Edit: If you enjoy this post, you may also enjoy my other HIMYM post, which I wrote about one episode before I decided to give up the show for good.
A while back, I was writing a post about something-or-other and I mentioned that there's a lot of problematic media out there. Like, a lot. So much problematic media. So very much problematic media that if your goal was to completely erase media with any hint of problematic content from your consumption, you'd be left with a very slim list of "acceptable" media to watch. Which is incredibly horrible, but that's another post. Anyway, while I was discussing that topic, I brought up How I Met Your Mother, which is a show I watch and find generally entertaining and occasionally heartwarming, but which I recognize is also exceedingly, incredibly problematic.
Here are a few of my favorite examples of problematic storylines that work their way into the show:
- The "Nice Guy" Who Destroys Relationships in Search of "The One" Woman Who Will Complete Him (and Give Him Babies)
- Cool Ladies Are Bros You Can Have Sex With
- Career Women Are Secret Hot Messes
- Your Female Friends' Bodies Are Acceptable Bargaining Chips for Bets (It's Okay, They're Bros, They're Cool With It)
- Dudes Can Have Commitment Issues, but if a Lady Needs Space, MAN WHAT A LIFE-RUINING BITCH
- Dudes Can Be Obsessed With Marriage and Babies and it's Sweet, but Ladies Are SO CRAY-CRAY
- In Fact, Women Can Literally Have "Crazy Eyes"
- Women Are Also Fiscally Irresponsible Shopaholics
- Accomplished Women Are Threatening
- Pregnancy and Motherhood Make You Dumb and Horrible
- Manipulating, Intoxicating, and Lying to Women for Sex is Something to Ignore or Even Support (WINGMEN! LADIES WHO ARE ALSO WINGMEN!)
- If Women Are Stupid Enough to Fall for This Lie, They Basically Deserve to Be Used
- Basically Everything Barney Does Ever
- Being Forcibly Raised as a Gender Other Than the One You Identify As is HILARIOUS
- Gay Men Love Hitting on Straight Dudes!
- Female Bisexuality or Lesbianism is a Joke, or Something for Male Titillation
- Everyone in NEW YORK CITY is White, Except Sexual Conquests
And that's just a sampling.
HIMYM is a show that's guilty of something I like to think of as "cuddly sexism," or sexism that's softened and portrayed as okay because the 1) the perpetrators are actually really nice guys who don't really mean it except for when they're using and losing one-off conquests, and 2) it's brushed off or perpetuated by the female characters themselves, so it's clearly not THAT sexist. Since this show is a comedy, sexist acts and comments are portrayed as humorous, and therefore automatically something to not take seriously. We're told time and again that the male characters are good husbands, good boyfriends, good friends, good dads. So obviously when they do or say something grossly sexist, it's okay because JUST JOKES, GUYS (except for when it isn't). If the female characters are giving them a pass, so should you!
This sort of thing can get really upsetting to watch, because it's making light of something that a lot of people (myself included) actually deal with in real life, and in real life, it's not funny. It's not amusing to have a man buy you drinks with the intent of getting you drunk and taking advantage of you because to him, you're just a thing to put his penis in. It's not entertaining to have your sexuality questioned or used as an excuse to ask for -- or demand -- a threesome, as though it's a performance for someone else's enjoyment. It's not cute to be repeatedly looked over for promotions or opportunities because you're assumed to be less ambitious, less intelligent, or on the "mommy track." In fact, it sucks when society and your guy friends and other women are all telling you, directly or indirectly, that you need to stop being so damn female and start acting like a BRO, you silly bobble-headed screechy GIRL.
Every once in a while, the writers also like to throw a little "reverse sexism" into the mix, like the recent episode entitled "Twelve Horny Women" (really), where twelve women are serving on a jury and are easily swayed by the attractive male attorney showing off his butt, or pecs, or biceps. But see, this isn't sexism at all because the ladies are objectifying the DUDE, see! It's in no way implying that women are always turned on and easily manipulated by a hot dude's ass! This has nothing to do with women being too silly, stupid, sexually confused, or needy to serve on something as important as a JURY!
Ahem. Yeah. So, the show is problematic.
And now I'm sure you're thinking, "Wow. Why do you even watch this show at all?"
I do have to admit, the recent seasons have worn my patience pretty thin, especially after the way they treated the character Lily throughout her pregnancy. Even so, I was brought into the show because much of the humor really is funny, the chemistry of the cast is generally spot-on, and there are some wonderfully heartwarming (and heart-wrenching) moments of friendship and love.
This is where we get to the other point of this post: enjoying problematic media.
Everyone has their own levels of tolerance for their media intake. There's a balance; a point where the problematic elements outweigh any benefit of entertainment you get from watching the show. Some things may be particularly triggering or angry-making, and they alone are enough to give a quick "nope" stamp. Other shows may straddle a line between really progressive, quality entertainment speckled with some aggravatingly problematic stuff. Legend of Korra was one of these for me. There was so much about that show that I truly enjoyed, but there was some really crappy junk going on there, too.
I'm an analytical viewer. I can't consume a piece of media without viewing it critically and noting problematic themes. Some may argue that this means that I can't enjoy anything ever because I can't just "let it go," but I find the opposite to be true. It's very important to me to be able to recognize harmful social stigmas so I can consciously combat them. Just because I realize it's there doesn't mean that I can't also notice and appreciate the things my entertainment gets right.
That's ultimately where enjoyment of problematic media rests. Too often, people house themselves in a nice little fandom bubble where any naysaying whatsoever is met with choruses of HOW DARE YOU and YOU'RE JUST JEALOUS and LA LA LA LA LA. This is an attitude that equates even the slightest criticism with "I hate this and I hate you for liking it and neither it nor you should exist." It's as though it's impossible for certain fans to understand that you can like something, REALLY REALLY REALLY like something, and still recognize that it's not perfect and some of the themes it expresses are pretty messed up.
There isn't much (or any) perfect media out there. It all has its issues, and it's fine to enjoy it despite those issues. But it's also important to be able to recognize and acknowledge those issues so that you're checking yourself on becoming complacent in perpetuating similar crap. You can understand the flaws in something and still think that something is worth your attention and adoration.
Find the problems, acknowledge the problems, and help make your media and your fandoms better, all while continuing to enjoy your favorite things.
S.E. Sinkhorn, an author of young adult fiction. She loves the ocean, Phoenix Wright, and garlic popcorn. She blogs about YA, writing, publishing, pop culture, and the occasional weird news story. You can call her Steph. Welcome to her world.
She is represented by Michelle Andelman of Regal Literary.
If you would like to contact her, the email address [sesinkhorn] at [gmail] dot [com] may work in your favor. She also moderates the YA!Flash tumblr.