The lasting impact of Chandler Bing (could he *be* anymore emotionally stunted?)
25 years after Friends debuted, Anne T. Donahue looks back at the legacy of Matthew Perry's character
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
There's an episode of Friends in which we learn that Chandler doesn't tend to cry. Jokes are made about his soullessness, quips are delivered about how sad Bambi is or is not and before it is revealed that Chandler can indeed show emotion (he's just a little choosy), he is purposed to be dead inside.
Which, well, welcome to adulthood; a place where survival depends largely on pushing your feelings down and hoping they simply go away.
Of course, it doesn't work — at least not forever. Those of us who bury our feelings, avoid feeling vulnerable and acknowledge difficult emotions only through humour (or as I like to call it, "The Anne T. Donahue Trifecta™") know that eventually the levee will break and we'll be forced to confront disappointments and death and heartbreak and fear we'd been running away from. It's a terrible revelation and it's incredibly painful, but (tragically) it's also necessary. Because being a real person means having to take the good with the bad while delving into the memories or parts of yourself that can leave you feeling very sad or unsettled until you've embraced or made peace with them. Arguably, growing up is a never-ending process of navigating who you were and who you are and who you hope to be. And then hoping that you survive it. Often, humour can assist in this. Unless you are Chandler Bing.
Twenty-five years after the debut of Friends, and it's as beloved as it is, well, the opposite. The story of six pals in Manhattan gave us iconic pop cultural moments ("He's a transponster!"), but in the wake of its 2004 finale also prompted necessary conversations about the series' penchant for homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia and lack of diversity. The show, while canon, is arguably still very flawed. But in addition to its obvious highs and more obvious lows, it delivered a character whose humour is seen as an asset, but actually represents the danger of avoiding what makes you a person: vulnerability.
Growing up, my friends and I had crushes on Chandler. Matthew Perry (Canada's own!) was cute and non-threatening and exactly as sarcastic as we were trying to be. He infamously dates Janice (hilarious in the nineties and noughties, less so now when you realize that Janice fucking ruled), conquers his fear of relationships by marrying Monica and despite having no real professional direction, goes on to find enough professional success by the series' end that he and Monica can buy a house and move to the suburbs. I wanted to be with Chandler as much as I wanted to be Chandler (a lot). That is, until I realized that he was a walking, talking red flag (bless him).
Frankly, to have a fear of intimacy is understandable. Obviously, we want to protect ourselves from getting hurt, and to be open and authentic with another person can be a fast-track to having your heart broken or losing faith in people and feelings altogether. And Chandler's fear of all the aforementioned is extremely real. His worth hinges heavily on his relationships (or lack thereof) with women, while his fear of dying alone (like Mr. Heckles) is a punchline that runs through the first half of the show, despite it being extremely valid. In fact, most of Chandler's neuroses are very relatable: he's still reeling from his parents' divorce, he's afraid to let his guard down lest he be laughed at and he's found himself in a career that remains a mystery to every person who crosses his path. The problem is the way he handles it.
We learn through the series that Chandler's parents' marriage ended when his father came out as transgender and left for Las Vegas. But the entirety of Chandler's familial history and the relationship with his dad is treated like a bit instead of something very real: marriages end and adults come out. And while Chandler as a kid may have been upset and confused by the dissolution of his parents' relationship, adult Chandler should've been able to reach inside himself to understand that it took guts for his dad to be honest and that the woman she's always been is still very capable of loving her son. Instead, he buries his resentment and goes so far as to not invite her to his wedding until Monica forces him. And even after that, jokes abound.
Which, I get, is Chandler's coping mechanism. But so much of his personality is rooted in humour that we (fans) often lose sight of the fact that his humour is less a defence mechanism as it is a means of refusing to grow. For much of their relationship, Monica shepherds Chandler through the gauntlet of emotional intimacy, but instead of communicating like an adult human, he still opts to joke his way through their ups and downs — or worse, nearly bail on their wedding altogether. And as someone who also hides behind humour: I feel you, bro. But while Chandler does grow (slowly) over the course of the show's 10 seasons, his lasting legacy is arguably not of the go-to comic relief, but the unhappiness that can accompany parlaying real life into a bottomless barrel of jokes.
And I know that's a nightmare revelation to gleam. I prefer to laugh through discomfort and pain. I would rather run interference than acknowledge my hopes and fears in an earnest way. When I like a guy, I pad myself with enough deflective bubble wrap (metaphorically) that vulnerability can't possibly be an issue until I've decided it will be (and even then, I want to perish). I'm very well aware of what my career is, but I still feel like the imposter Chandler often also purposes to be.
But I also know that to deprive oneself of the experience of participating in feelings and authenticity and being a thinking, emotional person is to remain stagnant. It's the fastest way to stop growing and to remain in place where you're stuck offering only different versions of the same person until you're branded with a two-dimensional title card like "the funny one" or "the weirdo." (Both of which are terrific descriptions I am proud to carry, but only if in conjunction with a few more, thank you.)
Friends was a series rich in legacy. But perhaps one of its biggest is the lesson it taught us all through Chandler: humour is the best, jokes are terrific, but damn it, you still have to learn and grow.