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Marta Kauffman says it was a ‘mistake’ to refer to Chandler Bing’s trans parent with male pronouns

Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman has once again expressed her regret over the representation of Chandler Bing’s transgender parent on the show.

The writer, 65, who created the long-running American sitcom with David Crane, said it was a ‘mistake’ to use male pronouns and the word ‘father’ to refer to the transgender woman.

Chandler’s parent, also known by her stage name Helena Handbasket, was played by Kathleen Turner, who has since admitted she would not take on the role today.

‘It was a mistake’: Marta Kauffman has expressed her regret over the representation of Chandler Bing’s transgender parent (right, with Chandler and Nora Tyler Bing) in Friends

Addressing the controversy around Chandler’s trans parent being referred to by a male name throughout the show, Marta admitted it was a ‘mistake’.

In an interview with The Conversation, to air on BBC World Service on July 11, she said: ‘We kept referring to her [Chandler’s transgender parent] as “Chandler’s father”, even though Chandler’s father was trans.

‘Pronouns were not yet something that I understood so we didn’t refer to that character as “she”, that was a mistake.’

It wasn’t until years after the show aired that show creators confessed to Chandler’s parent being transgender and going through a transition from a man to a woman.

Jokes surrounding the character focused on her choice to wear dresses and other characters having difficulty using correct pronouns.

Marta said she now tries to create an inclusive and diverse workplace, saying she wants her colleagues to feel ‘safe’.

Regret: The writer (pictured in 2019), 65, who created the long-running American sitcom with David Crane, said it was a 'mistake' to use male pronouns to refer to the transgender woman

Regret: The writer (pictured in 2019), 65, who created the long-running American sitcom with David Crane, said it was a ‘mistake’ to use male pronouns to refer to the transgender woman

‘I fired a guy on the spot for making a joke about a trans cameraperson, that just can’t happen,’ she added.

Kathleen Turner has previously addressed the criticism around playing Chandler’s parent, saying she wouldn’t agree to the role if she was asked today.

Speaking on UK TV show Sunday Brunch in 2018, Kathleen said of deciding to take on the job at the time: ‘I thought: “OK, a woman playing a man playing a woman. I haven’t done that”, so I said: “yes”.’

She added: ‘Of course I wouldn’t do it now because there would be real people able to do it.’

It comes days after Marta once again apologized for the lack of black leads on the legendary New York-based sitcom.

Backlash: Kathleen Turner (pictured in April) has previously addressed the criticism around playing Chandler's parent, saying she wouldn't take on the role if she was asked today

Backlash: Kathleen Turner (pictured in April) has previously addressed the criticism around playing Chandler’s parent, saying she wouldn’t take on the role if she was asked today

In response to the lack of diversity on the show, Marta has pledged $4million to her alma mater, the Boston area’s Brandeis University, to create an endowed professorship in the university’s African and African American studies department. 

Marta said she felt ’embarrassed’ that ‘Friends’ featured a predominantly white cast. 

‘I’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years,’ Kauffman told the LA Times. ‘Admitting and accepting guilt is not easy. It’s painful looking at yourself in the mirror.

‘I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know better 25 years ago.’

While Friends is arguably one of the most successful sitcoms of all-time, running for 10 seasons between 1994 and 2004, the show’s lack of diversity was always something it was criticized for.

It took the show until 2002 to cast Aisha Tyler, the first black actress to become a series regular on the show, playing Dr. Charlie Wheeler, a paleontology professor who ended up dating Ross Geller (David Schwimmer) in season nine. But she only lasted nine episodes.

Kauffman said she regrets making the six main characters all white, but is still happy that Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox, David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, and Matthew Perry were all part of the series. 

Diversity: It comes days after Marta (pictured in September 2019) once again apologized for the lack of black leads on the legendary New York-based sitcom

Diversity: It comes days after Marta (pictured in September 2019) once again apologized for the lack of black leads on the legendary New York-based sitcom 

‘I would have been insane not to hire those six actors. What can I say? I wish Lisa was black?’ she told The Hollywood Reporter prior to the airing of the Friends: The Reunion special. 

But now, Marta is pledging $4million to Brandeis University to promote the study of African American studies. 

The Marta F. Kauffman ’78 Professorship in African and African American Studies will support a distinguished scholar with a concentration in the study of the peoples and cultures of Africa and the African diaspora.

The donation will also help the department to recruit more expert scholars and teachers, map long-term academic and research priorities and provide new opportunities for students to engage in interdisciplinary scholarship, the university said. 

‘It took me a long time to begin to understand how I internalized systemic racism,’ Kauffman told Brandeis. 

‘I’ve been working really hard to become an ally, an anti-racist. And this seemed to me to be a way that I could participate in the conversation from a white woman’s perspective.’

Casting: Marta, 65, who co-created the NBC sitcom with David Crane, said she felt 'embarrassed' that 'Friends' featured a predominantly white cast

Casting: Marta, 65, who co-created the NBC sitcom with David Crane, said she felt ’embarrassed’ that ‘Friends’ featured a predominantly white cast

Since the announcement of the donation, Marta told the Los Angeles Times: ‘I’ve gotten nothing but love. It’s been amazing. It surprised me to some extent, because I didn’t expect the news to go this wide.

‘I’ve gotten a flood of emails and texts and posts that have been nothing but supportive. I’ve gotten a lot of ‘It’s about time.’ Not in a mean way. It’s just people acknowledging it was long overdue.’

At the time of the release of Friends: The Reunion, which was criticized for sidestepping the issue of the lack of diverse roles, her perspective on diversity started to shift. 

‘It was after what happened to George Floyd that I began to wrestle with my having bought into systematic racism in ways I was never aware of,’ Marta told the LA Times. 

‘That was really the moment that I began to examine the ways I had participated. I knew then I needed to course-correct.’

Guest star: It took the show until 2002 to cast Aisha Tyler, the first black actress to become a series regular on the show, playing Dr. Charlie Wheeler, a paleontology professor who ended up dating Ross Geller (David Schwimmer) in season nine. But she only lasted nine episodes

Guest star: It took the show until 2002 to cast Aisha Tyler, the first black actress to become a series regular on the show, playing Dr. Charlie Wheeler, a paleontology professor who ended up dating Ross Geller (David Schwimmer) in season nine. But she only lasted nine episodes

It comes after David, who played Ross on the hit show, told The Guardian in an interview in 2019 that he was always pushing for diversity on Friends.

‘I was well aware of the lack of diversity and I campaigned for years to have Ross date women of color,’ he said.

‘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.’ 

It took the show until 2002 to cast Aisha Tyler, the first black actress to become a series regular on the show, playing Dr. Charlie Wheeler, a paleontology professor who ended up dating Ross in season nine.

The realization about the show’s lack of black characters has sometimes been hard – Kauffman got emotional in 2020 while admitting that she didn’t do enough to promote diversity on her hit NBC sitcom. 

Marta was asked during the virtual 2020 ATX TV Festival about what she ‘wished she knew’ when she started her career in television.

The writer/producer teared up and got emotional, stating: ‘I wish I knew then what I know today. 

‘What makes this truly emotional for me is that I want this connection I didn’t have,’ she said. ‘I deeply, deeply want this connection with the Black community that I didn’t have. Because of ‘Friends,’ I never attained that.’ 

‘Sorry, I just wish I knew then what I know now. I would’ve made very different decisions,’ Kauffman added, referring to the show’s lack of diversity, which it was often criticized for.

‘I mean we’ve always encouraged people of diversity in our company, but I didn’t do enough and now all I can think about is what can I do?’ she added.

‘What can I do differently? How can I run my show in a new way? And that’s something I not only wish I knew when I started showrunning, but I wish I knew all the way up through last year,’ Kauffman said.

Brandeis’ African and African American studies department was established in 1969 and is one of the oldest such departments in the country. 

Chad Williams, the university’s Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Professor of History and African and African American Studies, said the new professorship will place Brandeis in a leadership role in the broader academic community and public sphere.

Pictured: (clockwise from left) Courteney Cox as Monica Geller, Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, David Schwimmer as Ross Geller, Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green, Matt LeBlanc as Joey Tribbiani and Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay

Pictured: (clockwise from left) Courteney Cox as Monica Geller, Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, David Schwimmer as Ross Geller, Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green, Matt LeBlanc as Joey Tribbiani and Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay

‘We’re at a time in this country’s history where students are looking for opportunities to expand their intellectual and political horizons, and looking for places where they can articulate what it means to be a young person in a time of incredible change and upheaval, particularly as it relates to race,’ he said. 

‘Brandeis needs to embrace that and recognize there’s an opportunity to lead with our department at the forefront.’

Kauffman also confirmed that any future projects would include a more diverse cast. 

‘I feel I was finally able to make some difference in the conversation,’ Kauffman told the LA Times.

‘I have to say, after agreeing to this and when I stopped sweating, it didn’t unburden me, but it lifted me up. But until in my next production I can do it right, it isn’t over. 

‘I want to make sure from now on in every production I do that I am conscious in hiring people of color and actively pursue young writers of color. I want to know I will act differently from now on. And then I will feel unburdened.’

You can hear Marta Kauffman discussing friendships, race and sexism with presenter Kim Chakanetsa and Ghanaian director Nicole Amarteifio on The Conversation on the BBC World Service on Monday 11 July at 11.30-12.00 BST. 

Long-running sitcom: 'Friends' has been criticized for having a lack of diversity on the show

Long-running sitcom: ‘Friends’ has been criticized for having a lack of diversity on the show 

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