Friends, Fat-Shaming, and Failure: In Defense of Monica Geller

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<i>Friends</i>, Fat-Shaming, and Failure: In Defense of Monica Geller

When you Google “least favorite Friends character,” Monica Geller is the first search result. It’s hard to imagine Courtney Cox’s character being so thoroughly disliked in a show that stars the worst nice guy of all time, Ross Geller (David Schwimmer), yet numerous fan polls have placed her at the bottom of the Friends ranking.

This widespread dislike of Monica is almost passive; she is neither universally beloved nor passionately hated. As far as fandom goes, her position in the group feels the most undefined. Where Rachel (Jennifer Anniston) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) have long been adored, Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) and Chandler (Matthew Perry) are recent fan favorites, whose best one-liners and childhood traumas have struck a chord with the newest generation of Friends viewers. And while those two drift from tumblr posts to Instagram screenshots, Ross continues to be a constant source of debate, receiving vehement hatred and stark defense all at one. All the while, Monica is corralled into the background, the silent beating heart at the core of the Friends group.

This treatment of Monica is borderline poetic: of course she isn’t the fan favorite—she wasn’t even her mother’s favorite. As a show with six lead characters, Friends made immediate moves to distinguish them by their most exaggerated characteristics. Spoiled Rachel, lovesick Ross, sarcastic Chandler, womanizer Joey, and ditsy Phoebe all have their flaws, but Monica’s defining traits are those of widely disliked female characters. She’s bossy, neurotic, uptight, and often loud. Given that has become her reputation, it’s easy to condemn her as the least-likeable friend. Unfortunately, it also means the best of her goes ignored.

Sitting squarely at the center of the friend group, Monica shares a relationship with each character that connects them to the rest. She’s Ross’ sister, Phoebe’s ex-roommate, Rachel’s childhood friend, and Joey and Chandler’s neighbor. Most significantly, she’s the character that makes the show possible. Her home is their frequent hub—clean, spacious and gorgeous, with its iconic purple walls. Not only does she allow them to come and go as they please (all the while eating the food from her fridge), she starts the series by giving Rachel a place to stay. This is the first of many times Monica will prove herself as an incredible friend, always there to help, and unafraid to call others on their shit.

Later, Monica will be the first to comment on the ridiculous Mark debate that plagues Ross and Rachel’s relationship: when her brother becomes jealous of his girlfriend’s co-worker, she reminds him to trust Rachel (adding “get over yourself!” for good measure). In similar fashion, she’s the go-to person for everyone elses’ crises, whether it be last-minute wedding planning for Phoebe or helping Joey look “anatomically Jewish” for a nude scene. In an especially selfless moment, Monica helps Rachel name her newborn daughter, giving up the baby name she’s had picked out since childhood.

This is the truth of Monica: she’s all passion and heart. Whatever she’s dealing with, she finds time to play a pivotal role in each of her friends’ lives. And despite it all, the show frequently fails her.

The famously flawed “Fat Monica” storyline literally weighs on her character’s legacy. Referenced in Season 1 but first onscreen in Season 2, most of Monica’s backstory hinges on her being overweight since childhood. In flashbacks, Cox dons a fat suit so Monica can sloppily eat in ill fit clothing, while the audience laughs at cheap jokes about her unattractiveness. This recurring gag has been the subject of much backlash over the years for obvious fat shaming, dehumanizing plus size women, and promoting the scourge of diet culture. In addition to making entire episodes utterly unwatchable, this storyline is a permanent mar on her character. For 10 seasons, Monica’s weight is a punchline where it could’ve provided a sincere window into her insecurities. But rather than exploring this, the show opts to laugh at her expense.

It’s clear that Monica has a complex relationship with her body, food, and her own self worth. She worries constantly about her ability to maintain a relationship, wondering what trait of hers causes them to fail. Piling on is her hypercritical mother, who shows a clear preference for her older brother. Every other sentence Judy Geller (Christina Pickles) utters is a jab at Monica’s relationship status, career choice, or even just her haircut. She brings up her weight constantly, as does her inconsiderate brother and, painfully, her close friends. Each of them continuously poke fun at her “plus-size past” whenever the opportunity arises—but none of this matters beyond brief moments of laughter. Without further exploration or impact, Friends uses “Fat Monica” as another way to shove Monica aside.

It’s amazing that despite terrible treatment from the show’s writers, her family, and often her own friends, Monica is able to shine so brightly. Rather than let it hold her back, these problems often fuel her. Monica is a beacon of hope for those of us toiling through adulthood with sky-high insecurities and over-critical parents. She may not have the well-crafted lines of sarcastic relatability that her husband is famous for, but Monica still lives in a constant state of struggle. Things never magically fall into place for her, the way you sometimes want from a lighthearted sitcom.

In both her career and lovelife, Monica outlines her goals from the onset: she wants to be head chef at a restaurant as much as she wants a loving relationship with a husband and kids. She takes the necessary steps, dating and trying every career path even tangentially related to her head chef dream (line cook, caterer, food critic etc). For a long time, none of it comes together: she finds herself unemployed, and her failing relationships become a recurring joke. (As early as the pilot episode, she wonders aloud “Is it me? Is it like I have some sort of beacon that only dogs and men with severe emotional problems can hear?”) And when things finally begin to work out—they still don’t. She finds herself in love with the suave, older Richard (Tom Selleck) who adores her just as much, only to discover that he doesn’t want kids. After a painful breakup, Monica continues onward.

In Season 5, she dates Chandler, her longtime friend with well-established intimacy issues. They take care and time to move the relationship at his pace before finally marrying. Then, in the penultimate season, she’s offered her dream job—only to learn that it’ll keep her away from her husband. So they delay starting a family, resolving to work in separate states. When the time finally comes to settle down and have children, Monica struggles to get pregnant, ultimately learning that she can’t. So after a tumultuous adoption process, in the show’s final moments, Monica becomes the beaming mother of twins. In the very end, rather than the picture-perfect dream she once envisioned, she has something messy, unimaginable, and distinctly better—the way reality usually is.

In its 10 season run, Friends strives to capture the messiness of growing into your adulthood and the critical role friendship plays in getting through it. The lives of our six protagonists are filled with uncertainties, mistakes, and the overwhelming frustration of coming close to success before being forced to reimagine your definition of the word. It’s about achieving, failing, and being consoled along the way—but mostly, it’s about who sticks along for the disastrous ride. And who embodies that better than Monica Geller?

Friends is available to stream on HBO Max.


Shania Russell is a freelance writer specializing in film, TV and cultural criticism. You can chat with her about movies, celebrities or the vastly underrated Rocketman (2019) on Twitter (@siriuslyshania). You can read more of her work at srussell.contently.com.

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