[Content Note: Misogyny, Patriarchal Relationships, Disability]
Let me tell you a story.
When I was younger, my parents were dedicated fans of the Friends sitcom. I watched it with them, never missing an episode, and I generally liked everyone on the show (flaws and all) with the glaring exception of Ross. I hated Ross with the fire of a thousand suns, and my folks were largely baffled at how harsh and unforgiving I was. (The term "feminist" was invoked at me, and not in a positive manner. But I'm glad the label stuck!) But I didn't care because c'mon Ross Geller is clearly the worst.
Anyway. I grew up and I mostly forgot about Friends until my surgery last year when I found that the episodes work really well for keeping me out of a depression head-space when I'm confined to bed. I started watching the show again and realized that I owed it to my younger self to write a post for her about Why I Dislike Ross Geller. Given that I was about a decade or two away from actually being timely and topical, I was pretty darn shocked at how many people popped in to validate my Ross hatred. Then about a year after that, Melissa found my post and we cross-posted it here because as it turns out, we are Ross-Hating Besties. Which is obviously the best kind of besties!
We now text each other about Ross and how he is THE WORST several times a week (which always makes me dissolve into a fit of giggles), because Liss has been catching the reruns and I've been in and out of bed with back pain and head-cold-allergy-fun. It is our fervent desire to meet up one of these days, plop down on the nearest couch, and watch all the Friends together while heckling Ross and throwing popcorn at the screen.
In the meantime, I am writing an annotated index of Ross Geller's failings, organized by DVD disc since my mom gave me her complete set to hang on to for her (and which is definitely Very Serious Feminist Commentary, lolololol!) and I am dedicating the work to Liss, my bestie who loves to hate Ross with me. ❤
An Annotated Index of Ross Geller: Disc 1
Episode 101: The Pilot
Synopsis: This opening episode establishes the Friends and sets up Rachel and Ross as an overarching romantic arc. Ross has been left by his wife (who has discovered she is a lesbian), and Rachel has left her fiance at the wedding altar. There are long lingering shots of the two alone in their respective spaces (Ross in his new apartment; Rachel in Monica's apartment) wondering what to do now and what life will hold for them. Ross also establishes that he has always had a crush on Rachel, and Rachel acknowledges her awareness of his high school crush and gives him permission to ask her out sometime--Ross does not immediately pursue the relationship, however.
Analysis: This episode sets the tone for how Ross will interact with Rachel. He is initially cheered to see her when she enters the coffee shop for the first time, but despite his obvious interest in pursuing a relationship with her, he doesn't want to give up his angst over the loss of another woman (in this case his wife Carol) and his concerns about his own future--this foreshadows Ross' tendency to treat his relationship with Rachel like a game where his goal is to min/max his internalized concept of "success", rather than focusing on his and Rachel's shared happiness.
Another tone set in this episode is Ross' tendency to belittle Rachel and treat her like she is foolish; he interrupts her phone conversation with her father to mock her "What if I don't wanna be a shoe?" metaphor about her existential crisis. Considering that she has been deeply sheltered all her life, and her father is bringing a tremendous amount of pressure on her to marry Barry (including arguing that it shouldn't matter if she doesn't love him), this is a really asshole move on Ross' part; he is undermining her confidence in her ability to explain and convey her feelings both to herself and others.
The final tone set in this episode and continued forward is Ross' unwillingness to openly and honestly pursue a relationship with Rachel. He frames his confession of feelings in the past tense ("back in high school, I had a, um, major crush on you.") so that he can safely disavow them if Rachel reacts badly; when she acknowledges his crush and gives him encouragement to move forward, he frames his asking her out as a future hypothetical ("do you think it would be okay if I asked you out? Sometime? Maybe?") rather than a direct offer and additionally layers his request with a self-pitying aside that calls attention to his "vulnerability" ("try not to let my intense vulnerability become any kind of a factor here").
All of this is calculated to make it very difficult for Rachel to say No: he's not asking her out, he's asking if he can ask her out at some unspecified future date, and he's drawing awareness to how painful it would be if she didn't let him have this 'little' request. Ross will then choose not to follow up on this "permission" to ask Rachel out for the same reason that he dances so vigorously around the request here: he is afraid of giving her room to issue an unequivocal No, which would mean he would have to stop asking. Instead, he hopes to maneuver her into a relationship with him without her conscious awareness of it ("is it a date if she doesn’t know we’re going on a date?"--Episode 105); if she doesn't know she's being pushed into a relationship with him, she can't say no.
Episode 102: The One With The Sonogram At The End
Synopsis: Ross' ex-wife tells him that she's pregnant and tells him that he can decide his level of involvement in the child's life.
Analysis: Ross is characteristically rude to his ex-wife Carol and her girlfriend Susan, and strongly underplays the involvement that Susan will have in the child's life, saying that he doesn't "remember [Susan] making any sperm". Of course this ignores that (canonically) Ross will see the child on the occasional nights and weekends, whereas Susan will be a live-in provider and daily fixture in the child's life. It's difficult for me to unwrap how much of Ross' hostility is over his pain from the divorce (which was preceded by marital infidelity), his misogyny, and his homophobia, so I'm inclined to give him a little slack in this episode since there will be plenty of times to criticize him later.
What is less cool is for him to continue to act out his discomfort with the situation by determinedly touching everything in the office (as a museum employee, he should know better), and his decision not to meaningfully defend his sister during a long dinner in which both her parents emotionally abuse her. The only time Ross speaks up in Monica's defense over the course of the evening is to mildly ask "Cows, Dad?" when their father compares Monica to a cow in contrast to "people like Ross who need to shoot for the stars". It is telling that in an episode which is supposed to be about Ross' conflicted feelings at becoming a father, he doesn't feel the need to defend his sister from their own abusive father, nor does he consider that level of abuse something he doesn't want to model on his own child.
Episode 103: The One With The Thumb
Synopsis: Ross has only a minor role in this episode which mostly centers around Monica's boyfriend Alan (who the Friends like more than she does), Phoebe's concern at being gifted large sums of money which she doesn't feel comfortable with, and Chandler's struggle with smoking.
Analysis: It is noteworthy that the writers decided that Ross' "failing" would be precise speaking ("And Ross, with his over-pronouncing every single word?") as opposed to his rudeness to the other Friends (including correcting their speaking and mocking them for being less educated than he) and his passive-aggressive centering of himself. It is also noteworthy that while all the Friends like Alan and encourage Monica to remain with him, Ross is her brother and might (but doesn't) choose to understand the pressure this request is placing on his sister. Ross has also very recently been hurt in a relationship and might (but doesn't) choose to understand that how a couple seems to their friends is not indicative of the healthiness of their relationship together.
Episode 104: The One With George Stephanopoulos
Synopsis: Chandler and Joey try to take Ross to a hockey game on the anniversary of his first sexual encounter with Carol; Rachel, Phoebe, and Monica have a sleepover and realize that George Stephanopoulus is in the apartment across the street.
Analysis: This episode is a difficult one, because it is revealed near the end that part of Ross' obsession with this day is that his first night with Carol wasn't just his first night with Carol, but was also his first night with a woman, period. Okay, I am okay with that being an important anniversary for someone. BUT. Throughout this episode, Ross continually treats Carol like a sexual fantasy instead of as a real person, and continues to dole out incredibly intimate details about their sex life to the Friends.
There's absolutely no sense that Ross has Carol's consent to tell all these details, and it's deeply discomforting to hear him talk about that night as though her feelings about it, and her feelings about it being shared, are meaningless and presumed non-existent. He's utterly dehumanized her into a sexual script he wants to share with the others. It's also made deeply clear that he was sharing at least some of this with others while he was still married to Carol; Monica notes the date as meaningful to him, and Ross implies that he told her soon after it happened.
As a final note, when the "mean" E.R. nurse is hit in the face with the hockey puck, Ross yuks "...Now that was fun."
Episode 105: The One With the East German Laundry Detergent
Synopsis: In this episode, Rachel does her laundry and Ross accompanies her to the laundromat.
Analysis: This is the first Ross-and-Rachel episode since the pilot, and it continues the worrying Nice Guy trends we saw there. Ross opens by asking Rachel what she is doing for the night--an obvious attempt to build up to a date request without leaving himself open for a No--and when she reveals that she already has plans (laundry), Ross asserts that he had already made the exact same plan to be in the exact same place ("Oh, you uh, you wanna hear a freaky coincidence? Guess who's doing laundry there too?"). When Rachel points out that this doesn't make sense ("Don't you have a laundry room in your building?"), Ross makes up a flimsy excuse about rats on the spot.
This is standard and problematic dishonesty from Ross. He refuses to be upfront about his desire to be with/around Rachel, and he does so because he doesn't want to leave her an opening to say No and shut him down. This is harmful passive-aggressive Nice Guy behavior and means that if Rachel weren't comfortable with Ross' attention, she would have few options for asking him to stop--if she asked him not to do laundry at her laundromat that night, he would accuse her of overreaction and of "imagining" things.
Even if Rachel does want to pursue a relationship with Ross, this passive-aggressive approach still harms her because it makes it difficult for her to openly state her feelings when Ross is treating all questions of romance between them as laughable and ridiculous in order to shield himself from harm. At best, he's building an emotional barrier between them in order to protect himself; at worst, he's engaging in boundary-transgressing behavior that employs the same tools found in a stalker's arsenal. None of this is healthy or fair to Rachel.
Chandler--who is established as being very bad with relationships--throws fuel on the fire by insisting that the outing is a date even "if she doesn't know" it's a date because it's Saturday night (i.e., date night), and he urges Ross not to bring his dirty underwear or 'feminine' detergent to the laundromat. His bad advice, however, doesn't absolve Ross from taking it. (And this will be a common deflection tactic by the writers; it's not Ross' fault if Chandler or Joey egged him on!)
At the laundromat, Rachel has an open and business-like attitude towards learning this new thing, but Ross is determined to keep things awkward by extravagantly flinching and turning away at the sight of Rachel's underwear when she asks whether white panties go in with whites or with delicates. (As a side-note, from someone who doesn't sort laundry because who needs extra work amiright, it's not super great to see Ross lecture Rachel on separation to begin with.)
Then we have another foreshadowing moment with Rachel and Ross when she confesses that the laundry is important to her because "I feel that if I can do this, you know, if I can actually do my own laundry, there isn't anything I can't do." The problem here is that Ross just automatically agrees with Rachel (in a jokey, intimacy-deflecting way by showing a moment of vulnerability over Carol and then immediately shutting down the story with a joke), presumably because he thinks that constant agreement will help to get her into a relationship with him, and then when something goes wrong with the laundry, he tries to lie to her about the existence of the problem in an impossible attempt to avoid hurting her.
Ross doesn't believe Rachel can make it on her own; he frequently mocks her to that effect and will say as much later in the series when she becomes pregnant. And it's because of that attitude that he presumably can't see that agreement is not what she needs here; she needs to hear someone tell her that she can make it on her own regardless of magic milestones (like laundry), that he believes in her, and that life is about learning, not about innate ability. A Rachel who can magically do laundry perfectly the first time isn't a Rachel who has demonstrated survival skills; a Rachel who can endure defeat, learn from it, and get back up from it, is.
Ross should know that; he's old enough and been through a bad enough breakup and put together IKEA furniture badly enough to know that these "on your own" milestones aren't the important thing--continuing to muddle through them and not give up is what's really important. He could give Rachel the pep talk she needs now, but instead he trying to sing a song ("Uh-oh, uh-oh, the laundry's done. It's, uh, it's a song. The laundry song that we sing.") in a doomed-to-fail attempt to distract her from the fact that all her laundry is now pink. And he does that not because he cares about her feelings--in which case he would realize she's about to be hurt and attempt to diffuse the blow rather than pretend it will never come--but because he thinks constant agreement and cheerfulness is the best way into her arms. None of that feels compatible with respect or genuine love.
Episode 106: The One With The Butt
Synopsis: Chandler goes out with a woman but dumps her when he realizes he can't deal with a poly relationship; Joey gets a part as body double for Al Pacino in a nude shower scene.
Analysis: This is another episode that isn't heavy with Ross details, but it's worth noting his attempts to cheer Chandler when Chandler is sad at having broken up with Aurora. Ross tells him: "Look at it this way: you dumped her. Right? I mean, this woman was unbelievably sexy, and beautiful, intelligent, unattainable... Tell me why you did this again?" We see that the most important things here that Ross values are winning (that Chandler was the dumper, not the dumpee) and how "attainable" the woman is.
It is noteworthy that Ross doesn't try to cheer Chandler up by referencing being happier in the long-run or being incompatible with Aurora (even though Ross should understand incompatible needs in a relationship, what with having an ex-wife who is a lesbian). Instead, he builds up Aurora not based on who she is or how well she fits Chandler as a partner, but rather as a function of her looks, her intellectual status, and her overall desirability according to mainstream social values. Later we will see that Ross uses these same metrics to evaluate Rachel and his other romantic partners.
Also noteworthy here is that Ross initially defends Chandler's decision to date Aurora and his reasoning that "I get all the good stuff: all the fun, all the talking, all the sex; and none of the responsibility. I mean, this is every guy's fantasy!" When Phoebe asks "Ross, is this your fantasy?" and Monica asks "So you guys don't mind going out with someone else who's going out with someone else?", Ross admits that Chandler's situation is his fantasy ("...Yeah, yeah, it is.") and argues that monogamy is "a tricky concept" and starts to haul out evo-psych apparently against it. (I presume he was going to argue that men are driven to procreate with as many woman as possible, blah blah evo-psych cis-sexism assholery fart.)
This is an, ahem, interesting position for Ross to take, given that he will spend most of the series furiously jealous of his ex-wife's girlfriend Susan and of any man whom he believes has a romantic interest in Rachel.