The Terrible Best Friend Trope - A Strange Message in So Much TV

Best friends light up our lives, but bad best friends can totally snuff out that spark – and for some reason, they’re everywhere on screen. When we take a closer look at a lot of TV and movie friendships, we quickly realize that things are a little off. Whether they’re side characters with nothing but snippy remarks or main characters that can’t see past their own issues, terrible best friends are a recurring theme. But why?! Today, we’re unpacking the truth behind this trope and taking a look at why these bad best-friend stories can surprisingly be a good thing. Here’s our Take!

CH 1: Besties Behaving Badly

Sometimes in movies and shows, we encounter characters that at first seem like absolute friend goals, but after we take a second look at how they really treat their friends we start to wonder how they have any friends at all. In contrast to examples where a “friend” is obviously not great and only concerned for themselves, these bad besties are framed as good people that we’re supposed to root for by the narrative, and so anything wrong or mean they do is usually either skipped over or explained away. These characters are almost always the main characters of the story, and so at the end of the day, everyone else exists only to further their narrative. Occasionally the stories do work to unpack why the character has made the choices they have (we’ll break down that part of the trope in a minute!) But a lot of the time, getting treated badly just seems to be part of being in a main character’s orbit.

The biggest question in these situations is usually: why do these people even stay friends? But, just like in real life, there are plenty of reasons that someone might stay in a friendship even after they’ve realized that their friend doesn’t treat them the way they deserve. Often it’s a matter of time: they’ve been friends for so long, often since childhood, that they just can’t really imagine life without them. And spending their formative years as a friend to a bad bestie has caused them to forget (or never even get to learn) that friendships shouldn’t be so one-sided – that they shouldn’t always be expected to put their own lives on hold to make their friend happy. There can also be a false sense of comfort in this – maybe they aren’t happy but at least they know what to expect – which can make the rut particularly difficult to break out of. And because of how close they are to the terrible best friend, they can often see the good hiding underneath their selfishness. While they’ve had to live through a lot of the bad friend’s worst moments, they’ve been there for the best ones, too. So there’s always that potential that, one day, the good will outweigh the bad and the bad bestie will come around, and return the favor.

To say Rory Gilmore isn’t always a great friend might be a bit of an understatement – often rather entitled and arrogant, she was the shining star of Stars Hollow and she knew it. Rory often wants everyone else, especially her friends, to drop everything in their lives for her. She expects Lane to listen to her every problem but often doesn’t extend Lane the same care (not to mention ditching her the second she got a boyfriend) With frenemy-turned-actual-friend Paris, the playing field is more level because Paris definitely doesn’t have a problem standing up for herself, but Rory still always operates with the assumption that her wants and needs come first. But, that’s not to say that Rory is never a good friend! She let Lane live with her at Yale and was there for Paris through some dark times. And that’s really what separates the bad besties from just straight-up toxic fake friends: they can be good friends at the end of the day when they’re willing to step out of their own bubble.

Take Carrie Bradshaw – she’ll always stand up for her friends if someone tries to wrong them and hold their hands through their hardest moments. But for most of the show, Carrie is so completely preoccupied with her own drama that she completely sidelines all of her friends (except, of course, when she needs them to comfort her.) She constantly slut shames Samantha, uses Charlotte for money and is constantly derailing conversations to focus on her love life. Being strong-willed, self-confident women themselves, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte do all reach their own breaking points with Carrie’s behavior and call her out. So now let’s take a look at what can happen when mistreated friends finally bite back.

CH 2: Taking a Stand

Everyone has their limits, even best friends. And eventually, after the bad bestie has pushed enough buttons and derailed enough conversations, their friends get to the point where they just can’t take it anymore. And the key difference between a bad bestie and a toxic fake friend, is that the bad bestie is actually willing to listen (and even change!) The narrative may let them get away with a lot due to their being the main character, but also realizes that if they’re going to feel human and at all relatable, they can’t just go on steamrolling everyone forever.

On Sex and the City, the friends push back against Carrie’s behavior on a pretty regular basis – both as a group and individually. When Carrie opens up about seeing Big again, after forcing her friends to listen to her cry and complain about what a bad guy he was for months and months, Miranda goes off. When Carrie is whining about how hard it is to be the other woman, Charlotte isn’t afraid to point out how terrible she’s being. And when Carrie makes one too many snide remarks to Samantha about her sexually liberated nature, Samantha lets her have it. And while Carrie certainly never becomes a perfect friend, she is willing to apologize for her mistakes and try to be better.

The Harold and Kumar series, while often pretty out there in terms of plot, is at its heart about the friendship between Harold, an investment banker, and Kumar, a would-be doctor who has taken the slacker route to avoid a life he thinks he’s not ready for. Kumar is often the spark for their misadventures, and eventually, Harold can’t take it anymore. The third film begins with the friends having been estranged for years because Harold wanted a different, more stable life. But through being open and hashing out their issues (and a bit of Christmas magic) the pair are able to reconcile their friendship.

On Gossip Girl, both Serena and Blair are pretty bad friends – they’re constantly vying for attention and influence and are willing to sabotage the other to get it. But because they’re both so strong-willed, they’re also always willing to call the other out pretty quickly. So instead of simmering in anger for years and years, they get their spats over in a few days (just so they can start another one) And in their closer moments, we see why they remain friends: they’re the only two that really get each other, and will always show up at the end of the day no matter what. This kind of leveling out in situations where everyone’s kind of not great actually also pops up a lot on screen as well (especially in comedies.) Birds of a feather flock together, and these bad friends stick together because who else could possibly deal with them, except for people that are just as messed up as they are?

While a main character treating their friends as disposable for most of a show or film was par for the course for a long time, in recent years audiences have started to push back on that. Take Emily from Emily in Paris. Much like her predecessor Carrie, Emily is self-centered and expects the world to revolve around her. She refused to actually learn even a tiny bit of French despite living and working in France, constantly caused problems for those around her, and oh, you know, had an affair with her friend’s boyfriend (and also slept with that same friend’s teenage brother!) But instead of just accepting this as okay behavior because she’s the lead, audiences pushed back – to the point where the creatives wrote an entire season of her essentially atoning for her many sins, including taking French lessons and staying away from Gabriel.

CH 3: Everyone Makes Mistakes

The ‘main character who can’t see past the end of their own nose’ side of the trope can be incredibly annoying, but the occasions when stories actually take the time to take a deeper look at what’s really driving this behavior can be both enlightening and relatable. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and hurt people when we don’t mean to. So these stories are a chance to work through all of those emotions – both the times when we’ve been hurt and when we’ve been the problem.

Sex Education’s Otis is trying to work through his own problems while also providing therapy to his peers. He can be egocentric and self-centered, and he often doesn’t reciprocate the amount of attention and love he receives from his best friend Eric. But the show lets us see this experience from both sides – and so both characters get to feel like full human beings, not a hero and a sidekick or a downtrodden loner and a villain. We get to see why Otis is the way he is, but he isn’t just let off the hook. And while Eric is bummed about his friend’s behavior, he doesn’t just wait around like a sad puppy for him to figure it out, he goes on living his own life and building his own future. Their rift is mended through communication and Otis realizing that he isn’t actually the central character of everyone else’s life – he has to actually grow as a person, and importantly, apologize. Their story provides a reminder both to not get so stuck in our own heads that we ignore everyone else and that if a friend is treating us poorly we don’t have to just sit around and accept it.

Booksmart’s Molly has micromanaged her and best friend Amy’s lives so intensely that Amy feels the need to hide the fact that she’s taking a gap year until after their graduation. Molly is often putting her desires first, just assuming that whatever she wants will automatically be best for everyone. But after they have a huge fight the night before graduation, Molly starts to reconsider her behavior and comes to realize that she has to let Amy live her own life, even if that means they’re going to end up going in quite different directions.

We all sometimes slip up, do things we think are helping others but are really just about ourselves, and sometimes even just make some straight-up bad decisions. And, on the other side of the coin, many of us have had a friend who has let us down, or never cared enough to truly focus on us. So stories like these can be cathartic, and help remind us that even when friendships go wrong, it doesn’t automatically mean they can’t be fixed.