How I Met Your Mother: Cuddly Sexism & Enjoying Problematic Media

| Monday, December 10, 2012

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.

HIMYM and Enjoying Problematic Media

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.

How do you find that balance, guys?


{ Mrs. Silverstein } at: December 10, 2012 at 6:25 AM said...

Sigh. As a woman who loves anything Aaron Sorkin touches...this is my constant dilemma.

HIMYM is a particularly interesting example, I think, because of The Barney Issue. My husband watches a lot of sports on CBS, and he's noted before that the commercials that run during sports tend to play up how awesome it is that Barney tricks so many women into sex, while the show at least nominally frowns on it (his friends tolerate it, but there is definitely a growing sense that the endgame of Barney's Happily Ever After is marriage and monogamy.) The show is basically trying to have its cake (hook in dudes watchin' football with this totally sweet player!) and eat it too (send the message that even if this is awesome, it's Wrong and Will Not Make You Happy).

Now, Lily, OTOH? I am losing my patience with the more and more frequent portrayals of her as a shrill, crazy, klepto who can't keep her hands off her best friend. I liked the idea that she had a crush on Robin when it was first introduced, and the juxtaposition between her job as a kindergarten teacher and her sexy, tough, weird personality but they've been amping it WAY up and suddenly I find myself really disliking most of Lily's plots.

{ JeffO } at: December 10, 2012 at 7:46 AM said...

I don't watch the show, so I can't really comment from that perspective. What I can say, however, is that as I've gotten older, I have less and less appreciation for these sort of portrayals. I suspect some of it simply comes with age and maturity. A bigger part of it no doubt comes from having two daughters, and thinking about the image I portray to them as well as what they're bombarded with from all corners of the world.

Regarding the 'Twelve Horny Women' episode - is that any different from all the times we've seen a man reduced to a blithering idiot or blind follower by the 'charms' of a woman? I suspect THAT scenario has been played out on the small screen much more than the one in that episode (and probably several times on that very show).

It's a topic that interests me a lot, and I'm glad you raise it in such a thoughtful manner.

{ phirephoenix } at: December 10, 2012 at 10:40 AM said...

Oh my god, everything. HIMYM pretty much needed to be over 4 seasons ago. I wish Barney were less who he is because Neil Patrick Harris is everything that's awesome about the entertainment industry.

See also: The Big Bang Theory. I recently got into a pretty heated "discussion" over Thanksgiving with my mom and some family friends because I said I didn't like Penny's ditziness and the fact that she's the only leading lady on the show and she's portrayed as unintelligent and stupid. All the adults (lol) were like "But the point is that she has emotional intelligence and the nerds don't" and I didn't even know how to begin unpacking THAT one.

(And then when I said that it's fine for one character to be ditzy but it's kinda shitty if you only ever see women portrayed as ditzes on TV that gets problematic, it turned somehow to a discussion that feminism has swung too far and now little boys aren't being taught properly in school, and I spent a lot of time in Twitter that night....)

{ Mel Chesley } at: December 10, 2012 at 10:46 PM said...

Wow, there is someone else out there like me when it comes to stuff like this! I always wondered...
I like the show for all the reasons you mentioned as well as dislike it for all the reasons you mentioned. There isn't much I'll watch these days. In fact, I killed my TV a long time ago. Rather, I killed cable. I watch what I want on Netflix and the internet. Sometimes I am not always up to date on some things, but at least I got away from a LOT of the commercials which are the worst in problematic media.
Very good post. There are just some people out there, though, who I'd love to start a slap bet with. ;)

{ Suzi } at: December 11, 2012 at 4:58 AM said...

This is an interesting post. And I totally agree with what you're saying.

I think one of the problems too is that as shows get bigger, they just get worse and worse. If you compare season 1 to season 8, everything in the character has been amplified.

I'll admit I used to like Two and a Half Men. (You could probably spend years talking about the problamatic storylines in that one.)

But even before Charlie Sheen lost it, the show started going so far to the extreme, it's ridiculous. And it does get old. Luckily there is an off button, and we can use it. :)

{ Kristan Hoffman } at: December 11, 2012 at 7:36 AM said...

Oh yes yes yes, unfortunately yes. I'm completely with you on HIMYM. I mean, I can give it SOME leeway, because comedy is often about exaggeration, and yes, they often in the end show that what you thought isn't actually how things are. But still. There's so much that could be done to portray things in a less problematic and still hilarious way.

As you said, though, there's a tolerance point, and I guess, for whatever reason, HIMYM lives within mine. (I would guess it has a lot to do with my love of the adorkable Jason Segel.)

Also as you said, I'm able to enjoy a number of shows/movies/books/other problematic media *because* I recognize them as problematic. And I guess, frankly, I'm not sure we can create wholly UN-problematic media anyway. Everyone's got their innate biases that they may not even be aware they were raised with. Self included. But the more we try to be conscious of them, and the more we discuss them, the more we can combat them.

So. Long comment short: this post is wise and I agree with it/you. :)

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{ virtualwill } at: August 6, 2013 at 10:27 AM said...

I agree completely with this post.

When watching shows, I can let some things slide because usually that's part of who the character is. The show 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' is problematic, I'm definitely not denying that. The main group do make offensive comments regarding gender and sexuality, however, the large majority of the time the audience is laughing at the characters, rather than with them. The group, while likable, are very unlikable at the same time.

The HIMYM characters aren't awful people and they aren't perfect people. They have flaws, but their sexist and sometimes homophobic/transphobic attitudes aren't discussed.

Poor writing is to blame for some of the offensive comments made by the characters. In an episode I just watched, there were some passing remarks about not being sure whether a transgender person was male or female. This wasn't significant in anyway to the story line, it was purely said just to get a laugh out of the audience.

In another episode I watched a few weeks ago, the group was making fun of Marshall for having a condition called 'dancer's hip'. In 2013 (or at least whenever this particular episode aired) why do we still have to deal with story lines purely based on sexism and stereotypes. Do writers really have that much trouble coming up with decent story lines.

{ Emily H } at: March 2, 2017 at 5:36 AM said...

I'd also like to mention that in the show violence against men is laughed at when the perpetrator is a woman. In at least two different episodes the line "you got beat up by a girl!?" is heard. The worst example is the Natalie incident where she literally beat the crap out of Ted because he broke up with her, and after Ted tells his kids the story they laugh at him about it. What this implies is that first of all, women are so weak or something that a man is a total loser if he gets beat up by a woman and it's in fact not terrible and wrong. Secondly, Natalie went nuts enough to beat up Ted in a crowded restaurant over a breakup - once again the stereotype of a crazy, irrational woman shows.

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