Acceptable? Sexism on TV – How I Met Your Mother

A lot of people don’t find How I Met Your Mother problematic because they say that Barney’s blatant sexism is over-the-top and therefore won’t be taken seriously by viewers.

I disagree – I find the show, and Neil Patrick Harris’ character in particular quite upsetting. To me, that this kind of TV show, and that this character is so popular is a wonderful example of rape culture.

This clip contains a number of examples of problematic sexism to the extent of misogyny that is a theme in this show.

- “Bros before hos”. You know… because guys (bros) are awesome and women are all prostitutes (hos), and prostitutes are not really human.

- It is a good idea to manipulate and lie to women in order to convince them to have sex with you.

- You can tell if a woman is available for sex based on what she is wearing. Leopard print is basically automatic consent.

- It is unacceptable to have sex with someone’s mother.

- Get women drunk so they will have sex with you.

- Girl fights are sexy – in other words, girls are sex objects without feelings – take pictures!

- College girls who dress a certain way are easy… umm… easily one dimensional and exist purely for the male gaze and for sex?

Barney’s objectification and manipulation of women for sex (or ego) doesn’t seem to be ever contested by the other characters, in fact, the others actively participate with him. That this kind of sexism is acceptable isn’t questioned in the show. The portrayal of the women he interacts with is fairly horrific too – as if almost all women would fall for manipulative pick up lines and tricks performed by a handsome man in a suit and subsequently be super happy jump into bed with him. Women don’t really have personalities (except the main characters), and they are almost never smart enough to tell when someone is blatantly manipulating them. Even the female main characters sometimes participate in the objectification of other women – they are cool because they are dude-like. We identify them with the male characters, rather than with the other female characters who appear. We don’t like them as females, we like them because they are like men.

If that first clip wasn’t enough, here’s another (lying to and manipulating women is funny and acceptable!):

And here is a video by the fabulous Feminist Frequency describing “retro sexism”, and why sexism that is supposed to be “ironic” is still sexist:

Join the Conversation

  • Franzia Kafka

    Oh, I agree. The show’s a lot of sexist garbage. But still I watch. Goddamn.

    Barney’s character is pretty ubiquitous in comedy – it’s basically Charlie Sheen’s character from _Two And a Half Men_. And it’s pretty disturbing that we laugh at the behavior rather than question it – especially when it’s sometimes so blatantly misogynist and predatory.

    But, to some extent, Barney kind of *is* over the top. He’s an emotionally devoid joker/idiot. I don’t know that we’re supposed to find his behavior entirely normal, but we are asked to find him “lovable.” (We’re asked to find an awful lot of pompous, self-absorbed, and/or morally repugnant male characters in literature and film “lovable.” In fact, male authors often win prizes for their literature containing morally repugnant male characters, whom critics call “complex” – I’m thinking of John Updike. The morally repugnant woman character is rarely considered “complex” – she’s a two-dimensional stock character.) But, even so, Barney’s often turned into the idiot, or even feminized and insulted for “acting gay.” In one episode I just watched, he’s an example of how “New York men are all one-fourth woman.” In another episode, he ends up grinding for hours at a club with his own cousin because he’ll start dancing with a woman before even looking at her face.

    I think that’s the biggest problem for me with sexist comedy: That we’re asked to identify with and find the male characters “lovable” when they’re just, well, not, and when misogyny and egotism are just not lovable. That’s probably why I can’t stand _Everybody Loves Raymond_. Ugh. Can-not-stand.

    • honeybee

      So why do you watch? Surely there must be something redeeming about the show for you to add to it’s ratings and general acceptance in this world. You must think you helping shows like this thrive is worth it, I’m curious to know why.

      • Amelia

        Sometimes there is nothing better on, sometimes I catch bits of it when others in the house are watching it… I’ve heard others say it’s really great and funny so I’ve thought “maybe I’ll give it another chance” (only to find it as horrid as I thought).

        Also if you cut out all of the sexist tv shows there are, you’d end up with next to nothing to watch. You can enjoy TV shows and be critical about them, watch them through a feminist lens.

        The “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it” argument doesn’t get us anywhere either. If no one who finds it sexist watches it, there’d be no discussion about sexism in it, and it would just continue on in it’s sexist way and still have millions of viewers.

  • nicolechat

    I think you’re kind of right. HIMYM is definitely prone to the same gendered stereotyping that all sitcoms are prone to and we’ve seen Barney a million times before. Like Franzia said, he’s Charlie from Two and a Half Men; he’s Joey from Friends; he’s the best friend of every single male lead in every romantic comedy since the beginning of time. In fact HIMYM has such a conglomerate of stock characters that it’s almost surprising it’s so successful: there’s the hopeless romantic Nice Guy who can’t seem to get a break, there’s the central romantic couple who are so interconnected that they practically share an identity, and the career-oriented postfeminist who has a hard time in relationships because she’s so afraid of commitment. The only trope we’re missing, really, is the pathetically lovesick female who falls in love too easily; but I guess Ted sort of covers that ground for both genders, and many of Barney’s sexual conquests fit that role as well.

    But I also think there’s a little something subversive in HIMYM. For one thing, like you said, the two female leads are sort of like the guys on the show – they’re both beer-chugging, party-loving ladies who watch football with the guys. And yet they’re fashionable, pretty, and very desirable by the men. I don’t think they’re so much “one of the guys” as they are just regular chicks hanging out with their friends. Most groups of friends are like that in real life and it’s a startlingly rare phenomenon in mainstream comedy. It’s refreshing; Lily, for one, doesn’t hold Marshall back. She not only “allows” him to drink with his friends, she usually participates in it. She’s fun without being overbearing; in fact, I think Marshall and Lily’s marriage is probably the healthiest and most realistic portrayal of an adult relationship that I’ve seen on a primetime comedy in, perhaps, ever. There was a brief breakup but it’s not the dramatic back-and-forth of Ross and Rachel or Carrie and Aiden; it’s just a regular relationship with regular problems and yet it’s not as though once they got married, they retreated from social life together. Robin, too, is a subversive character. She might be the typical commitment-phobic career woman but she’s probably the most true-to-life character on the show and her reluctance to prioritize her career over marriage and babies is never presented as a negative thing. Sure, her desires posed relationship complications with Ted because they wanted different things, but the show didn’t demonize her for that; it was more of a commentary on their incompatibility than on her character. She doesn’t want to live Lily’s life, and no one seems to think there is anything wrong with that, no one tells her she should get more in touch with her feminine side or that her non-desire to have kids is just a passing phase. Her life choices are presented as a legitimate path for a woman to lead. Furthermore, she’s not so rigidly committed to her career that she turns away all romantic prospects for fear that a man might distract her. She dates, she has a social life. She’s just a dedicated journalist who’s looking for a guy to share her life with who wants similar things.

    And I also don’t think that the other characters never comment on Barney’s debauchery. Lily in particular is often disgusted with his actions. Barney is an extreme parody and I don’t even think he’s supposed to be lovable so much as just the comic relief on the show. He does awful, date-rapey things that are deplorable and I agree that the show’s presentation of his character is evidence of a rape culture. The women he hooks up with are two-dimensional, stupid, easily manipulated, boring stereotypes. (And the episode where Ted flips out on Barney for sleeping with Robin also showed that Ted seems to think breaking the “bro code” is something he’s less willing to put up with in a friend than, say, selling a woman into slavery. That’s a pretty bad statement for Ted’s character.) We’re meant to understand that the other characters think Barney’s kind of a joke. That doesn’t mean the show isn’t sexist – it is. But there’s something buried underneath, I think, that demonstrates more of a step forward than a step back.