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Friends Is a Gen X Show. Why Don’t We Ever Call It That?

Only a Gen X–er would own and keep this T-shirt. Photo: Netflix

When Friends debuted on NBC in 1994, members of the media often described it as a Generation X show. A New York Times story published that September, just weeks before Friends aired for the first time, called it “a new Generation X sitcom.” People magazine’s TV critic suggested that the characters spoke like “they’re in some Gen X Neil Simon play.” Even north of the border, the connection was obvious: “Chandler might have been plucked from the pages of a Generation X bible,” said a Toronto Globe and Mail review, referring to Matthew Perry’s character.

But these days, when we talk about Friends — a show created by two baby boomers, Marta Kauffman and David Crane — we talk about it within the context of how younger generations, both millennials and Generation Z, still appreciate it 25 years later. Why is the sitcom so rarely discussed within the context of the age group that it portrayed? Friends is the most enduring, influential portrait of Generation X that American pop culture has ever produced. Yet that label, weirdly, never gets placed on it. Which feels very Generation X. Of course one of the biggest TV shows of all time, one that happens to be specifically about our age group, would never get credit for being a Generation X show. I mean, could that be any more Gen X?

There are actual reasons, beyond the usual Gen X marginalization, that help explain why this has happened. The first and biggest one is that when the series debuted, its makers aggressively fought against being associated with the X brand and all the baggage that came with it. “Just mention the show’s possible ‘Gen X’ connection and you hear Crane groan,” the Orange County Register wrote in a story published midway through season one. Kauffman echoed that sentiment: “Generation X — we’ve never used that word, on purpose. That’s labeling an entire generation, and that’s unfair and untrue. Friends plays against the concept of Generation X. They’re mostly motivated. Their clothes are clean, unlike Ethan Hawke, who wore the dirtiest things in Reality Bites.”

It wasn’t just a case of baby boomers trying to keep the Xers down, though. In the same Register article, even the stars of the show, most of whom were Xers themselves, said they didn’t care for the descriptor. Matt LeBlanc: “I don’t like it as a label. I’ve heard it used as ‘lazy,’ ‘unfocused,’ ‘drifty.’ But we’re one of the first generations to really care about the environment.” Jennifer Aniston: “It’s almost an insulting comment. It has nothing to do with this show.” Matthew Perry: “The buzz word around here in the beginning was, Don’t mention that.”

In the early 1990s, Gen X — a title ripped from Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture and the avalanche of stories that latched onto it as a way to group together all the “slacker” 20-somethings — didn’t feel like a generational name that had staying power. As Aniston said, it felt more like an insulting way to pigeonhole young people and make them seem unmotivated and ambivalent. The media couldn’t even settle on a common set of demographic parameters to define who Generation X was: A famous Time cover story claimed the generation was “young Americans age 18 through 29,” meaning those born between, roughly, 1961 and 1972. But 11 years ain’t a generation, folks. (Today, the accepted definition of Generation X is Americans born between 1965 and 1981.) When Friends debuted in 1994, the notion that Gen X would stick as shorthand seemed as unlikely as, well, the idea that our kids would be watching Friends on something called Netflix a quarter-century in the future. But X stuck. Friends did, too.

Friends also differed in its sensibility from the commonly acknowledged Gen X cultural touchstones of the time, which tended to be anti-establishment and have something of a cynical streak. The year 1994 alone gave us several examples: the aforementioned Reality Bites (which, at the time, wasn’t seen as anti-establishment enough by some Xers); Kevin Smith’s Clerks; and Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, released just months after Kurt Cobain’s death, a defining moment for those weaned on the grunge movement. The TV comedies that Xers tended to gravitate toward back then — Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-Head — also possessed a cynicism that Friends did not. The jokes on Friends could be sarcastic and snarky, but the show’s heart was fundamentally warm. Whatever Gen X was supposed to be, Friends didn’t quite feel like that.

The other potential pitfall of framing Friends as a Gen X show back in 1994 was the possibility that doing so might alienate viewers. This may be hard for younger Friends fans to wrap their minds around in the Peak TV era, but in the 1990s, broadcast-television shows still had the potential for truly mass appeal. Networks wanted to attract the widest audience possible, so beating the drum too loudly about a show’s belonging to a specific age group wasn’t seen as a smart move. Once Friends became a huge hit, it was marked even less often with that dreaded X. Not only were young people watching it, everyone was watching it. The generational association faded.

But make no mistake, Friends was a Gen X show. You can’t make a show about 20-somethings in the ’90s without being, by default, a Gen X show. The problem is that, back then, our understanding of Gen X was too limited by what the media had imposed upon the culture based on one book and a handful of youth trends. (Our understanding was also too limited by whiteness, as was Friends. But that’s a subject for a follow-up essay: “Why Don’t We Ever Talk About Living Single as a Gen X Show?”) In New York Magazine three years ago, Adam Sternbergh wrote that Friends was not only born of the ’90s “but may, in hindsight, embody it more completely than any other TV show.” Which, essentially, is another way of saying it’s a very Gen X show. On a basic level, Friends captured what it looked like to come into adulthood at a time before cell phones became mainstream, during a moment of relative peace in this country, and when coffee-shop culture was on the rise. Sure, none of us actually lived in large rent-controlled apartments like Monica and Rachel did. But if you were close to their age back then, watching the characters today can feel like peering back through time at an image of who you used to be, or maybe hoped to be, and not just because you also tried to pull off The Rachel.

Friends also depicted a group of co-ed friends, which was different from Seinfeld, a show about three men and one woman who, for whatever reason, continued to put up with them. Romantic relationships developed between some of the Central Perk regulars, of course. But Friends reinforced the idea that men and women could hang out in packs and maintain some platonic, cross-gender relationships within that group, which reflected how Xers tended to relate to each other. That was also reflected in other shows specifically aimed at or about Xers, like Melrose Place and Living Single. In a 1999 book called Gen X TV: The Brady Bunch to Melrose Place, then-ABC executive Larry Gianinno said as much to author Rob Owen. “There’s always been male-male and female-female bonding [on TV], nothing about that is new, but what’s different is male-female relationships characterized by friendship as opposed to just a sexual relationship. That’s something they’ve grown up with, which is unlike the nature of male-female relationships that previous generations have grown up with.”

The family backgrounds of several characters on Friends also reflected the Xer experience. Phoebe and Chandler were children of broken homes, and Rachel witnessed the dissolution of her parents’ marriage as an adult, after leaving her own fiancé at the altar. Like real-life members of the so-called Divorce Generation, they formed familial bonds with their friends, perhaps because they didn’t feel like they had parents or relatives who could provide a similarly stable support system. (Ross and Monica, as brother and sister, are an obvious exception to this.)

In contrast to the stereotypes about Gen Xers being lazy, all of them held down jobs, even if they didn’t always love what they did. Chandler hated his statistical-analysis gig for nearly the entire run of the show but hung on to it because he made good money. Rachel waited tables and eventually worked her way up in the consumer-fashion world, while Monica did the same in her culinary career. Phoebe really wanted to be a singer-songwriter but worked as a masseuse to make sure she had cash. They were scrappers: people who did what they had to do to make ends meet while still trying to climb the necessary ladders to achieve their ambitions. Having that kind of flexibility and determination was necessary if you were entering the workforce after the recession of the early 1990s. Contrary to what was said about actual Xers at the time, they developed a reputation for having that kind of “keep your head down and keep working” attitude, which stands in contrast to (also unfair) stereotypes about millennials who want to advance in their careers as quickly as possible without all that business about paying dues.

If there’s one thing that makes Friends an indisputably Generation X show, though, it’s the age-specific references that the characters make, cultural nods undoubtedly sprinkled in by the 20-something writers that Crane and Kauffman purposely hired. In the very first episode, there’s a wry Three’s Company joke (Chandler: “I think this is the episode of Three’s Company where there’s some kind of misunderstanding.” Phoebe: “Then I’ve already seen this”) and a reference to Joanie loving Chachi. During the famous flashback to the prom, when we see younger Ross with a head of curly hair and a mustache, Joey laughs and says, “Hey, Mr. Kotter,” a reference to Gabe Kaplan’s character on Welcome Back, Kotter. These people grew up ingesting television, the common denominator of the Gen X experience, and the show makes that obvious.

Plenty of other moments are generational, too: the fact that Ross and Rachel’s song is “With or Without You” by U2, or that the beloved garment Ross reclaims from Rachel is a “Frankie Say Relax” T-shirt. The friends of Friends grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, and the series reminds us of that constantly. Perhaps the biggest example: In season three, it’s revealed that Ross’s ultimate sexual fantasy involves the gold bikini worn by Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi. The idea that men were titillated by that scene feels passé at this point, but in 1996, before that idea hadn’t been so publicly acknowledged, the extended wink seemed pretty brilliant. It announced that whoever was making this show, as fluffy as it could be, still got Xers on some fundamental level.

With the official 25th anniversary of Friends happening this Sunday, there will be more talk of the show’s incredible longevity and its timelessness, a quality that was no doubt a by-product of Crane and Kauffman’s insistence on not leaning too hard into the Gen X–ness of it all. There will also be more talk about how much younger viewers have claimed Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, and Joey as their own.

But the truth is, those six friends are Generation Xers through and through, members of a group that has a reputation for being overlooked and squeezed out of the picture. That makes it extra-ironic that the people who created Friends are baby boomers, and that the people who get credit for keeping the show alive are millennials and Gen Z. When we keep looking at Friends, over and over, what we’re really looking at is Generation X. A heightened, not entirely realistic version of Generation X, but a version that has something in common with the actual generation. Even if it may feel like the culture has always deemed us irrelevant (and continues to do so), every time someone streams an episode of Friends to see what’s happening at Central Perk, it’s proof that the Gen X experience not only counts for something. It actually still resonates.

Friends Is a Gen X Show. Why Don’t We Ever Call It That?