Friends was a classic sitcom of the ‘90s, but like any product of its time, some aspects of it don’t age well. The creators of Friends have grown enough since the show ended its 10 year run in 2004 to recognize blind spots. One of those blind spots was Friends’ handling of Chandler’s parent, Helena (Kathleen Turner), whose gender transition was the butt of jokes. Co-creator Marta Kauffman now admits Friends misgendered Helena.
Kauffman appears on BBC World Service’s The Conversation. The full interview airs July 11, but an excerpt released online has Kauffman expressing regret at the handling of Helena on Friends.
‘Friends’ misgendered Chandler’s parent
Chandler (Matthew Perry) still refers to Helena as his dad. However, that was not accurate. Helena’s pronouns would likely be she/her or they/them, but unlikely to be male. So Kauffman regrets that Friends misgendered Chandler’s parent.
“We kept referring to her as ‘Chandler’s father,’ even though Chandler’s father was trans,” Kauffman said on The Conversation. “Pronouns were not yet something that I understood, so we didn’t refer to that character as ‘she.’ That was a mistake.”
Since ‘Friends’ Marta Kauffman has stood up for trans people
After Friends, Kauffman went on to create Grace & Frankie, which involved husbands coming out after decades of marriage. Kauffman also included a diverse crew behind the scenes, and stood up for them when people were insensitive.
“I fired a guy on the spot for making a joke about a trans cameraperson,” Kauffman said. “That just can’t happen on my set. But on the other hand, everybody’s opinions about the work is welcome. So I want to create a collaborative environment where the DP can say, ‘What if we do this?’ which is totally not what we were thinking and it could be brilliant.”
Kauffman still laments that she did not know enough to prevent the misgendering of Helena on Friends.
“Admitting and accepting guilt is not easy,” Kauffman said. “It’s painful looking at yourself in the mirror. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know better 25 years ago.”
Marta Kauffman addressed racism too
The excerpt about Helena began with Kauffman addressing the racial makeup of Friends. Looking back, Kauffman also recognized a lack of diversity to which she was oblivious at the time.
“Criticism is difficult,” Kauffman said. “Friends has been criticized in a number of ways, the biggest one being that we did not have enough representation of Black people which over the course of the last few years I have gotten to the point where I can say, unfortunately, yes. I’m guilty of that and I’ll never make that mistake again.”
Kauffman now recognizes that the co-creator of Friends still had a lot to learn.
“If I knew then what I know now there are certain things I would change, but I didn’t know them and I have since learned,” Kauffman said. “I was clearly part of systemic racism in our business. I was unaware of that which makes me feel stupid. So yeah, that was a very valid, extremely difficult criticism which still, I get emotional about.”