The Empty Vase and the Dick Poet of Friends

Poetry Is Hard, Ok?

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That’s right, y’all. It’s time to tackle a big one, or at least a big one for me personally. It’s time to talk about Friends.

You love it, you hate it, you love to hate it. Whether it’s mere meme fodder to you or a show that you fall asleep to every night, Friends is one of the most popular television shows of all time. And that means that its engagement with poetry reached a lot—and I mean A LOT—of people.

As a woman, as a poet, and as a human being with a functional brain, I’ve never been able to let go of the implications of the episode called “The One with All the Jealousy,” otherwise known in the basement of my psyche as “The One with the Empty Vase.”

In this Season 3 episode, Monica becomes romantically involved with a Baudelaire-toting busboy named Julio (Carlos Gómez) at her diner job. He ends up writing a poem about her that Monica at first finds charming and mysterious and sensitive. But it turns out that she has understood the poem quite poorly, and Julio later reveals that his shitty poem that likens a woman to an empty vase “is about all women.” Monica gets pissed and takes her kind of over-the-top revenge. The whole thing has damaged and fascinated me for decades.

You, too?

The Empty Vase

The issue of the poem itself—what it implies about women and about poetry—is fascinating and fucked up.

The Empty Vase is what cultural stereotypes about women ask us to be: delicate, transparent, beautiful receptacles that are easily interchanged. Women who adhere to the cultural conditioning are repugnant to Julio, who seems like the kind of guy who would claim that he loves women who don’t wear makeup but then ask you if you’re sick when you show up to work without any. Men who call out women who are and become what society asks them to be are misguided to the max. Direct that blame where it belongs, my dude: at the patriarchy.

But in the short term—on the hyper-local level, you might say—yes, the metaphor is insulting. Monica doesn’t understand the poem and its implications at first. For years I’ve been asking myself, could she really have been so foolish as to purchase an empty vase (!) and tie a ribbon on it (!!) to gift to Julio after their bone sesh? Could any woman?

We’re treated to only a few lines of Julio’s poem, which is evidently even longer than what we hear. But along with Julio and Monica’s conversation about poetry earlier in the episode, it’s enough for us to understand the way that poetry is being utilized in the show and understandings of poetry’s abilities and limitations in the 1990s (and, if I’m honest, today). As promised, let’s look at three poetry tropes on offer before digging into the more disturbing stuff.

Trope 1: Clichéd Topics & Roles

One extremely relatable moment in the psychotic exchange between Monica and Julio occurs when she asks, “what kind of things do you write about?”

Oh, how many awkward conversations have I endured when this question was asked. You know why I typically avoid answering it? Because when one describes what they actually write about, they end up sounding just as stupid as Julio does when he lists some of his preferred subjects:

the shadow of a tree...
a child laughing...

this lip…

Yes, poets write about trees and shadows and children’s laughter, but they are among the most clichéd of topics. And when Julio then pivots to talking about Monica’s lip(s), he’s engaging one of the most nefarious poet tropes of them all: the poetry-as-seduction trope.

The reading and writing of poetry is often used to signal that a character is a romantic type who gets around. Julio’s character is not subtle in his sexual overtones. He’s reading Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal), which Monica finds lying on the countertop at closing time. The lush 1857 volume of poetry deals in a good bit of eroticism, further strengthening this connection.

And we’re just getting started.

Trope 2: Poetry Has to Rhyme

When Monica asks if Julio is enjoying the book, he says, “I thought that I would, but the translation’s no good.” Monica then utters my least favorite phrase, which I talked about in my post on Moonrise Kingdom: “you’re a poet and you don’t know it.”

Sheesh. Turns out, Julio does know it. So much so that he comes right out and says it: “I am a poet.” Alright then. Julio tells her he could write an “epic poem” about her lip. Monica is suitably twitterpated and the two kiss. Afterward, she quips, “It didn’t rhyme, but I liked it.”

Coincidentally, that’s what many of my well-meaning relatives say when they read my work. Hey-o! It’s what many high school poetry students say when I play a video of Danez Smith destroying the known universe. It’s the first-thought association of everyone and their brother and their brother’s mother.

Trouble is, there’s this fun new 150-year-old thing called free verse, Monica. Look it up! As I talked about in the Moonrise post, poems (and poets) are interested in different things, and one of those things is rhyme. And that’s it! A lack of rhyme does not equate to a lack of skill, and the use of rhyme does not a poet make.

Trope 3: Poems Are Mysteries

I’ve said it before, and I probably won’t ever stop saying it: The idea that poems are mysteries or puzzle boxes that only the shrewdest among us can unlock is untrue and turns readers (especially young readers) away from the art form. But that’s exactly where Friends sets up camp and remains for the night, for all the nights.

The crux of the empty vase episode revolves around Monica bandying about the poem that Julio wrote for her—which, I MIGHT ADD, he stopped to write (!) while they were FOOLING AROUND (!!)—and discovering that it’s not as romantic as she thought it was.

“I’m totally dense about poetry,” she says, but admits that she thinks the poem is pretty good before giving the handwritten poem to Phoebe, Chandler, and Joey to read. Joey reads aloud the title (“The Empty Vase”) and what are ostensibly the first two words of the poem (“Translucent beauty…”) before being encouraged to read silently to himself. After Monica leaves, Phoebe rereads a few key lines aloud to the group:

My vessel so lovely with nothing inside

Now that I’ve touched you

you seem emptier still

Phoebe is appalled at Julio’s poem and what its central image says about women. Setting aside the fact that calling a woman a vessel in any context is just… no… the poem is misogynistic and not very good, for anyone playing along at home.

After Phoebe helps Monica understand the poem’s meaning off-camera (after she happens upon Monica wrapping an empty vase as a gift for Julio in the ultimate moment of cringe, that is), Monica storms into the diner and confronts Julio:

“I don’t write ‘trick’ poems,” she spits, “that seem to be about one thing but are actually about something else.”

Monica that’s… that’s just metaphor. That’s literally the definition of a metaphor. Though poetry, like all art forms, has been rooted in white cis-heteropatriarchal values since, you know, TIME, it’s not a game of keep-away. The point of poetry is not deception: it’s layers and universes of meaning.

While Monica’s admission that she’s “dense” about poetry turns out to be true, her anger at discovering Julio’s metaphor is multiplied exponentially when Julio says the poem isn’t about her but is instead about “all women… well, all American women.”

Oh boy.

I guess if you really want to try to redeem this plotline, you might say that much of the romance between Julio and Monica takes place inside an anachronistic 1950s diner, thus harkening back to a time when gender roles were even more rigid and when it was even more acceptable to cast women as empty(-headed) objects.

But mostly the poem, and the show overall, is hard to defend.

In Which Friends Does Not Age Well

Five years ago, The Huffington Post caught up with Gómez and pointed out that his portrayal as a “Latin lover” stereotype hasn’t aged well. The show itself is fueled by an unreal amount of fat jokes, gay jokes, and jokes about Joey’s IQ, and its record on race is no better. It’s harder and harder for me to watch this show without feeling wounded by it, disappointed in it, and embarrassed that it has had such a huge market share of our airwaves and, for folks my age, our cultural imaginations.

“The One with All the Jealousy” pushes further into this disturbing territory when Monica goes on to hire a barbershop quartet singing telegram to make fun of Julio and get back at him for his sexist poem in the credit scene. It’s fairly savage.

Your poems are unpublished and you work in a diner. Damn. While I think that Julio sucks and his poem is misogynistic and poorly written, making fun of a poet’s socioeconomic status and lack of publications, some very real pain points for writers today, seems almost unthinkable to me.

There are poets working today who are known abusers, manipulators, and dangers to women, and mean barbershop quartets are not even a fraction of a percent of what those men deserve. But Julio is not those things: he’s just a dime-a-dozen dick. And the way Monica goes for the jugular here thrills and disturbs me.

Is it satisfying? Sure, I guess. Mr. Pretentious, they call him. And for a moment I think, get him, Monica. But feeling so safe and secure ensconced in her bubble of white (self-professed) anti-intellectual womanhood while publically destroying a poet of color because he thinks women are shallow feels like bringing a gun to a knife fight.

In the end, everyone’s hands are dirty. And that kind of an ending feels true and real and honest. But we’re asked to see Monica as the victor, here, laughing at the pig poet she got involved with. If the show were made today, I wonder if it would be any more nuanced, or any less wedded to its classist and racist overtones. Probably not, but that’s why I’m here, sans barbershop quartet, to see through this empty vase and its empty considerations.

May your poems and your bedsheets be free of empty vases both real and imagined. Amen.

Eleven-year-old me was not prepared for the treatment of poetry, poets, and women that Friends’ “The One with All the Jealousy” offered me. At least in the year of our lord 2021 I have the space and the intellectual resources to think about this episode more deeply.

Thank you, thank you, thank you to all of my friends who helped to beta-test this idea during a wine-fueled Galentine’s Day Zoom Present-a-Thon earlier this year. Thank you to anyone and everyone who has held this private meme in their souls since they saw it years ago or yesterday.

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