Gender identity

When we say that gender identity is socially constructed, what we do mean is that our identities are a fluid assemblage of the meanings and behaviours that we construct from the values, images and prescriptions we find in the world around us. Our gendered identities are both voluntary - we choose who we are - and coerced - we are pressured, forced, sanctioned and often physically beaten into submission to some rules. We neither make up the rules as we go along, nor do we fit casually and without struggle into preassigned roles. (Carter and Steiner 2004)

The influences that gender roles and our daily occupations have on our lives extend well beyond the workspace. In the popular television series, Friends, the show exhibits six main characters, consisting of three males and three females. During each episode, several portrayals of the intermingling of work and gender related issues arise. These issues interact with the personal and social lives of each of the main characters. Thus, each character finds that their careers define themselves, and that they are defined by their gender roles and their chosen job markets. Looking into how the role of each character affects their social relationship, one thing that I am interested in is that the successes, failures and experiences of their careers can also play upon the character's friendships. This essay aims to explore how each character attempts to represent their social class and their gender roles. Also, it will attempt to demonstrate whether their careers have a direct impact on their social relationship.

For this assignment, five episodes of Friends were chosen from the second season of the series, which aired September of 1995 into January of 1996. The answers to the three following questions were then sought from each episode. 1.) What careers do each of the characters have, and how do they attempt to represent themselves as employees of such? 2.) Do the careers have a direct impact on their personal identities, if so, how? 3.) Do the careers and gender roles of each character have an impact on their social relationship? 4.) Are there any other gender and work related issues portrayed? The following answers will come as a result of the inquired questions.

Each of the male characters attempted to represent themselves with success in their career fields, although it may not have always happened. In their various fields of work, Joey and Ross feel the desire to depict profitable growth and flourishing careers. Joey, as an actor, spends time trying to coerce his way into various employment situations. In the episode, "The One After the Super Bowl," he specifically wines and dines an assistant movie director in an attempt to obtain an acting role for a movie. In the end he succeeds, but prior to his victory he expresses distress about being outshined in show business by Ross' pet monkey. In this context, I could consider about Joey's self identity. Giddens (1991) mentioned a person's identity is not to be found in behavior, nor - important thought this is - in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going. Here Joey gives a good example that competition (with a monkey), whether real or imagined, impacts how one man feels he represents himself as successful or not in his chosen career. Joey felt surpassed in the acting business. While he performed as a television character, a monkey without acting skills had appeared in popular advertisements and a film. Understandably, Joey displays feelings of confusion and jealousy when an animal obtained more attention from Hollywood than himself. Joey's personal identity as a successful actor comes into question, which instigates him to pursue a role in a film as well. Joey succeeds, obtaining a supporting role. His self identity as a successful actor reappears when he feels that he has accomplished as much in the acting business as the monkey.

On the other hand, the character Ross tries to represent himself as successful in his job by proving the scientific credibility of his research. In the episode, "The One with Phoebe's Husband," Phoebe reveals that she does not believe in the theory of evolution. Ross, as a palaeontologist, feels the inclination to convince her that evolution really exists. He spends considerable effort to explain to Phoebe the way humans have changed throughout time. When Phoebe finally persuades Ross to admit that other explanations seem plausible for human's existence besides evolution, Ross feels his incentive to work shattered. Overall, Ross represents himself as a realistic fact finder in his career, and makes attempts at success by researching and sharing the information he finds with others. Ross obviously feels his job success through the proven facts that he and his career endorse. When others question those very facts, he feels not only his career but also his personal identity challenged.

Ross, unlike Joey, has no competition and does not need to achieve more to feel successful. Instead, his values, reasons, and passion for why he works in the field he has chosen come into question. Phoebe challenges Ross to examine his motives, and then determine whether he wishes to continue down his career path once he admits other explanations for human evolution could exist. Admitting to other possible theories of human life makes Ross wonder about the legitimacy and value if his own work. No conclusion to this dilemma appears in the episode, and viewers are left to wonder how Ross overcomes such a critical experience.

An adequate example of Chandler's career did not appear in the chosen episodes for examination. However, each of the present examples given illustrate Mac an Ghaill's observation on men's attitudes concerning their careers. "Nothing is more important to a man's pride, self respect, status, and manhood than work. Nothing. Sexual impotence, like a sudden loss of ambulation or physical strength, may shatter his self -confidence. But...pride is built on work and achievement, and the successes that accrue from their work"(Mac an Ghaill 2007). On a similar context, Gauntlett(2007) also describes about mans' pride and self-esteem in society; both of them are based on confidence in the integrity and value of the narrative of self-identity. Joey's situation supports former statement by the revelation of his damaged pride and self identity when his acting career falls into the shadow of a monkey's stardom. Ross exemplifies latter statement as his confidence diminishes when he questions the validity and worth of his work.

The women of the series do not seem to feel as much pressure to express their success in the career world, but do instead feel the gender limitations that their chosen careers impose on them. Monica, as a chef, finds herself without a job and struggling to obtain a new one. During the episode, "The One with the List," she desperately takes on an assignment with a food company awaiting an FDA approval on its product "mock-o-late", a substitute for chocolate. Her task with the food product concerns making thanksgiving recipes with mock-o-late as the main ingredient. After all her hard work with this horrible product, the FDA refuses to approve the chocolate substitute. Therefore, all of her effort goes wasted. However, she still receives a check from the food company. This encourages her to return to them for employment when they make another attempt with "fish-stacios." Due to her desire to work, Monica describes herself in her career field as, "having no morals and in need of money." Monica, unfortunately has an advanced level of training as a chef and yet reduces herself to take whatever job avails itself. One might wonder if the Jane Arthurs' opinion, "women face persistent discrimination based on their gender; they are paid less, promoted less, and assigned to specific jobs despite their qualifications and motivations"(Arthurs 2004), rings true in this situation for the despairing culinary artist.

Unlike Monica, Rachel, a waitress at the local coffee shop, remains content with her career. Surprisingly, she reflects no concrete representation of herself as the other characters do. The same situation arises with the character Phoebe, who has a career as a masseuse. Both of these women in the episodes chosen have very few, if any, attitudes that they reveal towards their chosen careers. Although their careers lack emphasis in the series, they still play vital roles in the character's personal identities and friendships as will later be shown.

Moving onto the impacts that the careers have on their social relationships, the most prominent example of such appears in the episode, "The One with the List." During this particular show, Ross tries to decide whether or not to break up with his current girlfriend in order to go out with Rachel. While trying to make his decision, Joey and Chandler convince Ross to create a list of "pros" and "cons" about each woman. Ross lists Rachel as "only a waitress" while his current girlfriend shares his career of palaeontology. Ross still breaks up with his girlfriend and seeks to start a relationship with Rachel. However, Rachel finds the list and discovers Ross thinks of her as "only a waitress." The differences perceived between Rachel's career and Ross' career establishes the foundation of a rift in their friendship as well as their potential relationship.

The Ross measured the difference between Rachel's career and his girlfriend's career by level of success. Labelling Rachel as "only a waitress" depicts Ross' disdain for average jobs, yet Rachel does not feel inadequacy with her career until Ross brings it up. Rachel, Phoebe and Monica do not seem to measure themselves by their careers like the men in the series. Instead they view their careers mainly as a way to pay their bills. This gender difference shows that women tend to stress work less in relation to their sense personal identities. Careers to the women appear as more of a means of survival, while men view it more as a self defining role.

Another issue that revealed itself concerning work and gender's impact on relationships happened in the episode, "The One with Phoebe's Husband". In this particular viewing, fans find out that Phoebe has a supposedly gay husband from Canada. They were married so that Phoebe's husband could obtain a green card and join the American Ice-escapades. However, to Phoebe's disappointment, her husband turns out to be straight and presently wants a divorce. Previously, the character's career as an ice skater led him to think that he might be homosexual. He drew this conclusion before many years, as a young man, since all his friends and fellow skaters were gay. Feeling pressured to fit in, Phoebe's husband presumed and tried to convince himself and everyone around him that he shared a homosexual orientation. This extreme view of gender roles in the work place obviously had huge and lasting impacts on the relationship Phoebe had with this man.

Interestingly, this character's career dilemma did not focus on success or personal motivations to work, it revolved around wanting to fit into the crowd. As a skater this man was already talented, and obviously his passion for skating motivated him to continue. The gender identity that people labelled male skaters in his career field with, as well as the established gender of his fellow friends and co-workers, presented him with the problems he encountered. Finally though, he broke through the social labels to assert himself as a heterosexual.

Consequently, an important point to note considers the fact that Rachel and Ross' careers alone do not cause the problem in their friendship. Nor did Phoebe's husband's career cause their resulting conflict. The dilemmas actually arose from the combination of perceptions they held about each other's careers and also the feelings attached to them. Rachel finds herself defined by her career in the "One with the List" episode, and not in a favourable light. Interestingly, Ross too had found his own career criticized by a friend as was mentioned previously. When Phoebe cast Ross' work into doubt by questioning evolution, Ross' sense of self esteem fell. A parallel of low self esteem occurred in both characters (Rachael and Ross), when their career's value came into question. Careers do seem to have an important impact on friendships, but could it also be said, as in Phoebe and her husband's case that friendships have a rebounding affect on careers?

Overall, the six main characters in the series Friends do visibly define themselves in relation to their careers, and that those very careers touch their friendships in significant ways. Upon viewing all five episodes there also appeared other work and gender related issues that will be shortly summarized for observation's sake. First, most of the secondary characters that were depicted in positions of employment on the series were male. Two janitors, a lawyer, a movie producer, a company and a zoo manager all were men. The only two women who appeared employed aside from our main characters were a makeup artist and an animal trainer. This bias of more males than females in the working world being presented may have been due to the random selection of the episodes. However, the jobs shown in the viewed episodes do reflect that males hold more prestigious jobs. One could wonder if that bias comes from the writers or whether Kimmel's observation gathered from Rhodes work, Speaking of Sex, "Different occupations are seen as more appropriate for one gender of the other, and thus women and men are guided, pushed, or occasionally shoved into specific positions" (Kimmel, 2004) again applies to the situation.


  • Carter, C. and Steiner, L., 2004. Critical Reading: Media and Gender. Glasgow: Open University Press.
  • Mac an Ghaill, M. and Haywood, C., 2007. Gender, culture and society: contemporary femininities and masculinities. 2nd ed. New York: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN.
  • Giddens, A. 1991. Modernity and Self-identity: self and society in the late modern age, Cambridbe: Polity Press.
  • Gauntlett, D., 2008. MEDIA, GENDER AND IDENTITY: An introduction. New York: Routledge.
  • Arthurs, J. 2004. Television and Sexuality: Regulation and Politics of Taste, Glasgow. Open University Press.
  • Kimmel, M. S. 2004. The Gendered Society. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

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