The co-creator of the TV sitcom Friends is planning to donate $4m to an African and African American studies project because she’s so “embarrassed” by – and feels such “guilt” at – the white homogeneity of the characters on the classic coming of age series.
Marta Kauffman told the Los Angeles Times that she intends for her planned gift to fund the Marta F Kauffman ’78 Professorship in African and African American Studies at her alma mater, Brandeis University, a liberal arts college in Massachusetts.
Kauffman said it was initially “difficult and frustrating” to see Friends criticized for its lack of diverse characters in a show that ran for 10 seasons after it premiered in 1994, according to the Times. The show earned tens of millions of dollars in syndication and streaming for its creators and cast, including Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer.
After Netflix announced it would drop the sitcom in 2019, Saul Austerlitz, who wrote Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era, said Friends occupied a central place in American pop culture.
“Yes, it’s a sitcom, but it’s also a soap opera,” Austerlitz told the Times. “So you can watch it in order, or you can watch your favorite episodes.”
But after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd in 2020, triggering racial justice protests across the country, Friends became a target of criticism. Many wondered how, on Manhattan’s racially diverse Upper West Side, the characters seemed to exist without interacting with any residents or visitors of color.
When HBO last year streamed Friends: The Reunion, an LA Times diversity writer said it wasn’t “a moment of celebration for everyone” and that it might have been subtitled: “The One Where They Ignored Diversity – Again”.
“At a time when the television landscape is becoming increasingly diverse and inclusive, it’s uncomfortable – if not outright inappropriate – to raise a glass to a sitcom that was so blind to the multiculturalism of the world where it took place,” noted Greg Braxton.
Kauffman said that she had initially felt Friends was unjustly singled out for its racial and ethnic homogeneity, saying, “It was difficult and frustrating.” But she said now she feels that criticism was fair.
“It was after what happened to George Floyd that I began to wrestle with my having bought into systemic racism in ways I was never aware of,” Kauffman said. “That was really the moment that I began to examine the ways I had participated. I knew then I needed to course-correct.”
Kauffman said Friends’ lack of diversity illustrated how she had internalized that systemic racism.
“I’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years,” she said to the Times. “Admitting and accepting guilt is not easy. It’s painful looking at yourself in the mirror. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know better 25 years ago.”
Characters of color on Friends were largely fleeting. Schwimmer said in a 2020 interview that the lack of broader cultural representation was “wrong” and he described advocating for his character Ross to date diverse women.
“I really felt like Ross should date other people, women of all races,” Schwimmer said.
The professorship Kauffman plans to establish within Brandeis’ African and African American studies department aims to support scholarship on the peoples and cultures of Africa and the African diaspora.
Kauffman said she had received supportive messages after announcing her gift.
“I’ve gotten a lot of, ‘It’s about time,'” she told the Times. “Not in a mean way – it’s just people acknowledging it was long overdue.”