When the topic of the TV classic Friends is brought to mind, there are many highlights to choose from, but what is often first thought of are Joey’s “how you doin’?” , the “Smelly Cat” song by Phoebe, or one of Chandler’s many one-liners. What is not often instantly thought of, however, is Monica’s role in the group dynamic. While Monica does have her own catchphrase (“I know!”), a universally-loved romance with Chandler, and an iconic home that became an unofficial mascot for the show, Monica remains rather low on many fans’ Friends rankings. Her character arc isn’t as clear-cut as Rachel’s or Chandler’s, her lines do not gather the most laughs, and Courteney Cox remains the only actor in the cast to not receive an Emmy nomination.
In my view, Monica is, in many ways, the “best” friend. Not only does her character act as the backbone of creating six life-long friends, but Monica is a perfect role model for any viewer who wishes to be the most supportive person possible in their own friendships. As well as her supportive nature, the way Monica overcomes her own personal hardships is admirable and heroic. In a show nearing its 25th birthday, there are a handful of storylines that have aged rather poorly, but Monica’s personal growth, as well as her romantic endeavours, are still exemplary for shows that followed friends in 2019.
As I’ve stated, some Friends storylines have come to be seen as in less than good taste in a more socially aware time. One of the first storylines to come to mind is “fat Monica”. As shown by the recent controversy of Netflix’s new show Insatiable, getting a thin actress to wear a goofy fat-suit as a gag about a conventionally attractive woman’s past is narrow-minded and insulting to anyone who falls under the label of “fat”. I personally find the Monica fat joke cringeworthy and disparaging, and to defend the Friends writers’ choice would be wicked of me at best. However, I believe this can be taken into account and seen as handled well by Monica’s character. The hurt of years of torment over her weight is displayed through her desperate quest for perfectionism, and in turn makes the characters who added to that torment seem downright cruel (teenage Chandler, dare I say, deserved to lose the tip of his toe for his insult). Additionally, how Monica deals with her past is rather healthy. After finding out her husband once broke up with a girl for gaining weight, she is rightfully furious with him, and confidently states that it’s almost certain that she will gain weight once more, likely after she births children. Rather than disgust at this, Monica is proud that her body will change as she does once more, and refuses to accept that her husband married her at a certain size. While the whole “fat Monica” joke is a cruel jibe at anyone who resembles her, the character herself has a more mature outlook than those who made it a gag.
To say that Monica’s difficult upbringing, with fat-shaming and parents that, at the very least, displayed toxic behaviour towards her, was “good” because it helped her grow would be highly problematic and offensive to anyone who experienced anything similar. Her ability to mend relationships, as a person who was bullied throughout school myself, is something I strive for. Monica has an incredibly forgiving heart, but, most importantly, is not a pushover. As shown through flashbacks and stories, her brother Ross and friend Rachel often mistreated Monica growing up, a pariah to their social privilege at school or at home. It would be expected that Monica would hold resentment towards them, but instead, she takes them under her wing in their time of need. The Friends pilot establishes this from the beginning, with Monica comforting her recently-separated brother and allows her estranged friend from high school to move in when she had nowhere else to turn. Monica is very much the maternal figure of the group, perhaps best exemplified by the fact she single-handedly cooked for her friends almost every day for a decade.
However, like any mother, Monica expects a certain kind of behaviour from her kin. She is quick to call out Ross’ toxic traits that he learned from their father, such as not allowing his son to play with “feminine toys”, pointing out he enjoyed dressing as a girl as a child. Monica is also the first to challenge Ross’ hyper-jealousy over Rachel and her co-worker as a result of his turbulent divorce. As soon as Monica agrees to let Rachel stay with her, she asserts that Rachel must leave her spoiled ways behind and become self-reliant, helping her apply for jobs and cut her father’s credit cards with scissors. When she is asked out on a date by Chip Matthews, a much-admired boy she went to high school with, she sees he is still stuck in his high school immaturity. He is still disrespectful to Rachel (who he cheated on as a teenager), and continues to bully his former classmates. Despite Chip’s newfound attraction to her, Monica realises Chip is unlikely to change in the way Rachel is willing to, and ceases contact with him. This is an important lesson for people, especially women, that relationships are about supporting people through change, but you cannot be someone’s entire hope of rehabilitation. That is something for the troubled person themselves to take on board too in their expectations of their partner.
Ultimately, Monica thrives off of caring, and takes it in her stride. Her career as a chef is especially impressive in a male-dominated field, even if cooking is seen traditionally a woman’s job. It is a great demonstration of Monica implementing her obsessive, caring energy, born from a toxic upbrining, and using it to improve her life and the lives of those around her. It is possible that her childhood obesity saw her use food as a coping mechanism for her pain, and now she has transformed that love into a lifelong passion. She is at peace with her love of food, and the prospect of weight gain, as explained, is not something to be feared.
The best example, however, of Monica’s caring nature and self-determination is shown through her romantic history. Not only is she unbelievably supportive and a fantastic mentor to her boyfriends throughout the series, but her relationships show a healthiness, both as a couple and as two individuals, that most other tv couples severely lack.
Personally, I’ve never been much of a fan of Monica and Richard as a couple. Sure, Richard is kind to her, and while their personalities are well matched in terms of maturity (something Monica finds hard to find in men her age), I do find them fundamentally creepy. While the age gap is not great to start with, what takes it over the edge is the fact Richard was close to her as a child, which feels rather disgusting. The way their relationship is portrayed on the show handles this rather well, by highlighting others’ (mostly Ross and their parents’) disproval of the relationship, as well as their contrasting expectations of the relationship. What prompts their break-up is Monica’s adamant desire to have children, something that Richard, in his fifties with his own grown-up children, does not want to go through again. When he realises how much it means to Monica, he offers to have children with her despite this feeling. Realising it would be wrong of her to drag Richard into a young man’s lifestyle that he’s only willing to do for her affections, Monica breaks up with him, despite believing him to be the love of her life. Instead, she realises she can only rely on herself if she wants to have a family and considers using a sperm donor and a life as a single mother (something she’ll ultimately not have to do).
In some ways, this is a rather feminist standpoint for Monica. Like her love of cooking, she refuses to give something feminine (in this case, having children) up for the approval of others. She also believes people should only have children if they want to, not from peer pressure. Another example of this is when she dates Pete, a plucky millionaire who wants to buy her affections. When Pete offers to buy her the restaurant of her dreams, she refuses, expressing that she wants to earn that title on her own. While there is nothing inherently wrong for buying something extravagant for your partner, it is a positive thing that Monica does not want things handed to her. She does not want to be indebted to Pete, which she feels she would be both romantically and sexually if he did buy her lifelong ambition. In another refusal to be a pushover, Monica ultimately ends their relationship when he refuses to listen to her about the dangers of wrestling, as well as refusing to give up on her dream of getting married.
It is no secret that I absolutely adore Chandler and Monica, which I would argue to be one of, if not, the greatest couple in television history. To begin with, they have a solid chemistry throughout their years of friendship, and lends itself easily to a romantic relationship, but not in a way that is in the overused, dragged out will-they-won’t-they trope (Pam and Jim from The Office, or even Friends’ own Ross and Rachel are a good example of this). They are, to borrow a term from fanfiction writers, a slow burn, one that takes many years to officially start dating, but looking back on their platonic years, they seem like a perfect match. Normally Monica is the agony aunt of the group and is burdened with solving the problems of the group, but Chandler possesses a unique ability to solve some of Monica’s problems too. Chandler is able to talk Monica off the edge during some off her most high-maintenance moments, such as her freak-outs about her untidy closet or convincing her to have children when their family will be more stable and not overly stressful for her. He even offers to marry her and have a family with her if no one does it with her by the time she’s 40, well before they were attracted to each other romantically. This exemplifies Chandler’s in-depth understanding of Monica, especially her yearning for the wholesome nuclear family she didn’t receive as a child, while helping to control that yearning through what is best for her.
Of course, Monica plays a large part in Chandler’s character arc, especially through his fear of commitment. Monica has the patience of a saint when dealing with Chandler’s panics about the seriousness of their relationship. She is less vocal about her dreams of marriage and babies, shown through her panic when Chandler hears a voicemail about a wedding venue, but she never turns a blind eye to his immaturity. When he freaks out when he realises he’s in a serious relationship with the baby-and-wedding-loving Monica, she encourages him to work out his own anxieties and that she “can’t be [his] relationship coach”. When he proposes too soon to fix this problem, she refuses until she is ready. When Chandler tricks her into thinking he never wants to get married, this is a deal-breaker for Monica. However, Chandler’s anxieties are not detrimental to their relationship, because they are over how much he cares for her. The only time Chandler ever doubts his relationship with Monica is over he loves her in a way that she deserves. Through Monica’s love and support, Chandler learns to quit his job and finds a way to implement his comedic and social skills into an advertising job that he loves, and in turn learns more about himself and, for the first time, how to love himself.
There has recently been an increased scrutiny of Friends, likely because people (perhaps, justifiably) have had their fill of being broadcast and loved everywhere. One criticism I have noticed pop up occasionally is that the characters personalities worsen over the course of the show, with Chandler and Monica deteriorating each other’s. Now it may not surprise you seeing as my twitter name is literally Chandler and Monica, but I could not disagree with this argument more. Once they get together, Chandler and Monica have all the same personality traits and social difficulties as they did before, but find personal growth. Their relationship gives the gift of better outlets for their quirks. Chandler learns from Monica to implement his critical nature and sense of humour as a coping mechanism into his advertising job that he loves, and also turns them into skills that make an excellent parent. Chandler teaches Monica the value of patience and sympathy through Chandler’s understanding, but not abiding, of her demanding nature.
The conclusion of Monica’s character development is created by the seeds she has sown through her own maternal love that she has given unreservedly to her loved ones throughout the series. Had she not supported her friend group, particularly Ross and Rachel, in the way she did, her fate would not have brought her the perfect spouse in Chandler (who she initially hooked up with because of Ross and Rachel’s storylines). The lessons she learns from having a difficult early life, as well as the demand of having five friends depend on you as if they were your own children, sets her up for the greater challenge of helping Chandler to develop into this perfect partner. Casual in attitude and lacking seriousness or tact, Chandler is in many ways an opposite to Monica’s type-A personality, but through Monica’s open heart, these traits prevent her from her own personality being all-consuming and preventing her from reaching her goal of the loving family she never had.
Of course, Chandler needs a little patience to fully commit to this dream, but their relationship dynamic helps provide that. By having a husband who lovingly teases her, without coercing her to change, Monica learns the ability to step outside of herself. When Monica’s dream of a family is threatened through their mutual infertility, Chandler does everything to help Monica have a baby, even offering to allow another man to impregnate her. She rejects this idea, but the sacrificial nature that Chandler learned from Monica gives Monica, with the option of adopting a child, which they ultimately do with Jack and Erica. This could not have happened if Monica did not learn to delegate control to another person through her marriage. Through Chandler, Monica became a more open, and ultimately better person, something that was essential for her to become a mother, something that she has wanted the most since the pilot episode. That, to me, is a perfect character arc.
Written by Bethany Gemmell
Bethany Gemmell (She/Her) is a History student at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in American History and how America is portrayed on film. She was once referred to as The World’s #1 Shape of Water Stan.”