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Composition Studies, Heteronormativity, and Popular Culture

Thomas Peele
Boise State University

Heteronormativity in Friends

Friends episode 204, “The One with Phoebe’s Husband,” features Steve Zahn in the role of Phoebe’s husband. Steve Zahn, known in the summer of 2001 for his starring role in Road Trip, also starred in the low-budget film Happy, Texas in 1999. In that film, Zahn plays a character named Wayne Wayne Wayne who is on the run from the law. In order to evade his pursuers, Wayne appropriates the identity of a gay man who produces children’s talent shows and who is currently producing a show in the town of Happy, Texas. Zahn’s role in the “Phoebe’s Husband” episode is quite similar to his role in Happy, Texas. The appearances of this character type from television to film suggests that the cultural myth in which a heterosexual man seeks refuge in gay identity to comic effect is not isolated to this one episode of Friends but is in fact an easily recognizable narrative in which the figure of gay man is used as comic foil to a genuine, heterosexual identity. In using gay identity as a source of comedy, the “Phoebe’s Husband” episode of Friends participates in mainstream culture’s more or less constant derogation of gay men. In an unusual move, however, Friends is also antiheteronormative in that the plot line of this episode revolves around Phoebe’s husband, Duncan, “coming out” as heterosexual. In other words, Phoebe did not know that Duncan was actually heterosexual. She assumed, as did he, that Duncan was gay. A situation in which a straight man, who has always performed as gay, discovers himself to be straight and reveals that knowledge to his friends obviously trivializes the traumatic experience of sexual self-revelation that many lesbians and gay men experience. While this episode is heteronormative, it also satirizes that heteronormativity by reversing the disciplinary apparatus that is normally invoked to control gay men.

In the opening scene of this episode, Duncan arrives and announces to Rachel that he is Phoebe’s husband. The reason that he has come—to tell Phoebe that he needs a divorce—is not revealed until later in the show. Before Phoebe meets with Duncan, she explains to her friends that she married him to provide him with a green card and that he is gay.

When Phoebe first meets Duncan, she is backstage at the ice-capade. Duncan wears the sequins drenched costume of a matador. While the matador is a symbol of extreme virility, the sequins queer the image somewhat: real men don’t sparkle. Here, I want to focus on the way the writers of this episode satirize the explanations that gay men normally have to provide to their families when they reveal their sexuality. In this episode of Friends, a man who has always performed as gay must reveal his secret, shameful heterosexuality. The joke, of course, is that typically it is gay men who must reveal their secret. In making heterosexuality a source of shame, the writers of Friends effectively satirize the conventional, arbitrary normalization of heterosexuality by instead normalizing homosexuality.

Duncan surprises Phoebe when he tells her that he needs a divorce. When Phoebe asks him why, Duncan tells her that he’s getting married. Duncan says, “I don’t know how to tell you this: I’m straight.” Phoebe is shocked. She says, “How can you be straight? You’re so smart and funny and you throw such great Academy Award parties.” Duncan says, “That’s what I kept telling myself, but you just reach a point where you can’t live a lie any more.” Here, of course, Duncan says the unthinkable: that anyone living a gay life might be doing so under pressure. Homosexuality, since it is related to an act of self-disclosure, is associated with authenticity. Duncan’s insistence that he is gay, against his own feelings on the subject of sexuality, suggests that all sexuality is performative, and that gay identity is neither more nor less performative than heterosexual identity. In another instance of the Friends’ writers working against common cultural narratives, Duncan also suggests that, to him, homosexuality is a more desirable condition than heterosexuality.

The writers continue their critique of the assumptions of heterosexuality ideology throughout this scene, relying on all the cliché’s about coming out as a gay man. For example, Phoebe asks Duncan, “So, how long have you known?” Duncan replies: “I guess on some level I always knew I was straight, but I thought I was supposed to be something else! I’m an ice-dancer, all my friends are gay, I was just trying to fit in.” When Phoebe asks Duncan if he’s ever been with a woman before, he says that “There were one or two times, back in college, when I’d get really drunk, go to a straight bar, and wake up with a woman next to me. But I told myself that it was the liquor, and that everyone experiments in college.” Phoebe asks Duncan, “So, have you told your parents?” Duncan replies, “No, but they’re pretty cool. My brother is straight.” Finally, Duncan insists that “I know I don’t have a choice about this. I was born this way. I’m still me.”

Here, the writers cleverly undermine the show’s typical heteronormative assumptions by demonstrating the utter arbitrariness with which our culture applies pressure to men to perform heterosexually. Typically, however, the events that they poke fun of here—the lying to oneself, the applying the shame of being gay to shame of being straight¾are in fact the cultural norms that are enforced in almost every other episode of this show. Most of the episodes in this series contain significant gay related content, though typically the intent is not to critique heterosexual culture’s arbitrary marginalization of gay men, but rather to reproduce and reinforce two specific cultural narratives about gay men. The first of these cultural narratives is that homosexual behavior of any kind between men is shameful. While heterosexual men might experience the desire for other men, they should never under any circumstances act on or even admit that desire. To do so is merely to invoke the disciplinary apparatus of shame. The second cultural narrative is that overtly gay gay men must be absurd and ridiculous in the extreme.

Typically the show invokes the specter of sex between men without ever naming. In so doing, the show is able to maintain a consistent representation of hegemonic heterosexuality, invoking male same-sex desire only to denigrate it. “The One with the Nap Partners” begins with Ross and Joey sleeping together, fully clothed, on the couch.

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When they wake and realize where they are, they scream and quickly leap away from each other. “What happened?” Ross demands. Joey replies, “I don’t know.” Ross says, “We fell asleep, that is all.” Joey agrees, “Yeah. Yeah.” Then, Joey says he has to leave, and Ross agrees, saying that would be best. When Joey says “I’ll talk to you later,” Ross replies, “But not about this.” Joey says, “No, never,” then offers to shake Ross’s hand. “No touch, no touch,” Ross says, recoiling. The scene is interesting on many levels. Primarily, of course, the scene suggests that the two men are in denial about the sex that they may have just had with each other.
They insist, repeatedly, that they merely fell asleep with one another, that nothing else happened. They can’t quite seem to remember what happened. But what here is really being enacted? Is their anxiety rooted in the simple fact that they touched each other, slept comfortably in one another’s arms? Or, is their discomfort in the suggestion that perhaps they want to, or actually did more than simply sleep together?

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The next time the two men meet, Ross returns to Joey his videos. Videos, of course, are suggestive. What kind of videos do men often own? Joey in particular, who frequently brags about his large collection of pornographic materials, is very likely to own pornographic videos. Since Ross is returning the videos after the nap that the two shared, there exists the subtle yet pervasive suggestion that the two men were watching pornographic videos before they fell asleep together. The writers of Friends seem to suggest that the two men watched pornographic videos, masturbated, then fell asleep in each other’s arms.

Whatever activity engaged in by the two men, however, remains unmentioned. In attempting to clear the air about the subject, Joey says to Ross, “Ross, look, I think we need to talk about before,” and Ross says, adamantly, “no, no we don’t.” Joey replies, “Yes, yes we do. Now look. That was the best nap I ever had.” Ross is shocked and coy. He says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Joey insists: “Come on, admit it. That was the best nap you ever had.” Ross says, “I’ve had better.” Joey: “Ok, when?” Then Ross cracks: “All right, all right. It was the best nap, ever. I admit it, but it’s over.” Joey says, “I want to do it again.” Ross: “We can’t do it again.” Joey: “Why not?” Ross: “Because it’s weird.” At this moment, the sexual innuendo is squelched. The subtle references to sexual activity—the mysterious videos, the best nap they’ve ever had—language associated with sexual activity, gets clearly pinned to actual sleeping at the moment that Ross says their activity is weird, and not disgusting, or perverse, or frightening. Nevertheless, traces of the sexual meaning linger through the episode, and are revived at the end.

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In the final scenes of the episode, Joey and Ross are left alone in the coffee shop. Joey says, “Boy, I’ll tell ya. That judging stuff really took a lot out of me.” Ross: “Yeah?” Joey: “Yeah. I’m thinking about going upstairs and taking a nap on my couch.” Here, he looks meaningfully at Ross, who responds, “Why, why would I care about that?” Joey says “No reason. I’m just saying that that’s where I’ll be,” and leaves the café. Ross tries to resist, but can’t, and joins Joey for a nap. Here, the sexual suggestiveness, while less apparent than in the early part of the episode, is back in play.
While this representation of gay male sexuality is progressive in the sense that there is at least some kind of representation that isn't blatantly negative, it also invokes at the level of connotation the cultural commonplace that these two men must not name or admit their desire. As such, the episode does more to reinforce traditional cultural expectations of men than to expand the constructyion of masculinity.