was slammed for the incredibly graphic gay sex scenes, particularly between Stuart Jones (played by Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen) and Nathan Maloney (Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam), however, it is the drastic age gap between the two men that really raised eyebrows. If you’re wondering, Stuart was a promiscuous, 29-year-old man and Nathan? A 15-year-old schoolboy.
Yes, the age gap was not only shocking but illegal, and those graphic sex scenes were actually depictions of statutory rape. However, within the show Nathan’s age is rarely considered a major issue, with other characters even joking about how Stuart and the mother of his baby “both had a child in one night”. In fact, even Nathan’s mother seems relatively unconcerned when she discovers who her lovesick son lost his virginity to, with the only character to really take issue being Nathan’s father – who is depicted as homophobic and needlessly aggressive.
At the time, some complaints were made about the age gap, with it being argued that Stuart was reinforcing damaging stereotypes that gay men are predatory, promiscuous and dangerous, but the show still maintained a cult following and pulled in an average of three to four million viewers an episode in Channel 4’s late night slot, with the relationship between Stuart and Nathan being a focal point throughout both series.
Suffice to say, in 2018 it is doubtful that a TV show that focuses on the incredibly graphic sexual relationship between a 29-year-old man and a 15-year-old schoolboy would last – and certainly not without causing a ‘Twitter storm’ or two in the process.
2. Sex and the City 1998-2004
Sex and the City is famed for its divisive second feature film, which was released in 2010 and faced fierce criticism for “racism”, but that is far from the first time that the franchise was controversial. In fact, if HBO’s six-season series was to premiere now it would no doubt be met with huge bouts of backlash for its very problematic storylines.
To be honest, an entire essay on Sex and the City plots that wouldn’t make it anywhere near 2018 TV screens could probably be written, but arguably the two that have aged the worst over the years are about sexuality and ethnicity. First up is season three, episode four: ‘Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl’ in which the show’s lead character, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), finds herself dating a bisexual man, Sean – and her reaction is exactly what online petitions to get a show axed are made of.
According to Carrie, bisexuality is “a layover on the way to Gaytown”, dubbing it a lack of sexual orientation and even appearing to hint that there is no such thing as bisexual people – just gay people who are in denial. Carrie ends up ditching her date at a party without even saying goodbye; a move that barely garnered a reaction when it first aired in 2000.
The second jaw-dropping TV storyline from yesteryear is also from season three, when Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) dated a black man, Chivon, and goes on to fetishize him and his ethnicity in every possible way, with many crude references to their sex life. The relationship, and controversy, comes to a head when Chivon’s sister – that critics have argued is depicted as an ‘angry-black-woman’ stereotype’ – doesn’t approve of her brother dating a white woman, and Samantha’s response is to tell her that she has a “big black a**”. Charming.
3. Men Behaving Badly 1992-1998
Have you noticed that Martin Clunes’ 90s comedy series rarely gets repeated on mainstream TV? That’s probably because some of the plots would cause absolute uproar if viewed by the eyes of new-millennials. In one episode, Clunes’ character Gary is actively scared of gay men and shows genuine fear that Tony, played by Neil Morrissey, is gay.
Speaking of Tony, his relationship with Deborah (Leslie Ash) is also highly inappropriate – with the character only agreeing to date him after she grew tired of him essentially stalking her and not accepting her rejection.
4. Saved By The Bell 1989-1992
It might have once upon a time been considered a wholesome Nickelodeon TV show, but re-watch 90s classic Saved By The Bell nowadays and you’ll be hit with a whole load of political incorrectness. Although Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) was progressive as a defiantly feminist character, she was often made to be the butt of the joke, with the chauvinistic male characters, Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and AC Slater (Mario Lopez) regularly dismissing her when she called out their sexist behaviour.
For example? When Jessie tells Slater that she “should have known better than to go steady with a sexist pig”, Slater replies: “Well, oink, oink, baby and if you don’t like it go steady with some other pig”. Ouch. In addition to Jessie, the other female characters – Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani Amber Thiessen) and Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhies) are regularly treated as “objects” by the men, and also depicted as vapid and shallow.
Inherent misogyny aside, in 2016 Gosselaar even apologised for another controversial Saved By The Bell storyline that would have definitely ended up on the cutting room floor in this day and age. Season two episode ‘Running Zack’ sees central character Zack learn that he comes from a Native American ancestry, with the episode culminating when Zack dresses up in full Native American wear and says: “Me Zack Morris, me smoke-um peace pipe”.
Discussing the retrospectively racist scene, Gosselaar said: “I’m doing this ‘presentation’ that consists of me putting war paint on Screech and giving him a toy tomahawk — and he has Screech stagger around and grunt at people. Zack doesn’t get in trouble for this completely racist presentation…
“…On the plus side, Zack takes his ancestry seriously and gives another ‘presentation.’ Of course, he gets into full Native American costume with face paint and a headdress. That’s another ‘I’m Sorry’ moment. I hope the kids don’t catch that episode.”
5. The Simpsons (1989-)
Alongside Friends, the other old school favourite TV show that has faced serious backlash in recent months is The Simpsons, with the representation of the cartoon’s long-standing Indian character, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, coming under fire for, well, several reasons.
It all started when a documentary entitled ‘The Problem With Apu’ aired last November, with comic Hari Kondabolu interviewing a series of celebrities to explore how offensive Apu’s stereotype is, with Kondabolu telling the BBC: “Kids in the playground would always mimic the accent and say ‘Thank you, come again!’ or ‘Hello, Mr Homer!’
“He’s defined almost entirely by his job. But he also happens to have eight kids, a joke about India having so many people, and he has an arranged marriage via this weird matchmaking system that’s almost like football draft picks.”
Kondabolu also pointed out the issue of a white actor, Hank Azaria, being the voice of Apu, with Azaria himself admitting that he was asked to put on an “offensive Indian voice” during his early audition for the role.
Proving that the representation of Apu doesn’t make the cut in the world of entertainment’s current climate, Azaria recently revealed that The Simpsons plan to respond to the criticism in the upcoming series of the show, telling Variety: “The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased or worse based on the character of Apu on ‘The Simpsons,’ the voice or any other tropes of the character is distressing.
“We’ve discussed it a little bit, and they will definitely address, maybe publicly, but certainly creatively within the context of the show, what they want to do, if anything, differently with the character.”
And that, ladies and gents, is what we call progress.