18th January 1996 was the day the first female same sex wedding was broadcast on mainstream TV in one of the world’s most loved TV shows, Friends. Just over a quarter of a century later, and the world is a very different place.
We have multiple TV shows portraying LGBTQ+ couples and what weddings look like within the community, 26 years on. ‘The One with the Lesbian Wedding’ wasn’t the first same sex wedding on TV - just five weeks prior to Carol and Susan’s wedding airing, two of of the main male characters marry in a wedding full of drag queens and much more on Roseanne.
But I want to talk about why the Friends episode is pertinent to present day watchers - and why.
Friends is the TV show that was always on in the background in most 90s kids’ homes. You fell in love with each character, from the ‘loveable rogue’ Joey to the pedantic palaeontologist Ross. Each character had something each of us could recognise in ourselves, making the show still popular today.
The writers were able to tackle and explore topics that most people would shy away from, through the use of humour. When the pilot episode aired in September 1994, within the first few minutes we were introduced to a lesbian couple called Carol (Ross’s ex wife) and Susan. They caused quite a stir throughout the duration of the show, but never more so than in the second season, when they got married.
I’m not a huge fan of Friends (don’t judge me!), but I am a hopeless romantic, so I do love following all the love stories and the weddings that occurred throughout the 10 seasons of the show. The one wedding I didn’t remember though, was Susan and Carol’s. But why?
The Significance of Friends Showing a Same Sex Wedding
I’m torn about this episode. I feel like it has paved the way for more television programmes to explore LGBTQ+ weddings - I understand in the 90s it would have had a huge impact, but now it feels like tiptoeing, minimalist representation. This shows how far we’ve come in recent years - but we are talking about the 1990s, not the 1890s. It’s very recent history.
To understand why it was such a big moment in broadcasting history, we need to explore the context of the time. Back in 1996, same sex marriage was not legalised. It still felt like a taboo subject, so the fact Friends featured a same sex couple throughout the show - never mind their weddings - was huge!
It was one of the first times that people within the community had a televised representation of their love to watch and follow. It also meant that for the first time, people who aren’t within the community suddenly had their perspectives of what a lesbian ‘is’ challenged.
Societal barriers were broken down, allowing the community to be viewed in a more positive light. The couple were introduced in such a way that it was made to feel ‘normal’ within the storyline. There was no huge hype about them being gay - and the hype around their wedding was exactly that, around the wedding, not the fact they were two women having a wedding.
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Looking back now, there are problematic moments, but at the time Carol and Susan were praised for being positive examples of what lesbianism is. Journalist Lacey Vorrasi-Banis explains her conflicting feeling about the ‘cultural touchstone’ that is Carol and Susan’s relationship in a way I feel hits the nail on the head: “I must admit that for a teenager in New Jersey, Carol and Susan’s relationship did impress upon me that gays could have families and the world wouldn’t stop spinning.”
Political Commentary & Social Injustice
The episode aired during a time when Article 2, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, and Article 96 were in motion. Article 2 referred specifically to the military, so having one of the brides walked down the aisle by her military father was especially pertinent. The writers played close to the knuckle and highlighted injustices on their global platform.
Article 96 declared that marriage was between a woman and a man - so the officiant in the episode was chosen well. Candace Gingrich, the gay rights activist and sister to conservative congressman Newt Gingrich, was a casting choice perceived as a comment on the Republican Party’s anti-gay rights stance.
Her line: “Nothing makes God happier than seeing two people, any two, come together in love” makes me smile like the Cheshire Cat. It allowed the world to hear that being gay is okay, and God approves.
There were family issues around the wedding - Carol’s family refused to come, so Ross put his own feelings aside and was there for the couple. This demonstrated people can change. Monica tells Ross they are marrying because “they love each other and they want to celebrate their love with everyone they care about.”
The idea that marriage is between two people - however they identify - and that’s it, nothing else, was a message in that episode. Ross coming to terms with the marriage is something I feel a lot of people within the community can sympathise with - they’ve probably had a similar experience as people close to them struggle with feelings.
As a millennial gay woman about to marry a woman, why was it so hard for me to relate to this episode and accept it? I’m not going to lie, it took a friend of mine breaking it down for me, helping me to step back into the 90s, for me to see it in a different light.
Problematic or Pivotal?
Let me explain why I struggled to see it for what it was at the time, and why I focused so much on what it means now.
The couple were reportedly cast in the roles because they don’t ‘look’ like lesbians - but this can be viewed in a negative light. Was it done to normalise the concept of lesbians, or was it to soften the blow and minimise the kneejerk reaction from the audience?
Some of the jokes that occurred throughout were outdated, and verge on homophobic, from today’s viewpoint. The messaging centred around the idea that for this same sex couple to be together, something had gone wrong somewhere. Representation nowadays is much more positive.
My first impressions of their wedding was dark, dreary, and almost like a funeral. The brides dressed more like mothers of the bride than typical brides. Was this to shake up what was seen as the ‘norm’, were lesbians being presented as non-conforming, or were the writers nervous about showing two women both in big white meringues?
They both notably conformed however, to the patriarchal wedding tradition of having a male figure give them away.
My biggest gripe with the whole episode was the use of humour to mask the central topic. I know, that’s what Friends is known for, but watching it back now, it overpowers the meaning and spoils the whole episode.
Don’t get me wrong - I spend most of my life cracking jokes to hide how I feel. It’s a coping mechanism. But when it comes to serious topics, using lesbianism as the punchline every single time undermines the messaging. It wasn’t funny the first time, less so the second and ditto for the third.
Phoebe is possessed by the spirit of an elderly lady, who refuses to leave her body until she’s seen everything. Upon seeing two women having a wedding, she exclaims, “well, now I’ve seen everything!” and swiftly exits her body. For me, the joke ruined the moment and it was no longer about the significance of the marriage. It came across as disrespectful to make a joke about it, but maybe for others that’s the whole point - was it being treated as just another wedding with no special consideration needed? We all laughed at Rachel’s terrible pink bridesmaid outfit, and that drunken Vegas wedding…
Ultimately, I forgave the humour, because let’s face it, that’s Friends. It’s inappropriate jokes and of-it’s-time moments, but you hear the live audience laughing. But what I couldn’t forgive was the fact the actual ceremony wasn’t shown.
Jane Sibbett, who played Carol, told the Metro that it wasn’t even that it just wasn’t shown - they didn’t even film it. Not so much as a kiss. She did mention at the 25 year reunion that nowadays it would be different, but for then the wedding itself was seen to be pushing the boundaries.
Whilst the wedding was seen to be ground-breaking, the stereotypes were abundant. The more masculine presenting women wore suits and led the dancing, an unaware Phoebe was chatted up by a woman and Chandler persisted in pursuing the lesbian attendees, even though he was surely aware they would not be interested.
This episode was actually banned in some parts of America. The censorship drew even more attention to the episode and it was the highest viewed show that week. The writers anticipated complaints but were astounded to only receive four - which is interesting, as there’s definitely more than four things to criticise when you look back today.
Yet this episode won awards for representation - so maybe, just maybe, it did accomplish more at the time than I can see now. It did allow the world to view something differently (even if it was in a limited manner), and tested the waters when it came to allowing people to see the sanctity of marriage in a different way.
However I feel about it watching it as a millennial today, I can see that this episode did do something to ‘normalise’ LGBTQ+ relationships - despite the clumsy jokes, the characters pulled together to help where they could. It felt like it was just a wedding. It’s easy to criticise Friends now, when we look at the humour and the portrayals more than two decades on, but what would have happened had this episode not aired?
When would a wedding between two women be shown on TV? When would censorship and harmful political views be challenged? Even though I’m not much of a fan of Friends and found much of this episode problematic, I don’t think I can thank the writers more for stepping up to the mark and at least trying to pave the way to normalising LGBTQ+ couples and creating authentic representation.
If you want to read more by Becky, you can read about the 12 questions she is always asked as part of a same sex couple planning a wedding.
Becky Miskimmin and humanist wedding celebrant Laura Fitz have teamed up to launch #Wedvolution to help highlight and celebrate LGBTQ+ friendly wedding vendors in Northern Ireland. Follow Becky on Instagram to learn more!