| Arts & Culture
Television The One With the Offensive Joke About Intersex People
Like any sitcom created before the mid-aughts—around the time Hollywood started doing the bare minimum to give space to marginalized people—‘Friends’ has not aged well.
The sitcom Friends and I aren’t so different—we were both unfortunate products of the 1990s. Before it crashed and burned in one of the worst final seasons in television history, Friends was a cultural monolith that produced its own haircut trend and made a handful of catchphrases commonplace. Though it faded into irrelevance in the aughts, it took on new life when it arrived on Netflix on New Year’s Day, 2015.
Like any sitcom created before the mid-aughts—around the time Hollywood started doing the bare minimum to give space to marginalized people— Friends has not aged well. We know this. Across the show’s ten seasons, there are too many Ls for creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman to hold: Toxic levels of fragile masculinity were written as dynamic character traits, homophobic and transphobic ribbing was spun into a literal decade of running gags, and the straight white privilege of six New Yorkers pumped dark undertones into an otherwise endearing and sometimes emotional linchpin of American television.
I loved Friends once and for a really long time. I still return to it sometimes, when I’m in need of background noise while writing or a reminder of how awful some of it is. I can still quote every episode. I used to do this thing in junior high, where I’d save up my twenty-dollar bimonthly allowance to buy a DVD set of two seasons at a time from Walmart. If an even-numbered season ended on a cliffhanger, like seasons four or eight, I had to wait until I could afford the next two sets. Eighty dollars poorer and many, many months in, I finally arrived at season eight, which was a solid season overall: Chandler and Monica are married; Rachel is having a baby and Ross is the father. But it’s season eight, in episode 179, when Friends loses my heart now.
Episode 179, “The One with the Rumor,” goes like this: Ross and Monica’s childhood friend, Will (played by Jennifer Aniston’s then-husband Brad Pitt), is a guest at the friends’ annual Thanksgiving dinner. Will used to be overweight but has been on a diet for years, and he’s pretty manic about it. The kicker, though, and what inspired the title, is that Ross and Will had an “I Hate Rachel Green” club in high school. As part of its mission, they started a rumor that Rachel was born a hermaphrodite—a term used as a catchall slur for intersex people, despite the large spectrum that that identity holds.
I started hormone replacement therapy when I was fifteen, not long after I’d gotten my learner’s permit. I wasn’t an out intersex person then, nor did I even understand that I was intersex or have a real grasp of what that even meant. When you turn twenty, the Cleveland Clinic requires you to stop seeing their pediatric doctors. At my first appointment after switching to an adult endocrinologist, he leveled with me: “You have a sex chromosome disorder. Your chromosome coding should read XY, but it reads XX.” I’m not sure why it was never put to me that frankly before. There had been a lot of talk about having to, eventually, start taking fertility tests once I turned twenty-five and a lot of instructional lessons on how to administer testosterone properly, whether it be through a needle or through gel—a lot of prattle about my future now erased by a plainspoken truth that other practitioners had long sidestepped.
I wasn’t an out intersex person then, nor did I even understand that I was intersex or have a real grasp of what that even meant.
I remember laying naked on a metal examination table and having my concave chest ogled at and labeled in the hospital’s system. I remember my scrotum measured with linen tape and a cold hand. I always tuned out the medical jargon being thrown at my parents because I’d just undergone an embarrassing genital exam.
In the years since my diagnosis, my mom has repeatedly apologized for not better educating me, and herself, on what my own health and identity meant. In some ways, I get it. But I often wonder how I would have navigated that uncertain time in my life had I known who I actually was supposed to be.
Since my diagnosis, I haven’t necessarily kept my identity hidden. On top of my book, The Neon Hollywood Cowboy , I have published essays about it. I wear yellow and purple buttons. The intersex flag is tattooed on my arm. But because of the taboo nature of intersexuality and the way intersex people are ostracized in numerous cultures, I have to mine through a lot of misconceptions. When a college roommate wanted to watch Friends in the autumn of 2019, we somehow landed on “The One with the Rumor.” In a matter of twenty-two minutes, my whole world arrived with the silent click of a dislocated shoulder popped back into place. I’d long coasted past the “morphodite” joke in Stand By Me , the entire character of Pat on Saturday Night Live , and the “gray area” line in Bo Burnham’s song “Men and Women,” all without thinking twice about anyone boxing me in with them.
But in that dorm suite, it was the first time I’d felt truly minimized. The idea of someone, anyone, being mocked for having a body holding both male and female sex characteristics struck me deeply. Though my body outwardly presents as male, inside, my DNA unravels with codes of biological womanhood. Suddenly I started panicking, believing that everyone around me was zeroing in on what my body was. or wasn’t, doing. That they’d see the Coke bottles full of used syringes in my room and know they’d once pushed globes of testosterone into my muscles. That, yes, I was a man, but fraudulently, exaggerated by modern medicine.
When Friends was just a messy pilot titled Friends Like Us , it was R.E.M’s “Shiny Happy People” that played over the intro rather than the Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There for You.” “Shiny Happy People” was by no means a pinnacle of alternative rock music in the 1990s. It wasn’t even a pinnacle of R.E.M.’s catalog in the 1990s, lacking the band’s normal gravitas. But it’s still a great tune.
Frontman Michael Stipe contends that the song, lyrically, is satire taking aim at China’s governmental propaganda after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests; overall, it was considered a fruity, bubblegum pop song written for kids. Even Stipe once said : “If there was one song that was sent into outer space to represent R.E.M. for the rest of time, I would not want it to be ‘Shiny Happy People.’” R.E.M. would eventually turn down Warner Bros. Television’s request to use the song as the theme in perpetuity, hence why “I’ll Be There for You” sounds like a blatant Out of Time -era R.E.M. rip-off.
The lesson of “I’ll Be There for You” is clear: A friend will be there for you if the rain starts to pour or if you live in a beautiful, rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment passed on to you by your grandmother. But if you were born with both ovarian and testicular tissue, or born with a sex chromosome disorder, or born with imbalanced hormone levels that result in HRT, you hold no human value. I don’t think the “Everyone around / Love them, love them” lines in “Shiny Happy People” would’ve been a good representation for what Friends stood for, anyways, as their six-person circle excluded and mocked others extensively.
When Will tells Rachel that he and Ross “said your parents flipped a coin, decided that Rachel was a girl, but you still had a hint of penis,” he is speaking facetiously about intersex medical interventions on newborns. The point of the joke is not to highlight those harmful and unnecessary procedures. Instead, the writers use them as ammunition to ostracize someone for an identity that’s been treated as taboo. Even Chandler gets in on the action, saying that everyone at his high school heard the rumor, too, referring to Rachel as “the hermaphrodite cheerleader from Long Island.”
Rachel was not an intersex character. For twenty-two minutes, yes, she had to carry the unfortunate burden of realizing that hundreds of people thought she was a “hermaphrodite” in high school. But both she, and Aniston, came out of this episode without a scratch. Nothing could make Rachel Green anything other than beloved and desired. She arrives in the following episode, “The One With Monica’s Boots,” as if nothing happened two weeks prior. That is how the goldfish-brain logic of pre-Y2K sitcoms works—you strike against minoritized groups who hold no importance to the trajectory of the show, walk away from the bloodshed, and never mention it again in later episodes.
Just after episode 179 was watched by 24 million households on November 21st, 2001, the Intersex Society of North America delivered a complaint to NBC, calling the show’s choices “ignorant, insulting, degrading, and absolutely unprofessional,” and asked the network to get educated on intersex people and to read an on-air apology before a future episode. It’s been twenty years, and no one from NBC or the Friends production team has publicly apologized.
You strike against minoritized groups who hold no importance to the show, walk away from the bloodshed, and never mention it again.
In an April 2019 interview with USA Today , showrunner Marta Kauffman said, if she was given a do-over on some of the jokes in Friends , that she “might not have done the hermaphrodite stuff.” Might is doing a lot of heavy lifting. The show spent a decade fat-shaming one of its main characters and making fun of another one’s trans parent—anything to get a laugh. The kind of bodily prejudice Friends provokes is not just evident in its crucifixion of intersex people, but of non-skinny, non-cisgendered, and queer characters altogether.
But what makes “The One with the Rumor” the most frustrating is that all of this could’ve been avoided. The episode holds no canonical weight in the series. Nothing happens during its run time to move the arc of the show, or of any of the characters’ arcs, forward. Brad Pitt was one of the biggest movie stars on Earth, and the live studio audience’s cheers when he first arrives onscreen are the loudest responses a guest star ever received across ten seasons—which says a lot, because Election – and Legally Blonde -era Reese Witherspoon made a dazzling multi-episode turn two years prior. Pitt’s appearance was mostly a publicity stunt to generate buzz around his new movie, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind , but the real joke that Friends tried to land in the episode—that Pitt hating Jennifer Aniston’s character was funny because the two actors were actually married in real life at the time—got submerged beneath an unredeemable storyline.
One of the first things I fell in love with after my diagnosis four years ago was “Shiny Happy People.” The song became a totem for me; a joyful document that pierced through a dark part of my life. Some of its imagery, like shining gold and silver, hand-holding, and laughing, had felt far away from me for a long time. Hormone therapy, for me, often expedited a lot of shame for how my body would fluctuate between weights and proportions. But when Stipe sang “There’s no time to cry / Happy, happy,” it felt like an invitation to walk into the belly of my deepest insecurities and transform—as if he was asking me to not just remember the uniqueness of my body, but pridefully marvel at how far it’s come.
I’ve loved R.E.M. for a long time, ever since I first heard “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” on Tommy Boy. But I sometimes wonder if I’d still love the band if they’d been attached to “The One with the Rumor” in the same way the Rembrandts are. Of course, it would not be R.E.M.’s fault, just like it’s not really the Rembrandts’, but it’s hard to fill your soul up with something attached, no matter how remotely, to trauma. I can’t listen to “I’ll Be There for You” without thinking about Friends . And I can’t think about Friends without thinking about the intersex joke that was written and greenlit by people who held my community up to the light and tormented us for somehow being, by their own standards, less human than everyone else.
“Shiny Happy People” is not about being intersex, unfortunately. I wish it was. I wish the shiny happy people in question were members of my community parading down the streets with unabashed joy, en route to an incomparable haven. The song, though, is about good folks in a good mood dancing all over the place. And when I look to center myself after the fallout from Will and Ross’ vitriol and fibbing, I immediately retreat to R.E.M.’s buoyant pop shelter of top-forty bubblegum. It’s a call to arms.
Being intersex means people think your entire biological existence, that living in a grey area, being a walking in-between, is tragic. It’s hard to find the joy of being intersex in a major key. And, as someone who has long searched for representation in a world that so often characterizes my personhood incorrectly and destructively, what else am I to do but fall deeply in love with a song so harmless, hopeful, and effervescent?
Three years before Friends first aired on NBC, at their Saturday Night Live rehearsal in April 1991, R.E.M. and Kate Pierson took the stage to practice “Shiny Happy People.” In footage of the performance, Michael Stipe, in a white two-piece suit, bounces around the stage like a rabbit. When the second verse kicks in, and Stipe sings, “Put it in your heart where tomorrow shines,” he raises his hands to the heavens. Pierson’s vocals take angelic shape in the background while Stipe’s run across the foreground. The two singers start dancing side-to-side during the song’s breakdown. They twirl around, nearly collapsing into one another. In that moment there are no rumors or inhuman bodies, only fluttering, utopic, unmistakable joy.