Legend, wait for it, dary! How I Met Your Mother was recently renewed for its 9th and final season, a reality that is leaving its huge fan base nothing short of devastated. From season one the cast has had an incredible chemistry, but the fan favorite and real show stealer has undoubtedly been Neil Patrick Harris’s character of Barney Stinson. The writer’s of the show have taken the popularity of the womanizing character of Barney Stinson, played by an openly gay actor, and used it as an opportunity to address and challenge the way society views gay men. An analysis of how the show is attempting to reshape stereotypes of homosexuality in our culture is vital to us as a society because gay rights and equality are huge social issues in our world.
I’ll admit that I was originally drawn to write about this because I am an avid How I Met Your Mother, or HIMYM, fan. It’s one of those shows that constantly keeps me laughing and the characters are so relatable and real that you feel a connection with them. But the more I thought about the show, and especially Barney, the more I realized how they strategically use his character to challenge the audience.
The first and most apparent way HIMYM challenges the audience is through detournement and dramatic irony. Detournement is a French word that, according to James Trier in his article for the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, roughly translates to mean something along the lines of diversion or subversion, basically a reversely of perspective. As previously stated, the openly gay Neil Patrick Harris plays Barney Stinson, who is the epitome of a womanizing bachelor. By using an outspoken gay rights activist who himself is homosexual to portray a character that is directly opposite of that is a direct example of detournement as a culture jamming technique. Paired with the dramatic irony of the audience knowing of Neil Patrick Harris’s homosexuality and the whole world of the show being oblivious of that fact, it causes the audience to inadvertently do a mental 180 and to reevaluate how they think of the homosexuals.
Intersectionality is when you view a person taking into account all aspects of their life, not just one defining feature. For example, I’m not just a female; I’m a white female of Italian heritage from a middle class family. This is brought up best and most poignantly in HIMYM in the episode titled, “Single Stamina” when Barney’s brother James comes to visit.
All the members of the friend group but Robin have met James before and they keep warning Robin to be prepared and not be shocked that James was gay. James walks in and is indeed gay, but also black while his brother, Barney, is very clearly white. Understandably, Robin was surprised when he walked through the door. The ridiculousness of the situation clearly highlights the significance of an intersectional viewpoint and the ridiculousness of viewing someone by a single trait. The fact that Barney’s brother is gay also plays nicely into the detournement spoken about in the previous section and takes culture jamming to the next level through rhetorical sabotage as discussed in Christine Harold’s article Pranking Rhetoric: “Culture Jamming” as Media Activism. The character of James hijacks Neil Patrick Harris’s real life identity and flips it against his characters identity as a womanizer. While Barney straight he is seen as a person who uses woman and is unable to settle down. James, who is gay, is shown as the one who seeks the permanency of a long-term relationship and true love.
Discourse of Visibility:
Finally, How I Met Your Mother shows homosexuality as a much more “normal” lifestyle then many other television shows do. Take, for example, Kurt from Glee or Cam from Modern Family. Both of these characters are homosexual and both are general very popular in their show’s fan bases. But, both of these men are extremely feminine and flamboyantly gay characters. While there is nothing wrong with that portrayal and it is accurate in some cases, it is showing a very single storied, or one-sided view of the homosexual lifestyle. In his article, The Limitations of the Discourse of Norms, author Jay Clarkson discusses how media often portrays flaming gender performances in an effort to make homosexuality more visible thus more natural and normal. Though the motives behind the actions are not necessarily bad, the results are often not perceived in a positive manner. But HIMYM doesn’t follow the trend of flaming representation. James is shown as a typical, non-effeminate male who happens to be gay while Barney is shown to be more concerned with fashions and other seemingly “gay” interests while he is in fact straight.
So What’s the Point?
While these theories are great and very helpful in analyzing the show, why should they matter to our lives? I believe they do because homosexuality is not merely a lifestyle issue on our television screens but in the world around us. These theories allow us to critically analysis the way the media portrays homosexuality. We all know that media not only mirrors society but also helps to shape it so if we are aware of the tactics they are using we are able to develop a more well rounded and educated view.