The co-creator of TV sitcom Friends plans to donate $4 million to a project on African and African-American studies because she feels so “embarrassed” — and feels so “guilty” — about the white homogeneity of the characters in the classic Coming of age series.
Marta Kauffman told the Los Angeles Times that her proposed gift is intended to fund the Marta F. Kauffman ’78 Professorship of African and African American Studies at her alma mater, Brandeis University, a liberal arts college in Massachusetts.
Kauffman said it was initially “difficult and frustrating” to see Friends being criticized for the lack of distinct characters in a show that ran for 10 seasons after its 1994 premiere, according to the Times. The show grossed tens of millions of dollars through syndication and streaming for its creators and cast members, including Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer.
After Netflix announced it would be discontinuing the sitcom in 2019, Saul Austerlitz, who wrote Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era, said that Friends holds a central place in American pop culture.
“Yes, it’s a sitcom, but it’s also a soap opera,” Austerlitz told the Times. “So you can watch it in order or watch your favorite episodes.”
But after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in 2020 and sparked racial justice protests across the country, Friends became the target of criticism. Many wondered how the characters seemed to exist on Manhattan’s racially diverse Upper West Side without interacting with any residents or visitors of color.
When HBO streamed Friends: The Reunion last year, a diversity writer told the LA Times it wasn’t “a moment of celebration for everyone” and it could have been subtitled, “The One Where They Ignored Diversity – Again.”
“At a time when the television landscape is becoming increasingly diverse and inclusive, it is inconvenient – if not inappropriate – to raise a glass to a sitcom that has been so oblivious to the multiculturalism of the world in which it took place,” noted Greg Braxton.
Kauffman said she initially felt Friends was unfairly singled out for his racial and ethnic homogeneity, saying, “It was difficult and frustrating.” But she said she now thinks criticism is fair.
“After what happened with George Floyd, I began to wrestle with the fact that I had bought into systemic racism in a way I was never aware of,” Kauffman said. “That was really the moment I started investigating my participation. I knew then that I had to correct the course.”
Kauffman said Friends’ lack of diversity shows how she’s internalized this systemic racism.
“I’ve learned a lot over the last 20 years,” she told the Times. “Admitting and accepting guilt is not easy. It hurts to look at yourself in the mirror. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know any better 25 years ago.”
Characters of color on Friends were mostly fleeting. Schwimmer said in a 2020 interview that the lack of broader cultural representation was “wrong,” and he described how he championed his character Ross to date different women.
“I really felt like Ross should date other people, women of all races,” Schwimmer said.
The professorship that Kauffman wants to establish within Brandeis’ Department of African and Afro-American Studies is intended to support research on the peoples and cultures of Africa and the African diaspora.
Kauffman said she received messages of support after announcing her gift.
“I’ve heard ‘It’s about time’ a lot,” she told the Times. “Not in a mean way — it’s just the people acknowledging it was long overdue.”