With movies like The Hangover and The World’s End, we’ve all seen how groups of guys have that one HORRIBLE best friend, yet no matter how bad the guy may be, all the other guys in the group feel obligated to keep him around. So the question, of course, is why?
Why would you keep an embarrassing, waste of space, who will never amount to anything within your adult entourage?
This male friendship dynamic phenomenon is nothing new. It’s been going on for centuries. In fact, the title of this blog post uses the name of the bad best friend from a story written during the renaissance.
Background of Bad Besties
In François Rabelais’s satirical masterpiece, Gargantua and Pantagruel, written and published in the mid-16th century, Panurge is Pantagruel’s best friend, and Panurge holds a high place within Pantagruel’s entourage. Pantagruel himself is a financially well-off prince, highly educated, much respected, and a literal giant. Anyone in Pantagruel’s inner circle pretty much has a golden ticket for life, regardless of whether they have earned that level of status.
So how bad is Panurge? Let me give you a few examples:#1. He tries to convince a married woman to have an affair with him. She refuses him flat out at every turn, even after he tries to bribe her. To punish her for rejecting him and staying loyal to her husband, Panurge secretly sprinkles the scent of a female dog in heat onto the woman, and that scent attracts every dog in the city to this woman. All the dogs urinate on her, ruin her clothing, follow her endlessly, and try to mount her repeatedly. #2. While at sea, the ship he’s on comes next to another ship, and everyone exchanges pleasantries. A sheep merchant on the other ship insults Panurge, but the merchant apologizes. To show that he accepts the apology, Panurge buys one of the merchant’s sheep. Panurge then throws the sheep overboard into the ocean, where it drowns. Not only does the sheep drown, but as it bleats out its fearful cries, all the other sheep on the ship jump over the edge after the bleating sheep, drowning themselves, and in the process they manage to pull all the sheep merchants into the sea with them. Thus, for one slight against him, Panurge murders several sheep merchants and an unnumbered amount of sheep.
He also admits to pulling all sorts of other pranks ranging from juvenile acts to lethal assault. Panurge also boasts about his numerous financial scams. Although he admits to doing all of these unspeakable acts, many of them he does in secret. The rest of the guys in Pantagruel’s entourage know about it, but no one says anything to Pantagruel.
For some reason, everyone is willing just to ignore Panurge’s actions and shady past. It’s as if he can do no wrong, because he’s their friend. Of course, ignorance only lasts for so long, and as soon as Panurge acts cowardly in front of everyone and nearly costs the other men their lives, their tolerance for their bad best friend wears thin. Angry as they may be, though, the entourage never abandons Panurge.
Dynamic of Bad Besties
From this renaissance example, as well as the more modern examples, there is definitely a formula of components necessary for this bad best friend scenario.
- Component #1: The group of guys often become friends at a young and impressionable age. These young men meet at a very transitional point in their lives, such as prior to adolescence or during college. The members bond quickly with one another to develop a support system.
- Component #2: Early on, the bad best friend may think he is the leader, but usually he is the sidekick or the comic relief.
- Component #3: While the group is still young, the bad best friend is idolized for his fearless persona, his attitude towards sexual conquests, his immense knowledge and/or skill (real or imaginary), or for his ability to make everything into a joke.
If the group of guy friends notices that the bad best friend has questionable qualities early on, they usually make excuses for him. Perhaps the bad best friend comes from a broken home, or other people just don’t understand him. No matter what, they will come to his defense, because he is part of their circle.
The dynamic changes, though as the group ages, and at that point the other guys in the group start to question why they have allowed the bad best friend to stay in their ranks. They may get into arguments with the bad best friend, or they may talk about him behind his back, but for some reason, even as adults, they don’t completely ostracize the bad best friend from the group. They may distance themselves and only see the bad best friend on occasion, but it is very rare for him to be kicked out completely.
Some of Our Favorite Bad Best Friends
Examining the Dynamic
First of all, not all bad best friends are completely horrible human beings. They may act in ways that go against all rules of social etiquette from time to time, and they aren’t exactly the most successful adults, but they are not beyond redemption, at least not in the eyes of their compatriots. Perhaps that redemptive quality explains part of this dynamic.
Even someone as despicable as Panurge could be redeemed. Although his actions can be viewed as maliciously misogynistic and verging on sociopathic, he always supported his friends, he went to war to defend Pantagruel’s country from invaders, and he trusted his friends completely. His loyalty redeems him and reduces the severity of his actions, or at least that’s how his friends may see it.
The majority of bad best friends in these group dynamics tend to have some redeemable qualities that keep them as favored allies to the group. Beyond being redeemable, though, there is another quality about the bad best friend archetype that cannot be ignored.
The bad best friend is allowed to do all the things everyone else cannot allow themselves to do.
For example, the bad best friend can:
- Be promiscuous
- Make social/racial slurs
- Break the law and not get caught
- Get arrested, but not serve any major time
- Be a jerk in public
- Speak his mind completely
The bad best friend is free to do all these things, because he’s “that guy.” Some bad best friends take full advantage of their status, such as Barney, whereas other bad best friends may only stumble through their list of freedoms, such as Nick. No matter what, though, their ability to be “that guy” allows the rest of the guys in the group to live vicariously through their bad best friend.
As men age and are forced to take on more responsibilities as adults, they nostalgically crave fewer responsibilities, and they see the bad best friend as living the dream. When men realize that the bad best friend does not have all the benefits that come with the responsibilities, (spousal/partner support, family, a home, a rewarding career, etc), then men start to realize that the bad best friend is pathetic and juvenile. Nevertheless, the bad best friend gets to stay around.
The Truth Provides No Easy Answers
After men realize the truth about the bad best friends, why do they keep these people around?
In a story, a writer might choose to keep the bad best friend around to act as a foil to the protagonist. Furthermore, there are many scenarios in a story where a good and noble protagonist cannot complete certain tasks, because the protagonist is too moral. Therefore, having a morally questionable side character, such as the bad best friend, provides a simple solution. These scenarios can also cause potential conflict between the protagonist and the morally questionable character, which may help with character growth and plot development.
In reality, though, there are many emotional and psychological reasons at play with this friendship dynamic. If the bad best friend has been a loyal friend, the other men in the group feel honor bound to keep him in the circle. If the bad best friend takes his friends on crazy exploits, then the bad best friend gives the other men in the group a semi-safe place to escape reality. Lastly, when/if the group finally realizes how pathetic the bad best friend has become, the members may feel obligated to keep the bad best friend in their circle to protect him, or, in some scenarios, the group members may try to fix the bad best friend and turn him into a better human being. They may do so by getting him jobs, supporting him through re-hab, introducing him to potential romantic partners, or encouraging him to go back to school.
Although the bad best friend archetype has been exaggerated in literature and on screen, the archetype is clearly based on real-world social dynamics, especially in circles of males from Western cultures. Identifying the bad best friend is easy, but dealing with this individual proves problematic. One either chooses to live with blinders on and let the bad best friend be “that guy,” or one chooses confrontation. To confront the bad best friend, though, is risky. If you don’t have the support of your fellow group members, you risk conflict and may unintentionally ostracize yourself from the group. Even if you do have the support of your comrades, you cannot guarantee that confrontation will encourage the bad best friend to change. Perhaps that is the biggest reason as to why men do not confront these bad best friends – too many unknown variables and too much certainty of unpleasant results.