We recently put together an article about television shows that focus on a group of friends, and it got us thinking about portrayals of friendship in the broader media landscape.
We’d like to explore various depictions of best friends in movies and TV shows in this article, and you’re more than welcome to add to the conversation by commenting on the article, but in general, we want to float between several media properties that at least attempt to capture best friendships in different settings, time periods, and gender combinations.
(Please keep in mind that these gender representations are all binary. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a great deal of inclusive gender representations in media, especially with regards to depictions of friendship).
But that’s more of an intro than we really need, so let’s get going.
Anne of Green Gables – Wholesome Female-Female Friendship
If you’re already a fan of the Anne of Green Gables series, then you will no doubt know all about Anne and her bosom friend Diana Barry.
Diana is the only girl in town that’s close to Anne’s age, and so Anne latches on pretty quickly and never really lets go.
Some might say that the relationship between these two characters is squeaky clean and wholesome and not much else, but that’s not completely true.
For one, it’s safe to say that many readers of the series used Anne and Diana as a means to reflect on their own real-life friendships. It also offers a fairly specific definition of a best friend: the friend who’s reliable and caring and all that, but who also has just been there the longest.
Maybe some of you readers out there on the interwebs can think of that one friend who’s been there for you for years and years and years.
It takes something special to stick with someone for such a long time, in any kind of relationship, and one of the other great strengths of the way that Anne and Diana are portrayed is that we get to see them, and their friendship, develop over a great span of time.
The Anne of Green Gables series ran for a very long time indeed, and throughout the course of all those books and, later, even film adaptations, we got to see these two characters do their best to stay in touch and stay connected through some major life events and many, many challenges.
Their relationship may be a fairly simple portrayal of wholesome female-female friendship, but it’s also one that set a certain standard within fiction at large, and there are even echoes of this friendship in more contemporary shows and movies like Sex and the City and Bridesmaids.
I Love You, Man – Low-Brow Male-Male Friendship
Now we’d like to look at an example of, arguably, a not-so-great male-male friendship, and this would also be a good time to explain why we even bothered specifying the genders of the characters in these various friendships.
A good few years back we read a media criticism article that questioned typical depictions of male-male friendships in mainstream entertainment.
It argued (sorry, we couldn’t track down the course) that in almost every case, friendship between two men couldn’t be shown without also including a bunch of low-brow humor, and, more importantly, there was a real resistance to illustrating the emotional side of these relationships.
Any emotional connection between two men tended to be distanced from genuine emotional impact via irony and humor. Or a movie would go out of its way to confirm that male characters were straight, which Mike Stoklasa of Redlettermedia referred to as showing the audience that they have a case of the Not-Gays.
In our eyes, this reflected much broader social resistance to allowing men to be outwardly emotional, and in certain cases, it may have even been an attempt to assure audiences that, no, of course these characters aren’t gay.
And, unfortunately, we see I Love You, Man as an example of this dated sense of resistance. There are a handful of emotional moments, but the overarching joke is that these two men get along so well and that, in certain ways, their relationship mirrors a romantic relationship.
Emotion is undercut with jokes, and they’re often pretty bad jokes, too.
This movie definitely isn’t the worst offender when it comes to preventing male characters from being emotional on screen, but it definitely didn’t contribute to progress in this area.
Hot Fuzz – Positive Male-Male Friendship
With that context, we move on to a movie that does an excellent job of just letting two male characters be friends. Period.
Our two leads, played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, build an unlikely friendship by spending time with each other and working together as police officers in a small, idyllic English village.
Perhaps it helped that Pegg and Frost are real-life friends, but their on-screen presence never seemed anything but genuine.
There haven’t been a great deal of buddy comedies in recent years, and come to think of it, straight comedies seem to have basically disappeared, outside of the Borat sequel, but this movie is a fantastic example of responsible writing that brings a rare sense of positivity to a very old character dynamic.
Search Party – Male-Female Friendship
Rounding off our discussion of gendered best friendships in movies and television, it’s Search Party, one of the only shows we could think of that actually sustains a male-female friendship without introducing a romantic component.
Specifically, we’re talking about the characters Elliott Goss and Portia Davenport, played by John Early and Meredith Hagner, respectively.
These two well-off characters are already best friends at the start of the show, but the series does such a great job of giving us tiny windows into their relationship.
For the most part, they support each other without question, but, in one of the best episodes of the first season, their relationship is strained by Elliott’s near-continuous lying.
Portia is much more than a pretty girl and Elliott is much more than an attention hog, and their relationship with each other is much more than what we tend to see in American television.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – Toxic Friendship
If you know this show well, then you also know that these characters are not to be admired in any way.
Likewise, the writers behind the show, which include members of the main cast, aren’t trying to depict healthy relationships.
The Gang in Always Sunny are definitely friends, close friends even. But they’re not the kinds of friends that anyone in the real world should strive to be.
Specifically, Mac and Dennis could be considered best friends, and yet they treat each other horribly. (Most often, Dennis treats Mac horribly, but there’s some reciprocation there as well.)
Sadly, there are real-life best friendships that are inherently toxic, or that become toxic over time, and we feel that there’s a great deal of value in showing that in contemporary media.
The Office – Frienemies
Last but not least, we have a best friendship that would probably fall into the frienemies category. (Is that how people spell that term? It’s not a real word so it’s kind of tricky to research.)
We’re talking about Dwight Schrute and Jim Halpert in the American adaptation of The Office.
For the first few seasons of the show, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that these two characters are just straight-up enemies.
But over time, we find out that Jim and Dwight actually care about each other, at least up to a point, and part of that affection comes from how long they’ve worked together.
Towards the end of the show especially, there are some wonderful scenes where Dwight and Jim actually bother being nice to one another, and it helps to round out a show that became famous for its comedically strong and emotionally impactful ensemble cast.