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Composition Studies, Heteronormativity, and Popular Culture

Thomas Peele
Boise State University

Introduction | Cultural Studies | Friends One | Friends Two | Will and Grace | Conclusion | Works Cited

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In the credits section, Joey and Ross are caught sleeping together. Joey, who has made the whole thing happen, is the first to deny it. Before the two men realize that all of their friends are watching them nap in each other’s arms, Joey says, “Great nap.” Ross replies, “It really was.” Then, they slowly notice that they are not alone, while the laugh-track goes nuts. Suddenly, Joey says, ”Dude, what the hell are you doing? God!” Joey leaps up and leaves the room. Ross leaves sheepishly, merely saying “Excuse me.”

Joey and Ross are never allowed to admit their desire for good reason. The only somewhat regular character on the program who actually desires other men is Chandler’s father. Interestingly, Chandler’s father is played by Kathleen Turner, who, as we all know, is a woman.

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Turner is referred to as gay, but the character also has breast implants. Thus, every stereotype in the book is put into service in this episode. Gay men are effeminate; gay men want to be women; given the opportunity, gay men will become women. This episode collapses the boundaries—certainly wavering and unstable, but nonetheless discernible—between gay, transsexual, and transgendered. To Chandler, his father’s gayness is the ultimate embarrassment. He says that “All kids are embarrassed by their fathers. You’d have to come up with a whole new word for what I went through,” then reminisces about how his father went in Hollywood diva drag to Chandler’s high school swim meets. Actual gay men, then, are ridiculous and loathsome in the extreme.

Lesbian desire, on the other hand, is used as an erotic appeal for the men. During the nap episode, Rachel and Phoebe are in a contest to be judged by Ross and Joey, to see which of the two women is to be Monica’s maid of honor. At the part of the contest where the women have to give an impromptu maid of honor speech, Phoebe, intimidated by the quality of Rachel’s speech, says in her speech, “I can’t believe that Monica and Chandler are getting married. I remember talking about this day with Rachel, while we were showering together, naked.” Mainly as a result of this speech, Phoebe wins the contest. Thus, while sexual desire and sexual activity between men must be squelched, sexual desire and activity between women is used as an erotic turn-on for men.

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Lesbian desire, of course, is not used exclusively for the erotic pleasure of men. In episode 720, “The One with Rachel’s Big Kiss,” real lesbian desire—the Winona Ryder character’s desire for Rachel—is used as an opportunity to humiliate the character who experiences the desire. In other words, lesbian desire functions as an erotic counterpoint to male desire only when that desire is a fantasy. Actual lesbians are generally unimportant, as in the case of Carol, Ross’s ex-wife, and her lover, Susan, who mainly function to feed Ross’s insecurity about his masculinity. When the writers of the show prominently feature a lesbian character, however, that character occupies the same zone of ridicule as gay male characters.

Ryder’s character, Melissa Warburton, is not at all a stereotypical lesbian. She is ultra-feminine, and, because she is a planner of high-end parties, she counts herself among those who have dedicated their lives to helping the world. Rachel tells her friends that she and Melissa were sorority sisters. One night, she says, when they were drunk, they ended up making out, echoing Phoebe’s husband’s narrative about his early manifestations of heterosexuality. While Joey finds this story highly erotic, Phoebe refuses to believe that it’s true. Rachel, Phoebe claims, is far too much of a prude to ever engage is same-sex kissing. In order to demonstrate to Phoebe that the story is true, Rachel invites Phoebe to attend a dinner that she has planned with Melissa.

At the dinner, Melissa emphatically denies that the making out ever happened. When Rachel insists that they kissed, Melissa says, “I don’t think I’ll be calling you because you’ve gotten weird,” and suggests that perhaps Rachel molested her after she had passed out. Out of frustration, Rachel kisses Melissa in order to demonstrate to herself and Phoebe that she is capable of being sexually deviant. Melissa, however, interprets the kiss as a sign of love. Melissa says, “Of course I remember our kiss. I still think about it all the time. . . . I just didn’t want to tell you because I didn’t think you’d return my love. But now that you have . . . .” Then, Melissa tries to kiss Rachel, who successfully resists. Melissa says, “You can’t tell me you don’t feel what I feel. Nobody can kiss that good and not mean it.” Rachel insists, though, that she’s “just a good kisser,” then apologizes. Melissa, humiliated, claims that she doesn’t picture Rachel’s face when she makes love to her boyfriend, then begins once again to deny that she remembers the kiss. Actual lesbian desire, then, is a source of shame and humiliation. It is only the male fantasy of lesbian desire that is allowed to flourish.