By Jasmine Liu
I binge-watched over three seasons of “Friends” during spring break – I didn’t begin watching the show until a year ago, but it was a favorite among my friends for the entirety of high school. “You’re obsessively protective of your food,” my friends would tell me when I defensively shied away with my box of chicken nuggets when they tried to steal them. “You remind me of Joey with his sandwich on ‘Friends.’” Everyone would nod and laugh knowingly, while I quizzically remained the uncultured one. The summer before college, my friends mused about the possibility of one day intimately living together in a big city as roommates, and referenced the idealistic, carefree arrangement achieved in “Friends.” Suffice it to say, it was second nature to employ the classic sitcom as a common language.
“Friends” has become a cultural icon because of its relatability. Dorm-mates who otherwise share few comparable experiences prior to college can often mutually appreciate the unifying experience of having been entertained by the show at some point in their lives. This is particularly amazing as the show will be nearly 23 years old in September. Indeed, growing up Chinese-American in the Silicon Valley, where what is dystopian is hip and what is modern struggles to avoid fading into yesterday’s irrelevance, the notably un-diverse, finely aged series has little applicability to my lifestyle or experience. Yet it still does feel fundamentally relatable. While some shows are alluring because they feel strange, unpredictable and unfamiliar, the experience of watching “Friends” is analogous to relishing an unspectacular, expected bowl of mac and cheese.
There are brief moments in which this facade of uncritical comfort is gently disturbed. In flashbacks, a recurring punchline is that Monica used to be fat, and the show presents Monica’s body weight as a characteristic that she is able to eliminate in the short period of a year – presumably, by easily choosing to cut down on the amount she eats. Her fat past is pre-Monica – because thin Monica is personable, neat, funny and attractive. Her dad remarks to her mom, “well, Judy you did it! She’s finally full!” when Monica refuses to finish the Thanksgiving leftovers. The audience laughs, and I can’t help but also chuckle at the stupefied expression on her dad’s face. Something is blatantly out of place about this scene, in an era that emphasizes body positivity and decries body-shaming. But for me, it takes more than a second for this to register. Similar things can be said about every scene in which Joey makes a misogynistic comment about his sexual exploits, Ross laments his perceived femininity and Chandler unreasonably expresses his repulsion towards his transgender dad. In today’s climate that has acculturated me to, in the most constructive way possible, think twice when something is “problematic,” this instinct has apparently dissipated in the midst of immersing myself completely in something that is, for the most part, singularly happy. In other words, what is timeless is the show’s celebration of camaraderie, but should this regard for what transcends the present allow us to overlook timely social problems that are inevitably there, as a relic of the past? And what if that which speaks to us is precisely what is not only dated, but what is wrong? What if, instinctually, Joey’s misogyny is endearing and Chandler’s sarcastic offensiveness is hilarious?
The cloud of contentment that “Friends” provides – and the associated power that muted joy has in shrouding the critic within me – is undeniably dangerous. Like any ’90s show, “Friends” is a product of its time. But to acknowledge that it continues to have staying power is to acknowledge that every new fan that “Friends” gains – even as late as 2017, for a viewer like me – is another person that, a generation after its time, the show has socialized into believing its vision of what a New Yorker, an American, a friend and yes, a person, is and should be. To think that laughing along with the more problem-riddled jokes in “Friends” is harmless is to postulate that resonating with regressive beliefs does no damage. Put another way, resonating with judgments that gay people are disgusting, that women are less capable and that fat people don’t have personalities is okay as long as they merely remain thoughts, right? Obviously wrong.
So how do we reconcile the difficult problem of being attracted to what should be reviled?
In the summer of 2013, many British colleges ignited a public controversy over Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” a song that featured “rapey” lyrics that characterized women as “animals” and implied that a man could presume consent. To this day, when the catchy, otherwise fun song comes on the radio while I’m driving, I reflexively flip to another station. I’d rather not expose myself to the risk of getting hooked on a song laced with connotations that could subconsciously be taken the wrong way by other listeners. The lyrics we sing along to – especially the words we mouth at parties, where lines truly can be blurred – contribute to a reciprocal understanding that consent can be implied. It’s no surprise to me that the song’s lyrics cross the boundaries of what is acceptable. If anything, what caught me off guard about the scale of controversy surrounding “Blurred Lines” was why the outcry didn’t come earlier in response to any number of other songs.
Some other party hits over the years that have had rather insulting lyrics: Waka Flocka Flame’s “No Hands,” Kanye’s “Gold Digger” and David Guetta’s “Hey Mama,” popular songs that are often huge crowd-pleasers at Stanford. While some artists might claim plausible deniability to allegations of objectification, others aren’t ignorant of the impropriety of the words they set their music to: Akon sings “I’m trying to find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful … ” Eventually, he tastefully settles on “Damn, you’re a sexy bitch.” Most students will concede that lyrics from these songs do not portray women in a positive light, yet I’m confident that if we as a community were to only play songs with lyrics that reflect a culture we’d like to see at Stanford, most of us would feel dissatisfied.
For the vast majority of us – including myself – we don’t merely appreciate the tune and rhythm of degrading tracks. Catchy, fun songs beg to be sung along to, danced to. Nobody is confused when it comes to the content of words they actively belt out. If we have come to a relative state of agreement, at least on campus at Stanford, that pejorative, racist and violent slang like the N-word has no place, then shouldn’t we at least have a frank discussion about how paragons of our culture, communicated through the influential vehicle of music, may perpetuate standards of behavior that we don’t endorse?
… and yet, it remains awfully tempting to listen to memorable, potentially offensive sing-along songs. We may convince ourselves that we are drawn to the music because of everything but the lyrics themselves – the melody is so easy to sing along to! The beat is so good! But there’s no way of getting around being charged with complicity. And there’s no denying that some objectionable lyrics are fun to sing particularly because they are taboo – but are they taboo for good reason?
On my birthday this past year, I had the treat of visiting the Vancouver Art Gallery, which at the time was featuring an exhibit entitled “Picasso: The Artist and His Muses.”
From the start, I was intrigued by the thematic choice made by the curators. It turned out to be a fascinating method for storytelling. A walk through the exhibition was a chronological journey through Picasso’s lifetime, and the setup implied that much of the evolution in Picasso’s artistic style was catalyzed by the lover(s) Picasso was romantically engaged with during a given period of his life.
I left with more questions than answers: the gallery thrusted me into multiple captivating narratives of Picasso’s love lives, and I was engrossed with the man himself, a passionate, bewildering man. Or alternatively, a neurotic, manipulative, abusive womanizer.
A painting that had a mesmerizing effect on me was “Femme au collier jaune,” or Woman with Yellow Necklace. At first glance, one of Picasso’s less jarring images, the painting depicts lover Francoise Gilot, herself an accomplished painter. A front-facing portrait, the painting is rather symmetrical, with a pleasant combination of emerald-green, auburn-brown, sky-blue and a pop of yellow, set against a charcoal-gray background. It is seductive to the eye, in the most understated way.
Right below the subject’s pupil, sitting on top of her cheek, is what appears to be a beauty spot. What it really is, as the curators have not failed to exclude in the tiny 10-point print descriptive placard placed beside the painting, is a marker of Picasso’s fury: It is the place he once put out his cigarette during what must have become a heated argument. I can’t help but be more drawn to the portrait than I initially was. In the simplest way imaginable, my mind is bewitched. It truly is exquisite.
The painting’s backstory certainly coaxed me into granting the unassuming spot more attention than I would have otherwise offered it. I’m no connoisseur of art or specialist in art history, but all of a sudden, I want to be. I want to know all there is to know about the backstory of this piece, even if the truth is unknowable. Why am I, and why are legions of others, so drawn to the grotesque? And it is not a mild, benign, artistic disfigurement — it is emblematic of a turbulent, physically abusive relationship. There should be nothing to exoticize about this picture, yet I reckon I’m not the only person to find some odd appeal in this piece.
Something else: There’s the nagging feeling as I leave the exhibition that Picasso’s lovers — at least some of them — are, in his eyes, merely living, fluid art. This is confirmed by multiple anecdotes from women who have testified about their relationships with the artist.
Gilot states in her memoir of her time with Picasso that during one of her first encounters with him, he labeled her friend and her as “two different types of beauty: archaic Greece and Jean Goujon.”
Marie-Therese Walter, who began seeing Picasso at the young age of 17 when Picasso was 45, reportedly caught Picasso’s eye while she was shopping at Galeries Lafayette in Paris. According to lore, he told her, “You have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you. I am Picasso.”
Without putting Picasso’s lovers in the position of being victims, because that is far from an accurate depiction — in his eyes, if these women are templates, at best, or moldable clay, at worst, for Picasso’s artistic inspiration, can his portfolio not also be interpreted as extended foray into his disrespectful treatment of other human beings? By rendering them to be muses and nothing else, does he not transform each colorful, multifaceted individual into objects of his own twisted fantasies, preserved for centuries to come as his dispensable models? Ultimately, by explaining Picasso’s artistic development through the women he painted, the exhibition relies on this uncomfortably enchanting fact.
To greater and to lesser extents, this isn’t about feeling conflicted over the dubious morality or the unclear cost-benefit result of something. This is not an indulgence; it is a perversion.
Without overreaching through generalization, I want to say that we all have perversions — moments when we delight in exactly what our better selves protest. Is it practical or even desirable to forcibly change ourselves into people who are not charmed by what is degenerate? On the other hand, isn’t it also negligent for us to dismiss these difficult tensions by labeling ourselves “sinners” or imperfect beings, and calling it a day?
For many, the debate over “PC culture” has resolved what can acceptably be said in public, but it has not brokered a solution to the problem of finding appeal in what may be offensive. If thoughts matter as much as or more than words, then the real dilemma is reflecting on the sacrifices we are willing to make — the joy we are willing to lose, to be better people.
Contact Jasmine Liu at jliu98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.