On Ross & Rachel and the Idealization of Courtly Love

So, y’all, since I’m deep in thesis land thinking and reading a lot about courtly love, it’s time to have a little talk about its continued relevance today and why we all need to be aware of it as a trope, not an idealization of practiced love ethics.

Let’s be honest: if you are a Friends fan, then you’ve probably had a debate or discussion over which couple (Monica & Chandler or Ross & Rachel) is better/more goals. I recently had this debate with a new person a few weeks ago, and it’s the first time in quite a while that someone tries to tell me that Ross & Rachel are the better couple. What took me aback as the conversation carried on was that this person claimed that Ross & Rachel “are so much more romantic and passionate,” because, I’m sorry, but no. Just no. That’s not a qualifier for better, and, if I’m being honest, they’re not really more romantic. They are, however, more Romantic. This opinion—sadly shared by others including, perhaps, even the writers & producers of Friends—is indicative of a greater societal issue: the idealization of the courtly love dynamic.

Now, I know, I know: how can Friends possibly have anything to do with the Middle Ages? It’s contemporary, and completely wrapped up in contemporary tropes, issues, and life! Courtly love requires Chivalry and Knights and Quests and all that good adventurous stuff. Besides which: what’s wrong with courtly love? Who doesn’t want passionate, totally devoted love in their life? WELL. Time to stop for a hot sec and think about what the hell courtly love actually is. And that is: heteronormative, patriarchal, masochistic crap. Don’t get me wrong, I love me my trash babies Lancelot & Guinevere and Tristram & Ysolt as much as the next person; I’m not impervious to the sheer force of romantic emotion that courtly love evokes. But I also recognize all of its flaws, and there are a lot of them. For starters, courtly love is the ultimate objectification of the ideal woman by 1/ a desperate Incel or 2/ a group of military men. Yes, you read that right: 1/ troubadours or 2/ knights. Courtly love isn’t just experienced within the constituents of the OTP; actually, the OG courtly love could only exist as long as the lady in question never allows the ‘relationship’ to be consummated. Why? Because basically courtly love is the act of a poet (a troubadour, in the early stages of courtly love literature) or knight (in the later stages of courtly love literature) writing/performing devotional poems/acts for love of the lady of the household said poet/knight serves. Which means that this lady is married. To the lord. You know: the “boss” of our poet/knight. And the whole damn point of it all is that these dudes (yes, any knight and any poet—probably all of them in the household) who are young and poor and horny as hell, become hopelessly besotted by the young, beautiful, rich lady (most likely married to some old geezer she doesn’t love).

Meanwhile, this lady needs to not be sleeping with other dudes so that her husband can have a legitimate heir, but she can conveniently get all of her love-struck, sword-bearing puppies to do whatever she wants (even if—and especially when–she’s a total bitch to them). So, she basically acts as an extension of her lord’s power and dominion over the people, effectively subduing and making obedient all of the hot-blooded young dudes in the household. Cool, right? No. I mean, would you like having a group of men literally drooling over you, begging you for attention (and sex), and then getting mad at you for not fucking them because you’re married? Nah. That’s as bad as getting cat-called on the street and then having the dude shout a slew of misogynistic bullshit at you for flipping him the finger.

Yeah, so what does this have to do with Ross and Rachel? I mean, Rachel isn’t married. She and Ross definitely consummated their relationship. So, their love was reciprocal and just dramatic af, right? Wrong again. Ross was obsessed with Rachel since the 9th grade. Not ‘in love’; the show explicitly tells us that he was obsessed with her. For years. Literally years. All of high school and at least one year into university before he met Carol (in fact, we are given to understand that he remained in love with Rachel even though he got it on with other women in uni and married Carol… so ultimate courtly lover). Besides which, in the pilot episode, their love-plot is the first to be set up, indeed, it’s almost the central aspect of Ross’s character development: he awkwardly pops open his umbrella when he sees her, presumably because he’s still a nervous love-struck idiot around her; he stirs her sweet-n-low into her coffee for her; when he’s sitting, looking out the window and talking to Joey he says, “Even if I could pull myself together enough to ask someone out, who would I ask?” and then the scene cuts immediately to Rachel sitting by the window, suggesting a romantic link between the two; and finally at the end of the episode when he returns to Monica’s he “grabs a spoon” by asking Rachel if he could “ask her out sometime, maybe.” Rachel, of course, is your stereotypical rich-girl cheerleader who never had to work a day in her life and takes everyone else’s help for granted (again, the coffee thing comes to mind). Even though she said that she would be ok with Ross asking her out, when he doesn’t, she’s conveniently oblivious to how pathetically in love with her Ross is. So, then, she begins dating other men (Paolo, for instance, and then Barry again), essentially inhabiting the role of the ideal, unattainable woman who friend-zones her devoted admirer and takes advantage of his affections. (Side-note: it’s hard to talk about the courtly lady without it sounding like hating, because, let’s be honest, those medieval men were misogynistic af and knew how to propagate that in their characterization of the domna. But for the record I think all the ladies are badass, and I generally adore Rachel).

Right, so what’s wrong with a little drama in order to make the audience desire the couple as strongly as Ross does? Well, nothing, except that it’s deeply unhealthy for both Ross and Rachel—enter Chandler and Joey, the voices of reason. They keep telling Ross to either take the shot or to move the fuck on. And honestly, Ross should have listened. But instead he just sat by and pined after her, always “serving” her and helping her, but never receiving her affection in return, and indeed became possessive of her—remember when he tries to tell Paolo to basically fuck off because he and Rachel are (or “should be”) together? Yeah. Paolo knew before Rachel. Because the entire issue with courtly love is that it’s one-sided, but the intensity of the lover’s affection is such that he then becomes possessive of the lady to an extreme.

And this was the problem with their actual relationship when they did get together. Disclaimer: I’m not going to try to unpack their entire relationship, because I love myself, and I know there’s a lot more that went into everything than just this one literary trope. But, you see, when they started dating, Ross had already been in love with (and, in a way, in a one-sided relationship with) Rachel for at least 10 years. For Rachel, it was a blank slate, still unknown, still waiting to happen. She was in a healthy place in their first relationship, moving along with it at a good place, not mired by years of unrequited affection and service that would make her more prone to jealousy or impatience. Ross, on the other hand, who had always prioritized her above everything else and had done so for years, was bogged down by jealousy and feelings of inadequacy which doubtless can be attributed to both Carol’s betrayal of his trust as well as his long history as the modern troubadour (I’ll go with this because Ross plays “music” and was totally pummeled in rugby). As a result, their uneven affection for one another kind of spelled the doom of their relationship.

Right, so I can’t say that courtly love is responsible for everything that’s wrong with Ross & Rachel…. But I can say that courtly love is responsible for most of the idiotic drama that keeps them apart for 6 years following their first breakup. Ok, let’s first just agree that they did both deeply love one another, had serious communication issues, and probably never got over one another because they just kept hanging out. However, if you notice: every damn time more Ross & Rachel shit comes up, it’s because one of them has got with someone else and the latter just can’t. Rachel wants to go for it again with Ross when he gets with Bonnie. Rachel realizes she’s still in love with Ross when he’s about to marry Emily. Rachel wants to get back with Ross when she’s pregnant, but he’s busy getting it on with Mona. Ross wants to get back with Rachel after the baby, but Rachel 1) agrees to marry Joey, and 2) gives her number to some dude at a bar. There’s just consistently the issue that one of them is unavailable and the other is sat there pining away. COURTLY LOVE. Ross & Rachel spend more damn time pining silently for one another than they do supporting each other and existing in a functional, healthy relationship.

Meanwhile: Monica and Chandler communicate, they work out their problems together, they support one another, they are always moving towards one another, rarely (bordering on never) holding back anything they want to say or anything they feel about the other. As a result, they actually manage to have a beautiful, healthy, functional relationship that, yes, has its downs (as Monica says, “I think that we fell in love and work hard at our relationship—some days we work really hard”), but is never emotionally detrimental to either constituent the way that Ross & Rachel’s relationship often is. And don’t get me wrong, I was beside myself the first time I watched the episode where Rachel finds out about Prom and she gets with Ross. That shit was good. But it was good because we, the audience, had waited and waited and waited—we longed for them to get together as desperately as Ross did. But that is sure as hell not more romantic than Chandler bursting back into Monica’s apartment and saying, “I’m still on London time, does that count?” Or when Chandler fixes his relationship with Monica by telling her his “dictionary definition” of “messing around.” Or when Chandler makes Monica feel better about her bad massages by telling her that she gives the “best bad massages.” Or when this scene happens:

Or, or, or. The list goes on. That shit floors me because it doesn’t come after years or months of them hurting one another (intentionally or unintentionally), but from a place of deep, stable love where you can tell that they care so damn hard about one another. But Ross & Rachel? Their big romantic moments are like a sigh of relief, like, “Thank the fucking gods these two are not attacking each other, but actually getting it on.” And that, my friends, is not romantic. It’s not what we should seek to emulate in our real lives any more than we should seek to emulate Lancelot & Guinevere (m8’s, they brought down the fucking kingdom with their adultery #notcool), or Tristram & Ysolt.

Yea, courtly love is fun. Courtly love as a trope gives us all the angst we could possibly desire. And damnit we love a good angsty love story now and then. But when that becomes the measure of romance, it risks bleeding into our own ideals for a romantic relationship, and, honestly, that shit is unlivable. We should not put courtly-love couples on a pedestal, and it’s more than a little disconcerting that people find actual, intense, and affectionate romance boring. Monica & Chandler are absolutely goals, they’re romantic as hell, and they’re far from boring. They’re who we should be idealizing. But, we can thank our medieval trash-babies and their compelling (if crazy) narratives for the fact that Ross & Rachel are considered, often, the Friends OTP.



Further Reading:

Burns, Jane E. “Courtly Love: Who Needs It? Recent Feminist Work in the Medieval French Tradition.” Signs, vol. 27, no. 1 (2001): pp. 23-57.

—. “The Man behind the Lady in Troubadour Lyric.” Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, edited by Jelena O. Krstovic, vol. 66, Gale, 2004.

—. “Refashioning Courtly Love: Lancelot as Ladies’ Man or Lady/Man?” Constructing Medieval Sexuality. Ed. Karma Lochrie. University of Minnesota Press (1997): pp. 111-134.

Denomy, Alexander J. “Courtly Love and Courtliness.” Speculum, vol. 28, no. 1 (1953): pp. 44-63.

Gaunt, Simon. “Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature.” Cambridge University Press (1995): pp. 71-121.

The Meaning of Courtly Love: Papers of the first annual conference of the Centre for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies State University of New York at Binghamton, March 17-18, 1967. Edited by F.X. Newman. State University of New York Press, 1968.

Medieval Lyric: Genres in Historical Context. Edited by William D. Paden, University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Moller, Herbert. “The Meaning of Courtly Love.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 73, no. 287 (1960): pp. 39-52. JSTOR.

—. “The Social Causation of the Courtly Love Complex.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 1, no. 2 (1959): pp. 137-163.

Moore, John C. “’Courtly Love’: A Problem of Terminology.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol 40. No, 4 (1979): pp. 621-632. JSTOR.

Poetics of Love in the Middle Ages: Texts and Contexts. Edited by Moshe Lazar and Norris J. Lacey. George Mason University Press, 1989.

Ragland, Ellie. “Psychoanalysis and Courtly Love.” Arthuriana, vol. 5, no. 1 (1995): pp. 1-20. JSTOR.

Rasmussen, Ann Marie. “Medieval German Romance.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance, edited by Roberta L. Krueger, Cambridge University Press (2000): pp. 183–202. Cambridge Companions to Literature.

Schultz, James A. “Parzival, Courtly Love, and the History of Sexuality.” Poetica, vol. 38, no. ½ (2006): pp. 31-59. JSTOR.

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