'Challenging the lack of diversity in Friends doesn't make our pupils snowflakes without a sense of humour'

We need to put a stop to the trend that labels fresh-thinking under-25s as the 'PC-gone-mad brigade', writes Tes mental health columnist Natasha Devon

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This week, I’d like to talk about friends – both the concept of establishing a platonic bond and the popular TV show which ran for 10 seasons between 1994 and 2004 and became part of the mainstream cultural lexicon in the process.

First, the latter. Friends has recently been uploaded to Netflix, a forum favoured by "millennials", a term which no one can give a definitive explanation of – I was told it applied to anyone born between 1985 and 2000, rendering the majority of today’s teenagers exempt.

As they are wont to do, "young people", who are seeing Friends through the prism of 2018’s moral compass, have flocked to social media to express discomfort at the show’s lack of diversity and some now deeply unfashionable views around sexuality and gender. Equally predictably, the usual suspects from the right-wing media have used these fairly innocuous comments to extrapolate a narrative centring upon "young people" being "snowflakes" and having "no sense of humour".

In fact Kemi Badenoch, Conservative MP for incubus-of-Little-Englandy-style-traditional-views Saffron Walden (I can say this since my left-leaning parents live there and have regularly been in danger of being chased out of their local pub with pitchforks for acts of unforgivable recalcitrance, such as supporting the junior doctor strike) went so far as to call millennials "puritanical" for criticising "the best sitcom ever". Worryingly, Badenoch’s comments were made as part of an interview to launch a new initiative to encourage "diverse" candidates within the Conservative Party, in the hope of them becoming role models for the young. How a TV show centring on the lives of six attractive, white, affluent, straight, middle-class people fits into this drive I am not sure.

Generation gap

The Friends saga is emblematic of a wider trend, which paints under-25s as the "PC-gone-mad brigade" and invites older people to mock them, widening what is already a chasm-like divide between the generations. This – I suppose typically, for a not-quite-millennial – makes me really angry on two counts.

Firstly, university students, in particular, have always and – proposed changes to higher education notwithstanding – will always challenge prevailing social ideologies. That is literally what students are there for – to challenge thinking, push the metaphorical envelope and provide a catalyst for more long-term social change. Before social media, however, these types of campus-based conversations weren’t known to people outside.

For as long as there have been universities, there have been student protests. Whether it’s questioning the morality of having a statue of a former slave trader on campus, refusing to sell copies of The Sun in campus-based shops or inventing new words which don’t perpetuate unconscious racism or misogyny, students are the ones driving challenges to the established norms, because they are the ones who are encouraged most to think about them. Thank goodness.

The second reason why the Friends story is silly is that the first episodes of the show were made more than 20 years ago. There are things I used to say 20 years ago that I now understand to be unacceptable. That’s part of the human experience. There is no point in having a mind if you never change it. In pointing out some of the troubling themes in Friends, symptomatic of a less enlightened era, its critics are not saying that the show is "rubbish" or the actors involved were consciously "evil". It’s simply a case of a "fresh batch", with broader minds, registering the progress which has been made in the past two decades.

Anyone who is unable to see that needs, frankly, to grow up.

Friends in need

Now to "friends" the concept, or more specifically "best friends". Good Morning Britain ran a story this week reporting that a "number of American schools" are "discouraging" children from labelling one another "best friends", running a subsequent debate over an – entirely fabricated, as far as I can tell – proposed "ban" on the term in schools here in Britain. Again, the inevitable bluster in all the usual quarters followed with the battle cry of "Let kids be kids!".

I wonder, however, whether there isn’t some mileage in the idea of gently dissuading young people from the notion that they need to have a "best friend". There is danger in the expectation that one person can fulfil all your emotional needs. I’m also of the opinion that the seemingly cuddly notion of a "BFF" is one which is often used to bully in insidious, undetectable ways.

As someone who grew up in a male-dominated household, going to an all-girls school aged 11 was a total culture shock. As I’ve written about previously single-sex education was, on balance, an incredibly positive experience for me. However, I did not – and if I’m entirely honest, still do not – understand the rules when it came to adolescent female friendships. If I don’t like someone, I tell them. If I disagree with what someone has said, I tell them. This is a policy which has landed me at the centre of controversies throughout my life but at least you can be assured that I’d never say anything behind your back I wouldn’t say in front of you. This is mostly, although of course not exclusively, what society deems to be a "masculine" trait.

"Frenemies" is an alien concept, to me. Watching "alpha females" in my year crown whoever had bowed and scraped to them the most that week with the title of "best friend" only to remove it after a few days for a perceived transgression used to baffle and intrigue me in equal measure. Secrets were the currency of our classroom. Not being abreast of the latest gossip rendered you an outcast. 

Bullying is just as hurtful when it happens through systematic isolation as through aggression. Disabusing children of the belief that they have to remain best friends with someone in order to be socially valuable is just one way in which we can combat this.

Whether it’s in classrooms up and down the country or across the ideological dividing lines of Central Perk, my message this week is: let’s all be friends.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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