Always the Best Friend, never the hero. Why do so many stories choose to sideline the BFF, who’s only there to support the protagonist? What does this trope say about friendship?
TRANSCRIPTThe Best Friend Trope, Explained
Always a best friend, never a protagonist. So often the onscreen BFF seems to be there solely to support or add dimension to the person we’re really supposed to care about. If we look at the best friend character type in cinema and TV, some patterns emerge:
They’re a token. While the story’s hero tends to be white, straight, and conventionally attractive, the best friend might more often be a person of color, LGBTQ, or belong to another marginalized community. Freed from the narrow expectations usually imposed on hero characters, the best friend may get to have a more colorful personality than the lead. They can be found offering comic relief or spicing up their bestie’s life with witty remarks. They’re often a pretty amazing friend—the kind most of us can only dream of. Whether they’re dispensing sage inspirational advice, smoothly assisting in the hero’s personal life, or turning up at the drop of a hat to offer a sympathetic ear this person’s first priority is apparently ensuring their friend lives a fully actualized life. Ultimately, what defines the best friend is that they’re not the focus of the story. They’re there to facilitate someone else’s journey—even when they seem to be just as compelling as the lead.
Joelle Brooks: “It’s just that when I look in the mirror, I see someone who’s beautiful and talented and always the second one you think of.” - Dear White People 2x05
So why is it that so many stories choose to sideline the best friend? And in relegating them to the wings, which traits do the story implicitly deem inferior to the protagonist’s qualities? Here’s our take on the Best Friend onscreen and why when it comes to friendship, the spotlight should be big enough for two.
The Supportive Best Friend
The essence of the best friend type is that they’re supportive. This is a quality we all look for in our nearest and dearest. But on screen, a character who’s just supportive can end up propping up the lead’s characterization without having much else to do.
The best-friend-as-stock character has long been a fixture of rom-coms. In this context, they tend to be a combination of cheerleader… and life coach, who tries to push the main character towards happiness. Becky in Sleepless in Seattle sets the central romance in motion by mailing Annie’s letter to Sam and then sending her to Seattle to meet him. Patti in Under the Tuscan Sun encourages Frances to take the ticket to Italy that Patti had originally bought for herself, urging Frances to use this opportunity to reignite her life.
Judy Greer has made a career of playing the best friend – in movies like The Wedding Planner, 13 Going on 30, and 27 Dresses. She even poked fun at this typecasting in a 2014 Funny or Die sketch –
Judy Greer: “I don’t really have a lot going on… except being Sarah’s best friend.” - Judy Greer is the best friend with Ben Mckenzie
There’s a bitter irony at the end of the skit when she meets a potential love interest and opts to set him up with her friend instead, underscoring the absurdity of this character type who is selfless to the point of overlooking her own happiness.
Meanwhile, because the main character is almost always a white, straight, thin person, making the best friend one of few black, gay, or fat characters can feel like tokenism. Sometimes this plays on stereotypes. On Sex and the City, Charlotte’s and Carrie’s respective “gay best friends” Anthony and Stanford are mostly there to dispense relationship advice and make quips, with Anthony, in particular, living up to the idea of the “sassy gay friend.”
In the series, the two men hate each other. But in Sex and the City 2, they’re paired up – undermining their evident mutual dislike with the lazy device that the two gay people in a story must make sense as a couple.
Dave Chapelle played the best friend role in 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, serving as a fun sounding board for Tom Hanks. And he turns up again to play the supportive friend to Bradley Cooper’s Jack in 2018’s A Star is Born, helping Jack recover from a drinking binge. In both movies, he encapsulates how the best friend seems like they’d be cool and fun if you got more time with them, but within this story exists entirely in relation to the protagonist. Ultimately, even if the best friend is a lot more than the sidekick, automatically putting actors who fit categories of “otherness” into the supporting role sends the damaging message that being gay, fat, or non-white is niche and wouldn’t have broad appeal.
Another way that the best friend can service the main character’s story is symbolical – by representing an aspect of their psyche. In Sex and the City, you could read Carrie’s three best friends each as embodying a different aspect of the archetypal woman searching for love – Miranda is the brain, Charlotte is the heart, and Samantha is the “sex drive.” Another version of the best friend that’s used symbolically is the “childhood friend,” who reflects what the featured character used to be like. Often, the protagonist leaves behind this old friend, signaling that they’re undergoing a radical change.
Ultimately, the problem with the stock best friend is that their one true purpose is to add definition, complexity, or color to the main character. Even stories that seem to present a well-rounded vision of friendship and give more focus to the best friend can still be guilty of this. Leslie and Ann on Parks and Recreation are routinely painted as #BFFgoals and we might think Ann gets her due, given how often Leslie heaps praise on her friend – but we never really get the chance to understand what’s so great about Ann. Instead, Leslie’s adoration serves to show the viewers what a loving, sunshine-y person she is, as if it’s the way she sees Ann – rather than Ann herself – that is truly special.
Leslie Knope: “You’ve resuscitated a human heart in your bare hands.”
Ann Perkins: “No, I haven’t.”
Leslie Knope: “You haven’t?”
Ann Perkins: “No.”
Leslie Knope: “You will. You’re that good of a nurse” - Parks and Rec 4x11
The Overlooked Best Friend
If we look to literature, we can find precursors of the best friend trope who’ve been getting the short end of the stick for centuries. Devilishly clever and charismatic Mercutio, Romeo’s bestie in Romeo and Juliet, is the realist to Romeo’s dreamer. He’s also deeply loyal to his friend – a quality that ends up costing him his life and making him depart this world in total disillusionment. Hamlet’s equally loyal friend Horatio considers dying rather than living in a world without Hamlet. But in the end, he stays alive to tell his best friend’s story.
Hamlet: “Absent thee from felicity a while and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.” - Hamlet
In Pride and Prejudice, while Elizabeth Bennet lives a great love story with Mr. Darcy, her best friend Charlotte gets a much more realistic fate for women of their time: settling for a silly, self-important man she doesn’t respect. Here the best friend’s lesser lot is made very explicit: Lizzy herself has already rejected Mr. Collins, and she judges her friend for accepting his proposal. But like Mercutio, Charlotte is more practical than her story’s protagonist.
Charlotte Lucas: “I’m not romantic you know, I never was. I ask only a comfortable home.” - Pride and Prejudice 1x03
So why do all these prototypes for today’s Best Friends get a raw deal? Part of the problem is that the main character often isn’t nearly as good a friend back to their devoted sidekick. When we do get a glimpse of what’s going on inside the best friend, it becomes clear that the best friend has their own deep inner life which the main character is totally oblivious to. But the main problem is that the narrative itself short shrifts this character. The best friend just doesn’t get the hero’s epic, victorious arc. Delilah in How Stella Got Her Groove Back encourages Stella to embrace life with open arms, while she herself is dying. They also don’t get much opportunity for character growth. In 10 Things I Hate About You, Bianca and her friend Chastity both start out as superficial airheads, but only Bianca matures into a better person.
Bianca Stratford: “He’s all yours.”
Chastity: “Very generous, princess. And just so you know, Joey only liked you for one reason. He even had a bet going with his friends.” - 10 Things I Hate About You
Often the static best friend is implied to just not want more – to not have the vision that drives the featured character. Still, in some cases, it feels like the best friend could have been a great protagonist. Take Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Even though the movie’s title and direct-to-camera narration tells us this is Ferris’ story, it’s Cameron who undergoes a dramatic arc of change – becoming something of a back-door protagonist. Grey’s Anatomy fan favorite Cristina has long been considered the show’s best character for her confidence, no-bullshit attitude, and unapologetic ambition. While this isn’t Yang’s Anatomy, on some level Cristina represents the true soul of the series. For all her dark twisty-ness, the protagonist Meredith still takes a fairly conventional path as she meets her soulmate and eventually settles into marriage and motherhood. But show creator Shonda Rhimes said that she let Cristina (whom she based on herself), quote, “do and think and live in ways that voiced my dreams. She did not want to get married. She had a genius that she chased. She loved her work. I gave her a strident desire to not have children because while I adore children, I wanted to watch her fight that feminist battle and win.”
Cristina Yang: “I really, really, really don’t want to be a mother. I want to be a surgeon, and please…get it” - Grey’s Anatomy 8x1
So sometimes, not bearing the responsibility of being a traditional protagonist can liberate a best friend character to take a more interesting, less-traveled road.
BoJack Horseman’s Diane is also the soul of her series, reflecting the attitudes of the show’s writers in her competing love for and disappointment in BoJack. As BoJack’s moral compass, she shows that one mark of a great best friend character is the way they challenge the main character to be better than they are. But Diane is her own person with a separate destiny from BoJack, and in the end, the show underlines that, in real life, best friends aren’t just permanently hanging around to be there for you no matter what.
BoJack Horseman: “Wouldn’t it be funny if tonight was the last time we ever talked to each other? - BoJack Horseman 6x16
On Dear White People, while Sam is set up as the star, her friend Joelle is not only charismatic, fun, well-adjusted, and smart, but she’s also pre-med, was her high school’s valedictorian, and happens to be a beautiful singer. Still, unlike the other major characters, she doesn’t get her own point-of-view episode until the second season, just as (in her world) Joelle feels overlooked by her peers in favor of the flashier, outspoken Sam. Eventually, though, Dear White People itself comes to recognize Joelle’s awesomeness, as she goes from being on the sidelines and pining for Reggie while he’s hung up on Sam in season 1, to co-hosting the titular radio show and winning her crush’s heart in season two.
In recent years we’ve started to see a shift in onscreen entertainment toward putting former best-friend types front and center. In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, it’s the Korean-American Lara Jean who’s the protagonist, while her white, blonde best friend Chris is placed firmly in supporting role territory. The DUFF’s lead Bianca is viewed by her peers as the token ugly friend to her two beautiful besties. And more best friends are stepping up to claim agency and personhood, like when Booksmart’s Amy rebels against Molly’s controlling tendency to cast her as the sidekick.
Amy: “You force me to do whatever you want to do!”
Molly: “What does that even mean?”
Amy: “You decide what we do and when we do it!” - Booksmart
The Joys of a Best Friend
Part of what makes the one-dimensional stock best friend a missed opportunity is that friendship naturally makes for rich, complex story material – and having a best friend is one of the greatest joys of life.
This is the appeal of Friends, which features six main characters who are the most important people in each other’s twenty- and thirty-something lives. The show capitalizes on our collective wish-fulfillment through the group’s profound closeness and fun times together. This level of friendship is something many of us long for, whether because we’ve never experienced it or because we’ve lost it to time and the demands of adult life.
Ted Mosby: “The friends, neighbors, drinking buddies, and partners in crime you love so much when you’re young, as the years go by, you just lose touch.” - How I Met Your Mother 9x21
While our society doesn’t tend to place enough concrete value on friendship, in actuality few things are as essential to our happiness and wellbeing. This is played up in Bridesmaids, where the love object that the women compete over is a platonic best friend – suggesting that this kind of relationship is perhaps even more precious than a romantic mate. Bromances too are extremely important, especially because men traditionally maintain fewer friendships than women.
Peter Klaven: “So what do I do? How do I make friends?”
Robbie Klaven: “If you see a cool looking guy, strike up a conversation and ask him on a man date.” - I Love You Man
Good friendship stories have the same nuance and gravity as romances. This is no doubt part of the phenomenal success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, which focus on the fascinating, complicated lifelong bond between two Italian women.
Elena Greco: “What you do, I do” - My Brilliant Friend 1x1
The best friendship stories out there are successful because they center the friends equally, rather than framing the narrative as one person’s journey with their pal in the background cheering them on.
It follows that the root of many friendship fallouts is a feeling of inequality. For any relationship to be healthy, it can’t be polluted by feelings of jealousy, superiority, or an uneven power dynamic. Of course, it’s natural to sometimes resent a more powerful friend when the world is casting us as their invisible sidekick. Kelly Rowland felt this with her former Destiny’s Child bandmate Beyoncé, a dynamic she explored in the single “Dirty Laundry”. But we can take encouragement from Beyoncé’s loving response to her friend’s song
Perhaps the most aspirational real-life friendship in our culture is that of Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King, who met in their early twenties while working at a Baltimore TV station and are still bound at the hip more than forty years later.
Oprah Winfrey: “She is the sister everybody would want. She is the friend that everybody deserves.” - ABC News Interview
Winfrey said in 2019, “Now that Gayle’s a shining star on CBS This Morning, people often ask her how she felt being in the shadow of my success. The truth is, she always felt not a shadow, but the light. We couldn’t have remained friends if she’d perceived it as a shadow.” Recent onscreen stories also highlight friends who find joy in lifting each other up.
So it emerges that the secret to sustaining a forever friendship is not to view it, as Hollywood so often dictates, through the cinematic lens of the protagonist and supporting role. We all see ourselves as the main characters of our own lives – and there’s room in the frame for us and our friends to stand shoulder to shoulder, equally bright, reflecting each other’s glow.
Raftery, Liz. “Shonda Rhimes Reveals Which Grey’s Anatomy Character She Based on Herself - And Why.” TV Guide, 9 Nov. 2015.
Winfrey, Oprah. “Oprah Explains Why She and Gayle King ‘Will Always be in Each Other’s Corner.’” Oprah Magazine, 7 Aug. 2019.
Farley, Rebecca. “Dear White People Season 2 Binge Club: Episodes 1 – 10 Recaps.” Refinery29, 4 May 2018.