The society we live in looks a lot more inclusive, accepting, and frankly, more “politically correct” than it did a few decades ago. People have become more considerate of others’ feelings and less willing to tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, body shaming, bigotry, and offensive language. This unwillingness to tolerate hateful speech is seen through the rise of “cancel culture.” Countless directors, singers, actors, talk show hosts, and other media figures have been “canceled,” or ostracized, for insensitive behavior. Naturally, media has undergone some changes to avoid these consequences.
Recently, I was watching an episode of Friends and thought to myself, “they’re being so homophobic right now, how on earth did they get away with this?” The truth is, homophobic jokes seemed to make the cut of what was considered acceptable at that time, because, hey, the show stayed on air! After doing some research, I came to realize that most of my favorite sitcoms from the 1990s-early 2000s are quite cringeworthy to watch in the current climate. It’s a little hard to believe we let this slide.
It’s no secret that The Office is pretty offensive. In fact, the show makes a point to cross boundaries and make the viewer a bit uncomfortable. Regardless, many of the episodes went a bit farther than what our current society deems acceptable. Michael Scott even imitates Hitler in the very first episode, so it’s possible that if the show had aired ten years later, it may not have seen the light of day.
One particularly problematic episode, which is still a fan-favorite, is “Diversity Day.” The basic plot of this episode is that Michael is called out by one of his employees for racist behavior which prompts the arrival of a special consultant to teach racial tolerance and diversity. Michael claims it was his idea and tries to take the lead, only making himself look worse. At one point, he gives everyone in the office a notecard with a particular race written on one side and instructs them to place the notecard on their forehead, walk around the room and act according to the stereotypes on other people’s cards. Everyone except Michael was aware of how blatantly racist he was being, which is the central joke, but the question remains: Was it their joke to make? Probably not.
This popular 90s sitcom has more recently been recognized as pretty offensive, particularly referring to the common themes of racism throughout the show. For starters, every character with a recurring role is white. This alone shows the stark contrast between shows back then, and the much more inclusive shows we have now. Not only was there a huge diversity problem in the cast, but Seinfeld has also been under fire for certain racist jokes. The most well-known example comes from the episode “Puerto Rican Day,” which included a scene where Kramer stomped on a Puerto Rican flag and was chased by an angry mob. He remarked that “it’s like this every day in Puerto Rico.” This scene was very upsetting to viewers and was incredibly insulting to Puerto Ricans. However, even though the episode received backlash back in the 90s, it’s still pretty crazy that this episode even made it onto the air. It even returned to television in 2012. Yikes!
As I mentioned earlier, this iconic sitcom had some recurring homophobic themes. Ross makes plenty of insensitive lesbian jokes about his ex-wife, he hates that his son wants to play with a doll (as if it determines his sexuality), everyone jokes about how they think Chandler is gay (as if it’s an insult), and the list goes on. The show doesn’t stop at homophobia. Like Seinfeld, the main cast features no people of color and makes almost no strides to be diverse. The show also goes against the more recent body positivity movement with the recurring “Fat Monica” joke. They often show flashbacks of when Monica was overweight and purposely make her look like a loser, while all her friends make fun of her for it. There’s even an episode where they show what Monica’s life would’ve been like if she had never lost the weight, and essentially implied that her life would’ve sucked. It’s pretty hard to believe we turned a blind eye to this at the time.
This sitcom is a pretty interesting example because it is still on the air today. The first episode was released in 1989, emerging around the same time as Seinfeld. Over the years, especially more recently, the show adapted their material to be polite and conscious of their audience, but it wasn’t always like this. For most of the duration of the show, the character Apu, the owner of a local corner store, had a running storyline. This character was meant to represent a typical Indian American, and the way they portrayed him was quite racist and stereotypical. To make matters worse, the character was voiced by a white guy, only contributing to the mockery of Indian Americans. After facing backlash, producers realized how offensive the character is and decided to end his storyline in 2017.
Should these shows disappear off the face of the earth? Personally, I don’t think so. However, it may be a good idea to avoid reruns of the particularly offensive episodes. At least we can say we’ve learned from these mistakes, right?
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