The recent Friends reunion episode on HBO tossed long-time fans into a frenzy. The advent of social media has widely expanded the fanbase of the show and the market for its merchandise has only grown in the years since it ended. Despite the rampant commercialisation involved, there are a few political lessons it offers – though subtly – that I list in this article.
Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow) is how you implode a system that refuses to accept its cannibalism. She is the token “quirky” character who is a masseuse cum freelance musician. Her characterisation can end right there for a casual viewer of Friends, one of the most popular sit-coms in the world, which made its appearance on NBC and can currently be found on Netflix.
A closer look into Phoebe’s character reveals that her ‘weirdness’ and ‘gypsy-like demeanour’ are just how the show masquerades her left-leaning views.
Phoebe is a rare Marxist protagonist, of which there aren’t many in US television history. She was definitely not a deliberate addition to an industry which has churned out countless capitalism apologist characters as part of long-running anti-communism propaganda. She had to be there because it was inevitable for a group of six working middle-class Americans to not have a class-conscious friend. This is not to say that there haven’t been characters on other shows espousing such ideology – but a majority are usually made into caricatures. Marxist thought rarely found a platform and mentions of communism, Russia and Stalin always came with heavy coatings of censure. The last time someone probably took a bold leftist stand in their work and infused humour into it must have been when Charlie Chaplin made his films and we know how that ship sunk.
Phoebe’s leftist views are almost always out in the open for viewers to watch and if their social standing permits it, contemplate upon. There are several instances in the series that testify to this.
In a Season 6 episode, Phoebe makes known her distaste for mass-produced articles sold at ‘Pottery Barn’. She says she likes only “pieces of furniture with a story tied to it”, a visible lamentation at the loss of pre-eminence of artisanship under the profit-driven production process in capitalism. The episode is an obvious dig at the capitalist scam that is Pottery Barn and the associated consumerism that it thrives on.
In Season 9, Phoebe is left quite flustered when Rachel (Jennifer Anniston) announces her decision to cash in a free coupon at a big massage parlour. She goes on to admonish Rachel, explaining to her the problematic nature of “blood-sucking corporations” that have put freelancing masseuses such as herself out of business. It is later revealed that Phoebe herself works at the said parlour, for which she provides the following justification: “The money is good, but that doesn’t change the fact that these places are evil.” While Rachel praises Phoebe for having such strong ideals, their political nature goes massively unnoticed.
Phoebe’s upbringing and circumstances, which pushed her into a life on the streets at a young age to fend for herself whilst being deprived of proper familial ties or consistent education, could easily have caused her to critically examine the maliciousness of the forces at work in a capitalist economy. Her backstory is in a way about the poor coverage of America’s social security programmes.
Conversely, it may also be stated that the inherent apoliticism of the rest of the characters may be attributed to the privileged childhoods they’ve had. Her life and anecdotes offer a peek into the ‘other side’ of America. Though not an obvious indication, Phoebe’s aversion towards meat/dairy products, or “food with a face”, (Season 1, Episode 17), as she puts it, is one of her defining features and could be linked to America’s notoriously capitalistic livestock industry.
Although there’s never really a direct mention of Phoebe’s Marxist leanings, it’s just too hard to ignore these signs hiding in plain sight. In yet another noteworthy episode in Season 5, Phoebe refers to herself as being a pacifist and fundamentally against wars. There’s also a reference she makes of a revolution she thinks is in the offing, for all we know, she could have been organising all the masseuses at the corporate chain she’s working in, guerrilla style, when she’s not at Central Perk sipping coffee with her friends.
On a lighter note, David, the scientist she falls in love with in one of the earlier seasons, himself admits that there was a statue of Lenin in Minsk that reminded him of Phoebe. And since Phoebe does not look like a bald man in a suit in his forties, he is undoubtedly referring to the other common link that connects them.
In a show with multiple story-lines based on heteronormativity, considerable underrepresentation of minorities, objectification of women, where the pointer in the political barometer can be said to be twitching between left and right of centre, Phoebe stands out as the only character whose politics is predominantly left-leaning.
A popular American sitcom from the nineties and the noughties is the last place to go looking for political correctness, but, like it or not, Phoebe is a comrade in disguise.
Anjana Kesav is an aspiring journalist.