Why The Friends vs. Living Single Twitter Beef Really Matters
Erika Alexander, a star of the beloved sitcom, on the systemic ignorance behind the battle
David Schwimmer’s and my beef started like all things nowadays… with a tweet. It was just after Sundance. A friend had sent me a link to a Guardian article, an interview with actor David Schwimmer. In it David talked about his awareness in Hollywood as a privileged, hetero, White man. To demonstrate his commitment to racial diversity he discussed his past advocacy for a more diverse cast as part of the six-person acting ensemble in his juggernaut-sitcom, Friends. Cool. In the article David talked about how he pushed his producers to cast multi-racial, romantic relationships for his character “Ross.”
“I was well aware of the lack of diversity and I campaigned for years to have Ross date women of color. One of the first girlfriends I had on the show was an Asian American woman, and later I dated African American women. That was a very conscious push on my part.”
Double Cool. But where it started to go south was the random comment he made after giving himself props for his social acuity:
“…I feel like my barometer was pretty good at that time. I was already really attuned to social issues and issues of equality…”
Hold on. Wait for it…
“…Maybe there should be an all-black Friends or an all-Asian Friends.”
Whoops, there it is.
You see, David didn’t realize that the so-called, all Black Friends had already happened. In fact, I was in it. A sitcom I’m proud of, called Living Single, created by Yvette Lee Bowser. And we had happened a year before his show, Friends, was on the air. In fact, Living Single had happened within the same studio, Warner Brothers, in Burbank, on the annexed lot near his called The Warner Ranch.
But being in a hit show is hard work, so maybe he really didn’t know about us and wasn’t aware we existed. Heck, I had a few minutes to spare, I’d tell him. Quickly, all thumbs, while sitting on a chilly Salt Lake City tarmac, I sent my snarky — yes, I confess — tweet to David.
Boom. Easy peasy. Hit send. Plane took off. My phone? On blessed airplane mode. Hallelujah! Twitter sure makes it easy to unload.
Little did I know, by the time I landed in L.A., a Friends vs. Living Single TWITTER TSUNAMI had been unleashed. With Living Single fans, and others, responding, passionately. Oh, lord. Now I bit it, so I’d have to eat it. But first I needed to identify the dish I had served up, so let’s unpack this.
Our digital encounter exposed two realities; one rooted in perceived stature; and the other in implicit value.
What’s ironic is that David was speaking to his awareness of White male privilege. What’s unfortunate is that he created an interesting example of it while doing so, because the show he was in was not the original, it was a knock-off. So there can never be an all-Black Friends, because Friends was the all-white Living Single. It sounds funny to say it, but identifying that fact is exactly where the conversation starts to grow bigger than him, me, or a spontaneous tweet fight.
Our digital encounter exposed two realities; one rooted in perceived stature, and the other in implicit value. Living Single had a Black cast of six, young New Yorkers living in the same complex facing life and love together. But we were on a so-called “Black show,” and that designation is the beginning of marginalization. So David didn’t have to pay attention to our show, and frankly, why would he? If you’re king of the hill why pay attention to, well, us. But believe me, you couldn’t miss Friends. It was everywhere. Their unique recipe of heat, excitement, attractive talent, an iconic haircut, a poppin’ theme song, and hard work, had created a phenomenon. It was unstoppable. It didn’t matter that a similar show, Living Single, existed with the same ingredients, including an iconic haircut. But our being marketed to a mostly Black audience signaled to brands that we were less than and would never command a higher evaluation. But that’s not just show biz, that’s America.
In America, Black people consistently innovate and create original content and unique trends. Hell, we disrupted European dominance and began a path to a world class American culture the minute we stepped off the slave ships, but rarely do we get props or fair payment for it. See, on a deeper level, ignorance — unconscious or otherwise — explains how systematic, racist structures lead to the erasure of Black history and set precedent. Add water, marinate, and fry and that’s what made our small Twitter debate explode.
Scratching the wound of a historic crime, [his tweet] unleashed a posse of digital warriors, voicing their frustration against a rigged system that so marginalizes and under-represents us that it keeps us forever out of the cultural mainstream.
Racism isn’t always about what you know, usually it’s about what you don’t know or what you don’t want somebody else to know. And what you don’t know about Black people can harm all of us. White ignorance is the rich fertilizer that nurtures a false supremacy.
If Black people and our accomplishments are continually not seen, then it’s easier to ghettoize us, to marginalize us, to shoot us. Then it’s easier to maintain (and teach the world,) the fiction that we don’t exist as full participants in the American dream, that we could never be equal to or better than.
That’s how a seemingly innocent comment from David Schwimmer reverberated in my community. Scratching the wound of a historic crime, it unleashed a posse of digital warriors, voicing their frustration against a rigged system that so marginalizes and under-represents us that it keeps us forever out of the cultural mainstream.
Look, there’s a lot more I could say, like how the invisibility affliction is stubborn, corrosive, and institutional, how it undermines the gross bottom line and profits for studios and production companies and bias destroys innovation. President Bush called it the “soft racism of low expectations.” Placing pathetic limitations on creators of color wastes all our full potential and sets a false ceiling, and market value, on our products, domestic and international. For the undervalued creator’s health and welfare, bad economics limits the amount they can raise and demand from the marketplace, monies they’ve earned and are justly due.
Bad economics sucks, but denying opportunity for others always costs more. This cost undermines new creators, underfunds new work, and discourages people outside the mainstream from trying. The emotional burden that comes with living in this half-reality is where the real damage occurs. Let’s face it, celebration and treasure is always a hundred times larger on the other side.
This is way more than I wanted to say, but this beef resides inside a more complicated issue, and it deserves more than 140 characters to discuss it.
So, even though neither David nor I meant to set off a Twitter storm, we can ride the wind with real results and a call to action. We can support and acknowledge allies like David, allies with good intentions who bear witness about their efforts to make change. And we should ask ourselves, what are we doing now? With the prominent voices and platforms we have, we must do more to dismantle this flawed infrastructure and rebuild the whole thing from the ground up.
That’s what I’m trying to do with my partner Ben Arnon. We created @ColorFarmMedia, and our goal is to find, educate, nurture, and create new media, with new voices. We call ourselves the Motown of film, television, and tech, and we hope to create a new blueprint, one that shatters biases of race, gender, age, and disability in entertainment.
Also, and I said this as follow-up to my initial tweet, there are two powerful organizations doing this work everyday, @ColorOfChange and @DefineAmerican. Both are leaders in their fields and they partner with creators here in Hollywood to help identify blind spots within the industry, alongside executives and creators. They would love to have David Schwimmer, and as many of his Friends as he can bring along, participate in this worthy task. David signaled he’s an ally, willing to use his platform and his tremendous talent to move things forward. That’s awesome. Together we can change the world. Heck, together, with him by my side, maybe we can even Make America Laugh Again. Join us! #MALA.
Update: It is rumored that Warner Bros. is near an agreement with the cast of Friends to unite for a reunion special. The special would be for HBO Max, a new streaming service that recently paid $425 million for the rights to the show. Although terms are still being negotiated, each of the six stars may receive between $2.25 million to $4 million for the reunion show.
Before you ask, although I was working and could not participate, I won’t post the terms offered for our 25th-year reunion show. One Twitter battle a week is plenty. Let’s just say it was less than 2 million, lol.