What About Ben?

Last night we caught the ‘What If’ episodes of Friends, where Joey wonders what his life would have been like if he hadn’t been fired from Days of Our Lives, Phoebe’s if she had taken a job with Merrill Lynch, Rachel’s if she’d married Barry, and so forth. We see these scenarios, and, in the end, learn that nothing would’ve changed. Except for Ross.

Any fan of Friends is familiar with the marital plights of Ross, beginning with his first wife’s revelation that she prefers women. These alternate reality episodes end with the same conclusion, minus one very important detail: Ben. Ben is Ross’s son by his first wife, and in the ‘What If’ world, Ben doesn’t exist.

Of course, Ben doesn’t exist either way. We’re talking about Friends, here. This ain’t Roots. How can I possibly get upset over an episode of Friends, to the extent that I’d want to spend time writing about it?

The ending of these two episodes is schmaltzy. We’re supposed to ‘Awwww!’ and realize that friends are friends, no matter what, and that the Friends we’ve come to love will never change. Details may come and go, but the ‘important’ bits remain the same: Monica and Chandler will always love each other, Phoebe will always be a free-spirit, and Joey will always be…Joey.

But if what’s important is what really matters, then where’s Ben? I’ve only been a father for three years, but it didn’t take me long to realize that Ian is one of the most important parts of my life. Is Ben simply a detail in Ross’s life?

Of course. And that’s what’s bothering me.

As much as I enjoy Friends, I simply can’t ignore the show’s marginalist attitude toward children, whose only purpose is to further a plot. The fact is, Ben never had much of a place in Ross’s life. Being single, and having the freedom to do what you like, when you like, is much more important to Friends. Kids are an obstacle, a conflict…something to be resolved.

This trend only worsened when Rachel gave birth to Emma. In any given post-Emma episode, I’m always asking myself, ‘Where’s Emma? Who’s watching Emma?’ Rachel goes to work, Rachel goes to the movies, Rachel drinks coffee, and Emma is nowhere to be found. In Rachel’s case, Emma isn’t an obstacle; she’s an accessory.

A few weeks ago, I took Ian to our mall playground. As we started to play, I noticed a mother sitting in the corner, her nose buried in a book. Another dad was playing games on his handheld. That same mother had her same nose buried in the same book when we left.

Thankfully we’ll always have The Cosby Show.

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