The “Best Friend”

Published May 17, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

Okay, this post is a mess.  But after writing more than a thousand words of it, I didn’t want to just let it shrivel up and die as an eternal “draft post”.  So I’m just releasing it into the web with the disclaimer that it sucks.

Read ahead at your own peril.


You may be wondering about the quotes in the title.  Well, that’s because I want to talk about the general socio-cultural phenomenon, not any specific, real-world best friend.

(Listens; hears people clicking away from this post with undue haste.)

Hey, c’mon, it’s not that bad!  Honest, I plan to go through my usual mythological, historical and even fictional examples!  And, in truth, this post was more inspired by a movie than by any work of literature.

See, at the end of the movie — given that it is at the end, I can’t say which, because it’d spoil the movie, but I will say it’s something I saw on Netflix, and it’s a comedy — the hero and his best friend, having had a brief romantic encounter earlier in the picture, talk about if they’re now going to become a couple, and the best friend points out that if they did, they’d only break up after a month or so, and it’d be much better if they stayed best friends in a relationship that will last forever, instead of a short-lived romantic relationship.

Very mature, but is it accurate?

I mean, are there really friendships that last a lifetime?

(Okay, yes, I realize I am exposing my utter lack of a social life here.)

The phenomenon is very common in literature, myth and folklore:  Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Achilles and Patroclos, Orestes and Pylades, Robin Hood and Little John.  Add in movies and you get people like Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, and Tony Stark and James “Rody” Rhodes.  You can even find it in history:  Alexander and Hephaistion, and the three blood-brothers Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei.  And those are just a few named off the top of my head.

You may notice some things about my examples:  most of them have one — or both — or all three — meet an untimely death, and four of them have homoerotic overtones.  (Yes, four.  Gilgamesh and Enkidu and Orestes and Pylades don’t come off that way to me, but they’re both frequently referenced in studies that cover the homoerotic in ancient literature.)  It’s hard to assess the historicity of the historical examples to know what — if anything — they bring to the table as examples from reality.  All the material on Alexander from his own time is lost, and all we have is stuff from centuries later, most of it written in Roman times, and as to the Shu trio…well, I know there’s a chronicle as well as the more-than-a-thousand-years-later Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but I don’t know when the chronicle dates to and I’ve neither read it nor the novel, but instead know the characters filtered through video games and one movie, so the less I say to expose my ignorance, the better.  In any case, the “best friend” meeting an untimely death is such a Hollywood cliche that it made it into the screenwriting “tips” given in Sunset Boulevard…but it does at least have a strong literary background, having started all the way back at the Iliad, the first (surviving) piece of Western literature.  (And yes, btw, I do count Bucky as having been one of the ones who met an untimely death.  Compare some of the stuff Steve says in the scene in the bar afterwards with some of the stuff Achilles says after Patroclos’ death in the Iliad.  The one is pretty much a paraphrase of the other.)  Oh, and yes, all of my examples are men.  I’ll get to that part later.

The other thing to notice here is that almost all of them are comrades-in-arms.  (Though admittedly Steve and Bucky were inseparable friends before joining the army.)  In fact, in a way all of them are.  Gilgamesh and Enkidu don’t go riding off to war against a rival kingdom — but if Enkidu, like Gilgamesh, was inspired by a real person, then the real ones almost certainly did — but they do fight a giant together, and like Robin Hood and Little John, they first forged their friendship by fighting each other.  And Orestes and Pylades slaughter Orestes’ mother and step-father together, so they’re comrades-in-arms in a way, too.  (Okay, yes, their victims had murdered Orestes’ father, but…Agamemnon deserved what he got, so…well, I’m okay with what Orestes and Pylades did as long as I look at it as avenging Cassandra.)

Now, I realize this is not a representative sample, being merely the ones I can recall at a moment’s notice, and given my generally eclectic selection of interests.  But let’s pretend for a moment that this is representative of the literary variety of best friends.

What would that indicate?

That a friendship forged in the flames of war and/or one bolstered by homoerotic desire is the only friendship that lasts?

If that’s so, then surely there are far fewer of them today than there once were, as the percentage of the population that enters military service (in the US, at least) is far lower than it was in days of yore.

Okay, no, wait, that’s not right.  In pre-modern Europe, for the most part you only went off to war if you could afford your own armor and weapons, and most people couldn’t, but as soon as you had governments that would provide the gear, then the tables turned and the rich didn’t go — for the most part — so…um, yeah, not gonna try the math.  Don’t have the numbers or the mental fortitude.

Let’s just approach it from a different direction and say that it doesn’t feel like most people, these days, who talk about having a “BFF” got them in the army.

Now, obviously, I’ve not yet addressed the notion of such a friendship between a man and a woman, and haven’t directly talked about it between two women — though nothing I’ve said has ruled out friendships between two women, apart from the fact that my examples didn’t include any.

In terms of today’s fiction — or rather in terms of movies, which are the only fiction in chunks small enough for me to have time for it during the semester — it does seem like the majority of “BFF”-level friendships between men and women either end up becoming romances, or involve one of them actually being homosexual, thus making them “the same” in Hollywood’s eyes.  (And no, I’m not supporting that viewpoint.)  A possible exception there might be Natasha Romanov and Clint Barton in the Avengers movies, but since most people in the audience (myself included, I’m ashamed to admit) interpreted that as being romantic in the first one, it’s hard to see it as fitting neatly into the “eternal best friend” mold, especially since the story isn’t yet over.

But in most cases I think today’s high-profile fiction — as, I suspect, to a certain extent was also the case with past fiction/folklore/et cetera at any profile level — leaves women out of the “lifelong friends” equation.  And I suspect the reason is probably the stereotype that women are “catty” and thus can’t get along with each other, let alone with men that they aren’t interested in having sex with.

I hope I’m wrong about that, and it’s just that I don’t encounter enough fiction anymore to know the examples proving me wrong.

One comment on “The “Best Friend”

  • I’d like to see if there are any fictional examples of women who stay friends for a long, long time. I would say that X-Men has a fair example of people who were lifelong friends (but maybe have had romantic interludes throughout the various timelines over the years). I think, though, that generally, when a woman and a man become lifelong friends, it’s more a father-daughter relationship, and not even vice versa.

    I would maybe use Gambit and Storm from X-Men as a good example of two people who stayed friends (never dated) and still have a strong relationship…. but I really can’t think of anything in movies or books (that didn’t end with the dude pressing a more physical relationship on the girl in the end).

    It could also just be a consequence of Fiction itself: the story ends when a relationship settles, so there has to be a curveball (death, romance) to keep the interest going. (Happy poetry never sells.)

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