Kathleen Turner recently looked back on her role as a transgender woman in the 90s sitcom Friends, and while she would not take the role today, she says she has no regrets.
Turner appeared as a guest star in two episodes of season seven, portraying Helena Handbasket, Chandler’s drag queen parent who was later confirmed by series creators to be transgender. It’s no secret that many aspects of Friends have not aged gracefully, but this particular character was a low moment for queer representation. Chandler is estranged from Helena specifically because he is embarrassed of her, and she mostly exists on the show to be the butt of jokes, including Chandler nearly puking during one of her performances. Additionally, Helena is known mostly by her deadname and is constantly misgendered.
Turner is an award-winning actress known for several starring roles in films of the 1980s, including Romancing the Stone. But she’s also cisgender.
“There was no question of casting a trans person or a drag queen – it was never considered. It never crossed my mind that I was taking a role from someone,” she told The Guardian in a new interview. When asked if she would take the role now, she responded, “Probably not. But I certainly don’t regret having taken it. It was a challenge!”
Her outlook differs somewhat from Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman. “I’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years,” Kauffman told the LA Times in June. “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.”
On Helena in particular, Kauffman told BBC World Service, “We kept referring to [Helena] 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.”
But this is not the first time Turner has reflected on her portrayal of Helena. In 2018, she told Gay Times, “I don’t think [Friends] aged well. It was a 30-minute sitcom. It became a phenomenon, but no one ever took it seriously as a social comment.
“How they approached me with it was, ‘Would you like to be the first woman playing a man playing a woman?’ I said yes, because there weren’t many drag/trans people on television at the time.”
Turner later reiterated in a 2019 appearance on Watch What Happens Live that times have now changed. She said, “Of course I wouldn’t do it now because there would be real people able to do it.”