Earlier this year, I found myself at a movie theater with my nephew, watching Toy Story 4. In the latest sequel to the beloved Pixar classic, Woody bumps into his old flame Bo Peep, who’s now a happily independent “lost toy,” clad in high-waisted pants and accompanied by a tiny friend, Giggle McDimples. McDimples is immediately suspicious of Woody and makes her opposition to any reunion between them clear. “Don’t do this to yourself,” she cautions Bo Peep, literally sitting on her shoulder like a conscience. “Cowboy’s got a kid.” The needling continues throughout the film:
Giggle McDimples: And another thing, Woody asked you for help.
Bo Peep: On your mark…
Giggle McDimples: And he treats you like that?
Bo Peep: Get set…
Giggle McDimples: He only cares about himself.
Bo Peep: No! You’re wrong. Woody’s always trying to do right by his kid.
Giggle McDimples: By putting everyone in danger. Ugh.
Although she’s a new character in the Toy Story franchise, McDimples’ character feels eerily familiar. The role she plays — that of the naysaying female friend who’s openly critical of her friend’s romantic partner — is one that crops up often in movies, TV, literature and songs. It’s probably not recognizable enough to count as a trope: It doesn’t, for example, appear on the website TV Tropes, a database of tropes that bills itself as the “all-devouring pop culture wiki” (in fact, none of the site’s tropes about female characters are about friends). But trope or not, the “Dump him!” friend shows up everywhere from Shakespeare plays to 2000s rom-coms to Akon songs, often serving a similar purpose.
Romantic comedies are particularly likely to feature a Dump Him Friend. Cher from Clueless (1995) is a classic example and a serial offender, telling both Dionne and Tai that they could “do so much better” than Murray and Elton respectively, and that Tai would be “selling herself short” if she dated Travis. In such films and shows, the Dump Him Friend is often portrayed as shallow and hung up on the male love interest’s lack of social standing or unimpressive career prospects, as in the following exchange from Season Three, Episode Fifteen of Sex and the City:
Samantha: He lives with his parents?
Carrie: It’s their apartment.
Samantha: So not sexy, honey. Dump him. Immediately. Here, use my cell phone.
I text my friend Ellen, a 33-year-old in London who studied publishing, and she fires several examples at me, including the aforementioned Clueless, Glow (“Debbie thinks Ruth’s boyfriend is a bit of a deadbeat”) and Good Girls (“Christina Hendricks’ character is sleeping with that hot gang member and her friends are like, ‘You’re a fucking moron.’”) “I’m pretty sure Vanity Fair has Becky Sharp giving her friend shit about her romantic choices,” she adds. “Any classic stuff usually has class-based conflicts where people are shamed for loving someone too low or high for them, right?”
I suspect this probably is right, but because of the many holes in my knowledge of classic literature, I consult Jess Zimmerman, editor-in-chief of Electric Literature. “It’s definitely a thing,” she agrees, “but usually the pressure is coming from parents, another more ‘suitable’ fiance or a person who knows about the male love interest’s secret wife.” This seems to be true of film, too, where the Dump Him Character is often a parent who disapproves of their child’s romantic choice — as in Say Anything (1989) and Why Him? (2016) — or even a therapist or assistant. Zimmerman tells me that the novel Middlemarch has a great example of a Dump Him Sister (“Really, Dodo, can’t you hear how he scrapes his spoon?”). So does Knocked Up (2007) (“He can’t afford a phone?”) and Ten Things I Hate About You (1999), in which Kat disapproves of her sister’s crush on Joey — although for good reason, as we later find out.
There are, of course, also male relationship detractors — Dump Her Friends, if you will — as in Midsommar (2019), when Christian’s friends encourage him to dump Dani because they think she’s a bummer, and 50/50 (2011) in which Adam’s friend Kyle hates his girlfriend. But the female Dump Him Friend is a common choice when the writer or director wants to include an unsympathetic character who functions as a meddling, jealous shrew standing in the way of true love — like the bitter women in Akon’s “Don’t Matter” or the “hatin’-ass friend” in Gucci Mane’s “Hell Yes.” “I feel like the trope usually plays out with the objector as the voice of repressive society in some way,” Zimmerman tells me. “Like, the objection is just a foil to show how pure their love is.”
Sometimes, too, the Dump Him Friend is gay. “There’s a few novels by Sarah Waters where the friend hates the boyfriend, but in those cases, it’s often because the friend is motivated by romantic jealousy instead of sisterly concern,” Ellen tells me, pointing out that Killing Eve’s Villanelle also hates Eve’s husband for this reason. The Dump Him Friend is rarely portrayed as having selfless motives, such as a concern for her friend’s well-being or an insight into the partner’s failings (like Kat, who knows that Joey is a scumbag). Emilia in Shakespeare’s Othello, while not straightforwardly Desdemona’s ally, functions as this kind of Dump Him Friend, sounding a warning bell about Othello’s jealousy, a character flaw which ends up driving him to kill Desdemona:
Emilia: Is not this man jealous?
Desdemona: I ne’er saw this before. Sure, there’s some wonder in this handkerchief: I am most unhappy in the loss of it.
Emilia: ‘Tis not a year or two shows us a man: They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; to eat us hungerly, and when they are full, they belch us.
The high water mark of the selfless and discerning Dump Him Friend is likely the rapper Eve in her 2006 single, “Love Is Blind,” a song about the pain of watching a friend stay in an abusive relationship. Women have a long history of looking out for each other in this regard — they’re more likely than men to sniff out physically and emotionally abusive partners, for example — and when a man is being a shitty partner, the Dump Him Friend functions less as a meddler than a savior.
For this reason, in certain online spaces, the Dump Him Friend enjoys a more appreciated role than it does in mainstream media. In particular, the phrase “dump him!” has become a common rejoinder on Twitter, where users often discuss the quotidian ways that men cause harm in their relationships with women and others (#MenAreTrash, #DumpHim). A surfaced 2002 picture of Britney Spears wearing a ‘DUMP HIM’ T-shirt has become especially iconic in this realm.
That the Dump Him Friend crops up in film, TV, literature and music isn’t, in and of itself, surprising. After all, it’s pretty common for friends not to approve of lovers, and “My friend hates my boyfriend!” is a staple of advice columns and relationship blogs. But there is something interesting about the way that female friends are routinely cast as meddling, jealous haters and men as upstanding romantic prospects, when so often, in art and in life, women really would be better off without them.
“Now I’m thinking about women in literature who needed a Dump Him Friend, like Lady Anne in Richard III,” Zimmerman says. “Sometimes the partner really does suck, and there aren’t a lot of cultural models for how to deal with that.”