There’s a lot of great couples in pop culture. Han and Leia, Peter Parker and MJ, Ivy and Harley, the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper. Maverick and … Iceman? We see them form attractions; we see them fight and flirt and eventually pair off after an excruciating will-they-or-won’t-they arc. For a lot of us the romance is a payoff. Pairing a character we like with another character we like. We root for them and for their inevitable hookup.
Romantic love shows up in pop culture all the time. But in real life, no matter how amazing our spouses, partners and significant others are, they usually aren’t our sole source of love. So what is it about love between two close friends, no matter the genders, that is seemingly so hard to depict properly in movies, comics and on TV?
I asked some of my best friends – including the one I married – to take a look at some of our favorite fictional bromances, galentines, work spouses and BFFs, and what they mean to us and to the people we are most comfortable around. Our best friends.
First up, the women. There’s a lot of female friends in pop culture, sure. But the authenticity, the unbreakable bond and the kind of exclusiveness that only soul-mate level best friends have, is a little harder to find. Here’s three we love.
Leslie Knope & Ann Perkins. Parks and Recreation – The gold standard!
Stephanie – I just heard a story on NPR about “close adult female friendships,” and then I read an article about how the author’s soul mate is her best friend. And it’s true. LB has been my best friend for 14 years, and even though I’ve been with my partner for 4 years and will probably be with him for the rest of our lives, LB was there for me when I was in AIT; she sent me letters and packages when I was in Korea; we were deployed to Afghanistan together; she was there through a marriage and a divorce; and all the stages from then until now.
It’s refreshing and fulfilling to see that type of relationship reflected in pop culture. In fact, we often quote Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins (Amy Poeller and Rashida Jones) to each other – she calls me a beautiful, rule-breaking moth, and just today I called her a poetic land mermaid. Lol.
Flaca and Maritza – Orange is the New Black
Rosa – OITNB has a wide array of characters, many of whom are forced into their relationships by the sheer nature of being locked into a prison together. The most seamless relationship that is evident from the very beginning is that of Flaca and Maritza. They have the kind of relationship that you had with your cousin or sister growing up–you know everything about each other, but somehow are still charmed at the idea that you’re going to get to spend time together and learn more.
They aren’t afraid to call each other out on things, express themselves (even if it means they won’t fit in with others–their friendship is judgement free), or take their own path. While the show has its share of romances, and this relationship has seen a kiss, the pair remain focused on their friendship, using the bond to help them cope with the struggles of incarceration, rather than seek easy escapes into sexual dalliances (as other characters often do). Flaca and Maritza just want to be panty twinsies, listen to some good Smiths songs, eat pizza, and hang out. Day and night. Anyone not setting relationship goals as pure as Flaca and Maritza’s might as well be dead.
Grace and Frankie.
When barely-friends Grace and Frankie (from the Netflix show of the same name) discover their husbands have been having a longtime affair – one that results in divorce from their wives and a subsequent wedding for the men, the two women find they are stuck with each other for support and understanding. Their odd-couple relationship is grounded and given a fun tenacity by leads Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. They face their grief, fears and reconciliation together, no matter how nasty or (hilariously) petty the fight, no matter how bad the decisions. Each has her own unwavering perspective.
For the men, surface-level pair ups aren’t hard to find. Get two funny guys. Or get two tough guys. Shit, get one of each. Throw them together. It’s a winning formula. Showing real support, vulnerability and love, on the other hand, that’s much harder to create.
Shawn Spencer and Burton “Gus” Guster – Psych.
Manny – Shawn and Gus from Psych are perfect examples of real bromance in popular culture. Two childhood friends grow up to be a straight-laced and uptight pharmaceutics rep (Gus) and a carefree and self-sabotaging ne’er-do-well (Shawn) who con the police into thinking that he’s a psychic because of his preternatural detective skills. They are a lot like JD and Turk from Scrubs. Both shows have romantic complications, but it always ends up back to the strength of the main character’s relationships with each other.
Me – Just like both pairs, we’ve been best friends for 20+ years. Which of the two bro couples is most like us?
Manny – Gus and Shawn. They have a loyalty to each other that transcends the bounds of their other relationships. You know that Gus puts up with a lot of shit from Shawn, but he’s still his boy. Plus I don’t give you eagle rides.
Me – Safer for us both …
I feel like in a way, Psych avoided the pitfalls of JD and Turk. The show writers didn’t make their closeness into a punch line.
Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Ever since Rogue One opened, there has been speculation whether these two former Guardians of the Whills were the Star Wars Universe’s first notable gay couple. While it would make a lot of us happy to finally see a gay couple in the SW universe, the shipping in this case misses a big point. Baze and Chirrut don’t have to be romantically linked to be an important depiction. From the moment we meet them, we understand that these two men love each other. We see them as brothers in arms, yes, but more importantly, they are patient and trusting, and they are committed to one another.
Those Star Wars fans I know who have served in the military point out that we see in these two characters the kind of friendship that war movies often bury under bravado. The everyday bond. The quiet joy of each other’s presence. It’s is what so many depictions of buddy cops, frat bros, and sports teams miss entirely. The love.
Troy and Abed – Community
Abed Nadir and Troy Barnes (Danny Pudi and Donald Glover) could not be more different. But overly analytical, socially awkward Abed awakens in former football star Troy the idea that whatever his ill-fitting past was, it has no bearing on who he can be in the present. Separately, they each seem sometimes unsure and reserved. Together, they create the kind of adventures that our ten-year old selves dream that adulthood will be full of. Their up-for-anything attitude seems only to manifest when they are together. Even when they barely understand each other, they maintain course – each daring the other to keep the game going. Plus their handshakes were pure poetry! It made Glover’s departure from the show in the 5th season all the more sad.
Rosa – I struggle to find equal male/female relationships where one of them (nearly always the man) isn’t gay, or where she doesn’t have to be a hyper-masculine soldier.
Even our list can’t avoid them entirely.
Max and Furiosa – Mad Max: Fury Road.
To watch Max and Furiosa (Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron) go from suspicion and disregard for each other’s life to becoming reluctant partners is satisfying to see. By the end, when they become solid allies, their trust in each other and self-sacrifice doesn’t make me want to see them make out; it makes me want to watch an entire trilogy of Max and Furiosa movies. I want to see this duo tear up post-apocalyptic Australia on their epic search for redemption and drinkable water.
Mal and Zoe – Firefly and Serenity
Stephanie – If there’s any couple that’s ride or die, it’s these two. I love that they have a history that predates the show. That they were soldiers together. As a female veteran, I feel like that’s underrepresented.
And I do like that she’s married – especially to someone who we like. We love Wash. We love him with Zoe. It prevents us from shipping the two friends. Mal and Zoe’s relationship is completely different. Zoe is Mal’s right hand. It’s a relationship based not on sex or romance, but respect and trust.
Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy – 30 Rock
Watching 30 Rock, there was sometimes an odd feeling – maybe a leftover from so many scripted comedies where our main characters are nudged closer and closer toward a romantic relationship. It often seemed like the driven, but cripplingly awkward, comedy-sketch showrunner Liz and her self-appointed mentor: eccentric NBC exec Jack were destined for coupling. But, thankfully. at every turn, 30 Rock writers knew better than to smush this unlikely couple together romantically.
Even better was that they did this despite acknowledging their early sexual tension, the quirky fascination they had for one another and the closeness. At the end of the run, no one doubted Liz and Jack’s love for one another. It just went the direction it was meant to.
Edina and Patsy – Absolutely Fabulous, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson – Broad City, Garfunkle and Oates, Laverne and Shirley
Jess and Cece – New Girl. “They are never catty. Yes, they are very different people, but they love and trust each other.” – Stephanie
Rocket Raccoon and Groot – Guardians of the Galaxy, Kirk and Spock – Star Trek (goals!), Billy Mack and Joe – Love Actually, Han and Chewie – Star Wars
Johnny and Hank – Sirens. This short-lived USA series depicted friendship and under-represented orientations and identities in a smart, fun, realistic fashion.
Capt. Janeway and First Officer Chakotay – Star Trek: Voyager, Clarissa and Sam – Clarissa Explains it All, Harry Potter and Hermione
Donna Meagle and Tom Hatherford (Treat yo-self)
Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson- Parks and Recreation.
“There’s that great episode where Diane (Lucy Lawless) tells Leslie that it’s not Ron’s ex-wife who’s a threat to her relationship with Ron, It’s Leslie. She’s his emotional support. Parks and Rec, really, is the home for some of the best friendships in television.” – Rosa.
Special honorable mention to Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen for all the internet joy, this loving duo has given us.
While it seems like in recent years, we have seen a real attempt to portray friendship more honestly and not as a stepping stone to romance, this list is still frustratingly incomplete when it comes to depictions and representation of all types of platonic love.
Happy Valentine’s Day, whether celebrating alone, or with those you love (cats count!) and let us know some of your own faves. And cast a vote for your favorite pop-culture pairings.