14 Years of How I Met Your Mother: We Need to Talk About Barney

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14 Years of How I Met Your Mother: We Need to Talk About Barney

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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efore there was Netflix, Hotstar, and Amazon Prime, before the days of YouTube and endless streaming, there was only F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Fourteen years ago, the massiest sitcom India had access to, was a mess of breathless reruns – when along came came a show that could cater to F.R.I.E.N.D.S. loyalists with an added layer of relevance and coolness. How I Met Your Mother combined the ingenuity of sitcoms and its trademark flashbacks and flashforwards to hook audiences for nine seasons – all in service of a one-line plot.

A fresh take on F.R.I.E.N.D.S also needed an update on Joey Tribbiani. Enter Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris), part-time friend and full-time catchphrase generator. Barney wore Armani suits, drank “American Scotch from Scotland” (and the occasional gin and tonic), and peddled fake news long before sanghis made it cool. Barney lived by the overtly fetishised “bro code” and instantly metamorphosed into both the show’s most glorified character and its most popular one. The HIMYM writers exalted the idea of Barney’s emotional indifference to an extent that it became sort of aspirational. So many boys who became men, while the show blared on TVs, grew up wanting to be Barney, the man who could get away with his misogyny because he was legen… wait for it… dary!

But despite Barney’s effortless smoothness with women, he also hated them. How can a womaniser hate women, you ask? If you think about it, misogyny is inextricably linked with men like Barney, because how else do you instantly reduce women to mere conquests? In the show, Barney dehumanises women to the extent of rating them on their physical attributes on a scale of one to 10. To him, every decision a woman made in her life – wearing a short skirt to work or being a nurse – is suggestive of how “easy” she can be; merely a distance between her and his bed. And he was ready to go to any lengths to have sex with women, like coming up with an offensive “Playbook” that bragged about the countless ways he’d scammed women.

Looking back at the show, it’s almost infuriating to see the countless clues to his ingrained misogyny in HIMYM’s nine seasons. An episode titled “Perfect Week” in the show’s fifth season is essentially a paean to Barney treating sex with seven women in seven days without getting rejected, as a sport. In another titled “The Bracket”, Barney blames a mystery woman for sabotaging his chances at picking up women. When he at last learns of her identity and fails to remember her, he believes that forgetting her is the worst thing he can do to a woman while admitting that he practically sold a woman once.

In HIMYM then, Barney’s misogyny didn’t just get a pass – it got validation.

But the most deplorable evidence of Barney’s hatred for women comes in the show’s sixth season in an episode titled “Blitzgiving” when the gang is hanging out at MacLarens, sans Ted. When Ted’s nemesis Zoey walks in, Lily suggests that they should come up with a plan to teach her a lesson. Barney’s response? A plan that involved leaving her somewhere “buck naked and covered in candle wax”. Horrified, Marshal asks him, “I know Ted doesn’t like that girl, but isn’t that a little extreme?” and to that Barney feigns ignorance at finding out that Ted doesn’t like the girl. What could be more of a giveaway of his hatred toward women than plotting revenge against a woman he hardly knows? What’s even worse is how quickly the show forgets the magnitude of this violent line and distracts your attention with a harmless quip.

In HIMYM then, Barney’s misogyny didn’t just get a pass – it got validation. The writers, and by extension the camera, was always sympathetic to how it viewed his misdemeanours. Not only did we rarely know events from the perspective of the faceless women taking up a frame with Barney, but we were also sold a disguise of a lost man who just sleeps around because he’s afraid of the hurt that accompanies emotional attachment. Moreover, the gang – who only made intermittent comments about how pathetic he was – never truly called Barney out in a way that would have forced him to reflect or address his behaviour. Even worse, they helped him trick women into sleeping with women. When Robin wasn’t suiting up to be his “wingman”, the gang was celebrating Barney’s “success” in sleeping with seven women in a week because apparently, such “sports” cheered them up when they were feeling low.

The HIMYM writers exalted the idea of Barney’s emotional indifference to an extent that it became sort of aspirational.

Image Credit: Bays & Thomas Productions

In case you were wondering, Barney’s behaviour was also explained by the tried-and-tested route of parental issues. The show made it a point to highlight how unhealthy his relationship was with his mother, who wasn’t just a promiscuous woman who hid his father’s identity from him but also mollycoddled him. Also explored was the genesis of Barney the “player”: his college girlfriend cheating on him for the kind of womaniser he eventually becomes. There’s nothing wrong with using such tropes – as overused as they might be – had the show derived some commentary out of it that dealt with how emotionally handicapped some men eventually grow up to be.

Instead, HIMYM used it as a justification for Barney being an urban creep with zero remorse. One who was really just waiting for the right woman to come along and transform him into a decent human being. In the controversial series finale for instance, Barney exploited his unsuccessful marriage with Robin as an excuse to go back to his philandering ways because, “If it didn’t work out with Robin, it wouldn’t work out with anyone.” At the same time, what eventually makes him a half-decent human being is having a daughter. In both cases, it’s implied that the onus is on the women to better the men in their lives.

In the show, Barney dehumanises women to the extent of rating them on their physical attributes on a scale of one to 10.

Image Credit: Bays & Thomas Productions

These lazy deflection devices underline how little the show’s creators really understand women and relationships. And regardless of how many gags HIMYM had, or how much its idea of love resonated with us, its glorification of a man as toxic as Barney Stinson remains unforgivable. Even 14 years later.

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