The underrepresentation of friendship breakups in popular culture

Cover image by Nahal Sheikh

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When you are young, nobody warns you that the times you break up with your friends might be more regular and just as painful as when you break up with romantic partners. This is because we live in a society that prioritises romantic love over all other kinds, as reflected in our popular culture. Growing up, we are inundated with depictions of the breakdown of romantic relationships, which in turn leads us to prepare for only one kind of heartbreak. This comes at the exclusion of the pain that platonic friendship breakups can cause.

Popular culture can often feel as if it is solely rooted in the drama of people’s love lives: rom-com and chick flick films where the plot revolves entirely around whether two characters will or will not end up together; romance novels in which friendship is only ever seen as a progression, not a component, of character development; music which romanticises all aspects of our everyday lives. Of course, there are often depictions of complications within friendships, but seldom to the same extent. According to modern society, friendships come and go, romantic relationships last forever—when surely it should be the other way around?

Perhaps this phenomenon is influenced by gender, or at least gender performativity. Young girls are conditioned to think they must place romantic relationships at the centre of their lives, which is not necessarily the case for their male counterparts. Therefore, when platonic friendships turn out to be more time consuming and nuanced than romantic relationships, it can almost feel like a failure to stick to societal expectations of where our principal forms of conflict and attention should lie. Inevitably, boys also move between friendships, which no doubt sometimes have messy endings, but they often do not tend to dramatise it in the only way that girls know how.

Especially in comparison to other forms of conflict, platonic love coming to an end is rarely portrayed in films, TV, books, music, and other forms of mainstream media—despite the fact that it can be just as, if not more, heartbreaking for those involved. If you look at the format of most coming-of-age stories (arguably the most influential genre when it comes to shaping young people’s understandings of themselves and the world), you will see how the love interest usually takes centre stage in the plot. While friends are rarely excluded from the narrative altogether, they tend to exist only as background characters in the protagonists’ central love story. 

Even when a friendship is placed at the centre of a story, cataloguing the highs and lows over the years, it is rare that this conflict does not reach some sort of resolution before the end. Take Bridesmaids as an example—it has been hailed as an effective, balanced, and realistic narration of female friendship because it focuses on the relationship between central characters Annie and Lillian (despite the background being that of a wedding and the romance). The plot follows the conflicts within their friendship but by the end all problems have been eradicated and everyone lives happily ever after. Or not. Of course, this is a rom-com film: it was hardly going to end with a bride getting married without her best friend beside her. Yet, in the real world, life does not always work like this—instead, you are left riddled with guilt and resentment that your friendship breakup has not worked out the way it does in the popular culture you consume. 

The reason that this disregard is not just inaccurate but potentially harmful is because it perpetuates the idea that, especially as women, we should continue to place romantic relationships at the forefront of our lives. In fact, friendships are an integral part of our overall well-being, arguably more so than the temporary respite from loneliness offered up by romantic partners. There is, after all, a reason that friends are necessary in order for real love stories to work—they are the ones we turn to when everything else goes wrong. But what happens when they are not there? Personally, I would like to see more depictions of friendship heartbreaks and how a protagonist is able to overcome it (without necessarily restoring the friendship to its original form). Many people find navigating the end of friendships just as, if not more, difficult than going through a breakup. The fact that there is so little art that portrays this only makes the process more isolating. 

In the modern age, there are many things that can be taken into consideration when representing drama within friendship. From social media communication (such as unfollowing, blocking, and ghosting) to the school environment that seems to become increasingly more toxic throughout the generations, there is no shortage of material for people to pick up on for their fictional stories. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is one of the most harrowing depictions of teenage isolation that I have ever seen. And while it may not focus solely on the protagonist’s friendship drama, it also does not make the whole film about her quest to find love or popularity. 

It was a Tweet that first drew my attention to this issue. Having always been frustrated by the underrepresentation of friendship breakups, this was the first time I had properly seen it put into words by someone else. @HELLAPASAWAY wrote on Twitter: ‘i wish the grief of losing a friendship was more tangible in conversations. friends are lovers too and those inevitable fallouts in the process of outgrowing deserve space for healing. it’s a heartache that’s so often very lonely to navigate with feelings of betrayal and blame’ and ‘i honor all friendships and how each symbolized different timelines, but to get to that point of celebratory i mourned those losses so heavily on my own. i wish there was more art to portray platonic breakups considering how significantly nourishing friends are in our lives’. This is a succinct interpretation of why it is so important that we change the narrative around friendship in our popular culture.

It would be beneficial to everyone for popular culture to be more inclusive of different kinds of heartbreak. There are so many ways in which friendship breakups can be incorporated into stories, yet somehow these stories only ever exist on the periphery. If we are to teach our future generations the importance of maintaining healthy, balanced, and real friendships—as well as what to do when these go wrong—then this narrative must change.

Article by Esther Huntington-Whiteley