When we were growing up, my two sisters and I weren’t allowed to watch several television shows. Married with Children had bad language and crass humor. The Simpsons was a little too irreverent for my parents’ taste. Friends had all the wrong goodies: promiscuity, children out of wedlock, divorce, profanity, a casual attitude toward pornography, and dishonesty.
Let’s not forget that the costuming department forgot to put bras in Jennifer Anniston’s closet for the ten years that the series aired. To a pubescent boy, this discovery was better than fireworks. This was like finding money.
Like good, obedient children, my two sisters and I would watch Friends on the TV up in the playroom until one of our parents, probably noticing the suspicious quiet in the house, found us.
“You need to change the channel,” my dad would say in his stern voice.
“Why?” we would whine with one eye still glued on the screen. Whining rarely worked on my dad, but it was a good stall tactic.
“That isn’t a good show.”
“It’s not that bad!”
“Change the channel.”
We would change it, and as soon as he left the room, change it back.
After the third or fourth such exchange, my dad must have realized that it wasn’t working. He caught us yet again, and this time, he stayed for a while to ensure that we obeyed.
“Change the channel.”
“There’s nothing else on.”
“How about Animal Planet?”
Our parents’ primary objection to Friends was the show’s flippant treatment of sex, and I’ve got to say that they had a point. In one episode, Joey and Chandler are reluctant to turn off the television because they’re getting free porn. In another, Ross and Rachel are broken up, but thanks to drinking or some other bad decision lubricant, they hook up and accidentally film themselves having sex. The other friends don’t know, but by the end of the episode all six of them sit down and watch the video together. Oh, and Rachel gets pregnant. All of this is somehow hilarious. No lasting damage is done, and arm in arm, the friends galavant toward more hijinks and frivolity.
Now I’m really starting to sound like my dad.
“It’s just a show!” we would say to our parents, which I now realize is similar to a thirteen-year-old reaching for a tumbler of whiskey and explaining, “It’s just a drink!”
I wonder how my teenage years and young adulthood would have turned out if I had assumed that the portrayals of sex, romance, and marriage on Friends were the norm, healthy even: There’s no harm in watching porn. Cheating is acceptable if one’s new lover is remarkably hot. Divorce is similar to travel by air: expensive and inconvenient but necessary for a better journey overall. Lying to one’s friends about sex and romance is a good way to extricate oneself from uncomfortable situations. You can always come clean later. In this hypothetical situation, the women snared in my sexual escapades should not blame me. They should blame themselves and their antiquated, unenlightened beliefs about the body and its needs.
I believe that I would have done a great deal of violence. I would been a Whirling Dervish in a crowd of tender female hearts. Ten years later, many of those women would still be healing from my “harmless“ appetites, but their pain is their problem, right?
Most adolescents don’t have the wisdom to distinguish between attitudes and behaviors with fast food appeal and accompanying heartburn and those that are truly wholesome and “nutritious,” if less alluring. But before I really get on a soapbox about the contribution of popular media to moral decay and before you write me off as a religiose and hopelessly naive prude, I’ll just finish the story.
My dad demanded that we change the channel to Animal Planet.
A few moments passed before the camera panned out, and we realized what was happening on screen.
We sat in awkward silence and watched as a bull elephant mounted a female and enacted the miracle of procreation—a huge, prolonged, and particularly ungraceful version of this miracle, I might add. Watching elephants mate is liking watching a car crash in slow motion.
My dad broke the silence: “This isn’t much better.”
We all laughed.
Epilogue: I’m glad my parents didn’t allow us to watch certain shows. Yet, I bought my wife all ten seasons of Friends for Valentine’s Day. Perhaps no clear-cut answer exists. The more I want black and white, the more gray I see. Maybe gray is the color of faith.
Have I compromised or matured?