Friends Rewatch: Let’s Talk About Fat Monica




So I have kind of a weird affection for Friends. I actually associate it with the beginning of my life in the U.K., and getting hooked into it after that in reruns. I think I had maybe seen one episode before I visited here for the first time, and by then it must have been in its fifth or sixth season. One night we went to a video store (yes we still had them when I first moved here!), and much to my amusement, the walls were LINED with box sets of Friends. I thought it was so weird/random! 

British people LOVE Friends my fellow Americans, I have never quite figured out why - I mean yes, peak Friends is actually very funny and the cast are talented and had great chemistry, and it’s not like Brits don’t like quite silly/obvious things sometimes, despite their pretensions towards comedy snobbery, something I have learned since living here. 

The wholesome cheesiness of Friends actually has quite a lot of wicked double entendres and humans behaving badly that often land reliably solid punches in re-watching. 

When Friends first aired I was in college, and then I was young and living in New York. I was too busy to watch much t.v., if I did it was usually Blockbuster videos or some awesomely bad Lifetime movies, or remember Dinner and a Movie on the TBS network? (yes I am dating myself but I freaking loved that show!), where a couple of snarky hosts would show a B to C movie, while cooking a recipe in between ad breaks. 

It had before its time sarcastically funny commentary, sometimes they even had guest actors who had been in the film. It really was a treasure and there is a cool podcast of the hosts reminiscing about it here which is surprisingly dark and deeply fascinating to anyone who watched, the transcribed version is free but the podcast is paywall archived; I found it sometime last year when I was feeling 90s pop culture nostalgic.

Anyway I digress!...

Like a lot of people, the adding of Friends to Netflix in the U.K. got me hooked back into a rewatch. There have probably been a million hot takes already on Friends’ problematic elements with the retrospect of time/millenials discovering that things were far less woke 20 years ago. Ross is a whiny manipulative romantic fantasist, Joey a misogynist pig, Rachel is a spoiled princess, Chandler needs to stop blaming his trans Dad for everything, Phoebe is…actually perfect, never mind! But the thing that has possibly aged the worst is Fat* Monica.

I always remember feeling uncomfortable with the Fat Monica scenes, long before I left diet culture, embraced body positivity and became acutely aware of the destructive culture of fatphobia** in our society. I knew I was supposed to find it funny but it was always so nasty in tone and lazy compared to the rest of the storylines. The main punchline being: Oh look she is fat, she eats a lot and look at her dance ha ha so funny (apologies, for anyone who has never seen Friends, the character Monica, played by Courtney Cox, is a formerly fat person, we first learn this in flashbacks to when she was a teenager, where Cox is in a ridiculous fat suit that ISN'T EVEN THAT FAT let's be real! And this is revisited throughout the run of the show).

Yes, I know a significant portion of the population finds this kind of thing hilarious. But the cruelty of it really stings, it’s not like she is in on the joke like the “Look at me I’m a fat lead male in a comedy I’m awesome”, she is nothing but the butt of the lame jokes.

There is no question Fat Monica, in this day and age, is flat out offensive.

BUT…and here is where I go a little bit crazy, please hear me out. I would be so bold as to argue that Fat Monica also…kind of wins.

I recently watched the double episode in season six "The One That Could Have Been". Here, there is an alternate reality, where Monica never lost the weight, Rachel married the dentist, and Ross stayed married to his gay wife Carol (um that is a whole other thing to dive into!).

So in the beginning of the episode, Monica says to Chandler “You never would have gone out with me if I was fat” and he says something like “Yes I would have” but there is kind of a groan/pause for laugh because this show has trained us that no one could love Monica when she was heavier.

We then get the alternate universe played out, and it’s silly and fun and Monica is dating a sort of dweeby doctor but he’s not horrible either. Fat Monica has a life, shocker! Chandler is a struggling comedian and a total dork, and he and Monica are possibly even closer friends than they were in the thin Monica universe.

Fat Monica is sort of giggly and goofy and maybe they are playing into the jolly fat person trope, but I mean…I noticed in this episode how much I actually like her. This version of Monica just seems chill and happy. She isn’t a control/neat freak or shrill and annoying like thin Monica. Fat Monica eats ice cream from the pint tub, because of course she does, but in my crazy body positive headspace I actually thought “Wow, you never see thin Monica eat, you go on and enjoy your ice cream Monica!”  

In alternate universe Friends, Chandler and Fat Monica get together in a super sweet and arguably more natural way than they did in the real timeline. There is the same “We are friends, this is weird!” thing, but strangely, given Friends’ history of treating Fat Monica like a punchline, they make her the one that has to be fought for. 

Chandler immediately recognizes that he is lucky to be with her and has to try to win her affections away from the doctor. Chandler, who caused Monica to lose weight in the original Friends timeline with a cruel (behind her back) fat slur, is now unquestionably in love with Fat Monica, because they are soul mates, even if she is fat. Friends, you are making my damn head spin right now! 

Ok so yes, they revert back to their old Fat Monica dancing bit by the end of the episode (and I believe there are other lame/problematic flashback episodes to come), but for a brief moment, Friends made a fat character lovable and human, because she was always the same person inside, which means that true love doesn’t care about that stuff, shocker!

I do wonder how this episode even got made, given the overall story arc of Fat Monica. Were the writers on Fat Monica’s side all along? Did the network pressure them to make her a laughing stock? What brought about this crazy blip so that Fat Monica getting a happy ending exists in the Friends (alternate) universe? I would like to think it was their way of doing the right thing, for once. Yes, it was a brief drop in the bucket of the damage they did with the rest of the Fat Monica stories, but for me it almost redeems.

I know it’s crazy and weird but learning to love and accept my own body as is has made me really focus on the positives as well as the negatives with how pop culture treats fat-ness. I don’t feel revulsion at Fat Monica, even though that is what the show does unfortunately mostly try to sell. I feel empathy, I relate to the character buried in the fat jokes, and I actually kind of love her dancing. 

I know it’s supposed to be “funny because she is fat”, but credit to Courtney Cox, I think maybe on some level she did her best to inject joy into the character. Fat Monica likes to move her body, she never seems ashamed or wanting to hide it. It's the outside world that mostly has a problem with her: her parents' often barbed remarks seem to bounce off of her (I am sure in reality they wouldn't, but Fat Monica never seemed particularly downtrodden or unhappy with herself). 

We will never know why Chandler’s cruel remark was the one that made her lose the weight (although again, she got her revenge by "accidentally" slicing off his pinky toe!), or the real struggles a formerly fat person has in keeping off that weight, because it’s a sitcom that would rather get a cheap laugh, but I cannot help but appreciate that they at least gave Fat Monica one episode where she could be human, and more than just her body shape. It's the life she deserves.





*Please note I do not use the word “Fat” as a slur, but as a descriptor. Monica is fat, and yes the show treats her fatness as a slur most often, but I am simply referring to the other version of her character.


** Please read this article via Everday Feminism, it is just so, so good.

2 comments

  1. I'm not sure why (male) writers have to even go there with the weight/food thing for the female characters. Even though it's just characters these actors are playing, they can take it to heart, especially when they are young. I'm thinking specifically Growing Pains and Full House. The writers thought that having the older brother use "fat" as an insult to daughter was funny, but had real life consequences (I watched a documentary on it but it still felt really tone deaf, like no one involved felt that it was really their fault). And in full house they always went for a laugh with the twins gorging on food, and look who battled body issues in real life. I'm glad they gave "fat" Monica a good episode, and I really hope Courtney didn't take any of the negative writing towards being fat personally.

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    1. Ugh don't get me started on women/girls getting scary skinny on t.v. and everyone acting like it's normal. I remember Growing Pains and I think the actress made a Lifetime movie about a woman with an eating disorder a few years later, she really was deathly ill (I think Growing Pains even had a very special episode where they acknowledged it, but like, damage done Hollywood). Ally McBeal was a sh*t show of weird/competitive anorexia too(I think Portia De Rossi has talked about it). I never watched Full House really, I do remember that Kirk Cameron's sister was in it and lost weight as it went on though, like I was always aware of that stuff happening. That's pretty gross about the food stuff with the Olsen twins though, I cannot imagine that didn't imprint some negative messed up stuff about food in their heads from a young age. Being forced to do scenes where they were probably sick of the food also, like, ugh I can't even understand how someone could put their kid through that. Sad.

      Monica does make a few comments during the course of the show about how easy it would be for her to get fat again, it's definitely portrayed super negatively in general. But then they also made Fat Monica so sympathetic and likeable in some of the storylines (underneath the fat bashing, it's kind of weird to me!).

      Thanks for wading throught this random ranty post, I appreciate it! ;-) x

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