What I Learned About Real Relationships When My 'Friends' Take Went Viral

Ross Geller is trash.

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Aug 21 2017, 4:53pm

Collage by Leila Ettachfini

I have a confession to make: Friends is not actually my favorite show.

You could certainly be forgiven for thinking it was, since the internet is now referring to me as " Friends mega-fan Claire Willett," a label with which I am wearily attempting to make my peace. But I certainly did not set out last week to achieve viral notoriety and blow up my Twitter mentions for the rest of time by purporting to be some kind of global expert on a 13-year-old sitcom finale.

I co-host a podcast called Meta Station, recapping the CW show The 100, and I have a secondary Twitter account I primarily use for that. My little fandom corner is full of awesome nerds who love yelling about television, and the day my life exploded we were arguing about storylines from past shows that continue to make us crazy (my own list includes the finales of Will & Grace and How I Met Your Mother, Lorelai cheating on Luke with Christopher on Gilmore Girls, and Toby getting fired on The West Wing). But after "Rachel and Joey on Friends" cropped up multiple times on other people's "nope" lists, I decided to try and persuade them to give the pairing another look.

What started as a conversation between me and my girlfriends became a thread with thousands of views that inspired dozens of articles. By a staggering margin, the majority of responses fall into three categories: "OH MY GOD THANK YOU I'VE BEEN SAYING THIS FOR YEARS AND NOBODY BELIEVES ME" (my fellow Joey/Rachel shippers, it is time to step out of the darkness and into the light!) or "OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE YOU DONE, I'M QUESTIONING EVERYTHING, MY ENTIRE LIFE WAS BUILT ON A LIE" (come to me, recovering Ross/Rachel shippers, let me hug you, the support group meets down the hall, we have snacks). And, of course: "Men Who Are Very Upset with Me."

This was my first experience with being called a "feminazi" and an "oppressive SJW" unironically (though of course this is a drop in the bucket compared to the flood of hate mail by which many women, particularly women of color, in online spaces are deluged every single day). A tragicomic handful of diehard Ross Geller fans have very little capacity to disrupt my life, but we do need to talk about them, because even when you're just venting about television, facing a barrage of angry men is the cost of being A Woman on the Internet with an Opinion.

Wow some of these men are angry—so angry that they go off on lengthy tirades of their own, tagging me in dozens of tweets where they describe in detail the vast, echoing depths of my wrongness. The reasons range from "factual errors" to "reverse sexism" to my refusal to believe them when they insist it is simply not possible for a heterosexual man to be "just friends" with a woman, an argument I believe should be lit on fire and hurled into the sea. One particularly appalling man even found a way to associate me with the high rate of suicide among men.

But mostly, these men are angry because they relate deeply to Ross Geller and take my criticisms of him very personally. They are angry that I don't find his neurotic, possessive devotion to Rachel even remotely charming. Arthur Chu's essay "Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds" unpacks this phenomenon and the way this mindset can harden and ossify into the beliefs that become men's justifications for violence against women. Ross, of course, is a sitcom character, but the men in my Twitter mentions are real, and so are the women in their lives, and so is my genuine concern that at least a handful of them haven't aged out of this adolescent notion that Ross "claiming" Rachel as his is perfectly reasonable and not at all creepy. "Oh, so now crushes are oppressive?" is an actual thing an adult human man said to me in the Year of Our Lord 2017, as though campaigning for some kind of Most Spectacular Misinterpretation Award. "Oh, so now being nice is a bad thing?" (The answer to which, of course, depends on how we define that word. Because, as Stephen Sondheim wrote in Into the Woods, "Nice is different than good.")

Popular culture has always reinforced the notion that beautiful women are objects with which men are rewarded for their valor or achievement or heroism, instead of human beings with agency. The overarching narrative of Ross and Rachel is the triumph of the nerd who finally gets the hot girl he's been in love with since high school. He was kind and loyal (you know, minus that whole "we were on a break" thing) and he waited for ten seasons until finally she realized that he was the most important thing in her life and the only man she wanted. It's wish fulfillment on par with the show's nonsensically opulent apartments. But it's only the achievement of a lifelong dream for him. Rachel had nothing to prove to her teenage self. The whole pattern of the relationship is weighted towards him getting everything he wants: He gets to stay in New York with his friends without having to leave his other child, keeps his tenured job, and gets Rachel to choose him over the career of her dreams. Ross gets everything. And Rachel just gets...Ross. Yet if you point out this imbalance, men who see themselves in Ross' adolescent fantasy genuinely believe that you are taking something away from them.

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But for every troll, there were dozens of people who thought they were simply reading a Twitter thread about a sitcom but experienced a revelation about their own lives. Because of the way our cultural perceptions about men and women have changed since the show went off the air in 2004, the conversation about Ross's shortcomings as a partner and person became a flashpoint to open up a much larger conversation, with some men telling me they wanted to be "less Ross, more Joey" and reexamine long-entrenched behaviors toward women. And women have used the conversation as a launching point to share stories about their own relationships with toxic men.

Friends should not be anyone's relationship manual, but we shouldn't be surprised when something we see onscreen causes us to rethink patterns in our everyday lives. Fiction always does this and when we're talking about television, we're never just talking about television. Fresh Off the Boat is a terrific family sitcom, but its value to our cultural landscape goes beyond being tremendously funny. In a world where real-life white supremacists are marching in our streets, HBO's Confederate isn't just an abstract alternate-universe thought exercise. And when we talk about iconic TV romances, we're also talking about the messages we absorb about what relationships are supposed to look like. Reexamining media we consumed during youth—the books and movies and TV shows that are indelibly etched into our psyche—can teach us how we became who we are.

And so, to all the people for whom a conversation about a 90's sitcom flipped a switch and made you think differently about relationships in some way: I am rooting for you, and I hope that you find your lobster.