So, I’ve written before about How I Met Your Mother, because it was one of the first sitcoms I truly loved- sure, it might have paled in comparison to Frasier and Happy Endings and Suburgatory and Frasier (did I mention Frasier?) in recent years, but it’s still my baby and I adore it. I last watched it when the final season was airing in 2014, and I kind of forgot about it after that atrocious ending. A few nights ago, the Consort and I were looking for something to do (besides writing Doctor Who reviews, shameless plug), and we decided to watch a few of our favourite episodes of HIMYM. And both of us came away feeling kind of…urgh. I’d never before realized just quite how fucking grim one of my favourite comedies actually is.
If you’re in any way acquainted with the show, you’ll know that Neil Patrick Harris, the King of my heart and also of this version of Sugar Daddy from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, plays breakout character Barney Stinson, a hyper-horrible pick up artist who treats women entirely as conquests to be slept with then discarded through any means necessary. Obviously, that’s pretty gross as it is, but generally the audience is encouraged to laugh at his pathetically grim attempts to pick up women, not with him. But then there’s the way he talks about women-hos, sluts, hefties, amongst a variety of other terms, all of which the studio audience howl along with. Guys, guys, look how funny it is that he consistently treats women like shit for engaging in casual sex or not conforming to society’s idealised version of them! And that ends up blurring the line uncomfortably between laughing at his convoluted “plays” to hook up with women, and laughing at the women he takes in with them for being so easy. Equally, there are a couple of episodes where less-than-perfect men are derided for, you know, having a sex drive and wanting to be treated like a normal human being.
His character might be a caricature, but the use of these terms isn’t, as evidenced by the fact the rest of the characters regularly describe women like that too. But who can blame them, considering the fact that almost every secondary female character on this show is treated like a dumb slut? They’re consistently stupid, drunk, gullible, vulnerable people, just waiting for our main character to swoop down on them, manipulate them, fuck them, and dump them. Or they’re prudes, torturing our innocent male characters with a lack of sex, (seriously, that plotline turns up an embarrassing amount during the series) which is equally awful. I’ve written before about how sitcom’s compressed time frame often cause sexist/racist/whatever-ist stereotypes, but none have done so as consistently as this. Especially when you compare them to the tertiary male characters, who get actual funny plotlines and don’t have to have their tits out to be shown on camera.
But hey, I hear you cry, they have two female lead characters on this show (three if you count the titular Mother in season nine), so they can’t be that bad, can they? Well, yeah, I’m not going to dispute the fact that Robin (played by Cobie Smulders) and Lily (played by Alyson Hannigan) are as well-realized characters as their male counterparts, but they’re regularly shown as part of the Not One of Those Girls trope- they drink, they smoke pot, they enjoy sex, and they’re just as happy to describe women as “bitches” or “sluts” as their male counterparts. It’s okay to deride them, the show seems to tacitly argue, because even though they engage in a lot of the behaviours the derided “hos” do, because they shame other women for doing it, too. There’s something uber-grim about women shaming other women for their behaviour- Christ, it took me months to get rid of the involuntary twitch of disapproval whenever I met a woman who was engaging in behaviours I’d been taught weren’t “ladylike”-but here it’s used to show how cool and down these women are. Ladies, take note: dudes will like you if you call other women dumb sluts!
They’re not like those other girls, because the show often makes jokes of Lily’s high sex drive, or has the men encouraging them to perform lesbianism for them, or other characters calling them sluts for hooking up with people “too soon”. And it’s doubly a shame, because HIMYM has done some awesome stuff with it’s women characters- an infertility plotline was handled fucking beautifully, and the way the show treats their careers as just as valid as the male character’s is heartening. But let’s not forget that one of the biggest plotlines of the series revolves around Barney and Robin, and how he manipulates her by lying to her, dating someone she doesn’t like to make her jealous, and telling her they could never be together, only for her to fall at his feet when he proposes and have it treated as the most romantic thing in the world. For everything good they do with their women characters, they undermine it by holding up manipulation, unwanted persistence, and outright cruel behaviour as something women should look for in a man (and something men should be doing to get women).
But when it comes down to it, this is a show that consistently shames women for their sexual behaviour, while it holds up men’s conquests as a victory. And that’s a shame, because it’s a really excellent comedy show- which is not to say that I suddenly don’t find it funny, but, with whole episodes revolving around how Barney has cruelly manipulated women into sex and then discarded them, it’s difficult to laugh along quite as heartily. God-dammit, How I Met Your Mother.