When it comes to combining comedy and the diversity of masculinity, Maria Pawlowska writes, not many do it better than Marshall, Ted, and Barney.
Your friends know better—they really do (at least most of the time). In 2009, for about a year or two a bunch of my closest friends had been telling me for quite a while that it’s time I took up “How I Met Your Mother” (affectionately, and oh so pronounceably accronymed to HIMYM). They kept saying it’s like “Friends,” but just a lot funnier. I, well, plain ignored then. Until, that is, I was visiting my sister in Paris one time, and she decided enough is enough and talked us into seeing “one episode.” Literally (I’m somewhat ashamed to admit in public) 7 hours later it was 3 am, we had watched a full season and my husband and I decided we should finally call it a night if we wanted to see any of the Louvre the next day. Since then Barney Stinson, Marshall Erickson and Ted Mosby are like personal friends of mine. (Again, something I probably should not be admitting to so readily in public….) They are also three very different examples of how men are now portrayed in the mass media and popular TV shows.
Of course, there’s Barney Stinson, played by the utterly amazing Neil Patrick Harris. What I’m about to say is probably verging on the politically incorrect, but I have a sneaky suspicion that Barney Stinson gets to be as outrageous as he is because NPH is openly homosexual (Harris’ husband played a minor recurring character in the series). Moreover, he has made quite a point of talking about it in public (in e.g. a great appearance on the Ellen Degeneres show) and has no qualms about being autoironic when performing at large awards ceremonies. At the end of the day, whether my suspicion is correct or not doesn’t really matter. Barney Stinson makes this show —an expert panel of my friends and I are convinced that there’s no way it would be half as funny without him. And frankly that’s quite a statement from a card-carrying feminist like myself because Barney is, for want of a better set of words, a mildly misogynistic, objectifying, sex-obsessed chauvinist. He’s got a famous “Playbook” of lies he tells women to get them to sleep with him, he’s terrified of commitment, hates having to call girls back and about 70% of the words he utters have something to do with a female body part and describe a sexual act he would like to have with the owner of said body part. Sure, he’s had a relationship or two and we’re increasingly being led to believe that he’s simply got a ton of abandonment issues because of growing up without his Dad and that he’s actually deeply in love with Robin. But for now, he’s continuing with his outrageous sexploiting antiques and making fun of Ted (his best friend) and Marshall (nearly his best friend) who both either want, or are in, a committed relationship.
Ah, yes – Marshall Eriksen – the opposite of Barney and the ultimate domesticated boyfriend/husband. He’s been with the same girl since the first year of college, loves her dearly, took her back when she dumped him and has no problems whatsoever with being called “Marshmallow” in public. He’s all about talking about feelings and commitment and most of the time he’s actually pretty sweet. I feel the screenwriters tried to write a character who would be the complete opposite of Barney – also physically. NPH is slim and blond while Jason Segel is a tall brunet with a—ahem—heavier frame. Importantly—he’s actually likable. You don’t feel sorry for him. Lily—his girlfriend and later wife—knows what she wants, has a job and doesn’t smile and nod to everything her husband says. But she’s not a nagging wife. She’s a partner in their pretty nearly equal partnership. The actors do a real good job of portraying the couple as best friends with a lot of respect and sexual attraction for one another. You laugh the hardest at Barney’s (mis)adventures but Lily and Marshall make you feel all nice and fuzzy inside without being too sweet to stomach.
And finally, there’s Ted Mosby—the narrator and, pardon the harshness, possibly the most bland character on the show. He’s supposed to be (I think) a “regular guy.” He’s a young professional looking for a committed relationship who keeps on dating girls who aren’t quite right and if they’re right they run off to Germany for baking scholarships. (Who knew these existed?) He’s got his slut-shaming moments (to paraphrase: if she sleeps with you on the first date she’s a slut and you don’t want her for the mother of your children) but on the whole, he’s trying to be respectful, romantic, friendly and not too patronizing. He’s friendly with his live-in ex and a good guy on the whole. But I find myself empathizing with Barney more than I’d possibly like to admit, when Ted mentions his quest for the love of his life every time they sit at the bar. If he were a 35-year old woman with the same attitude, he’d be called ‘desperate’. With Ted being a man, I think we’re supposed to interpret him as ‘romantic’ instead.
When I think of Barney, Marshall and Ted it’s like the screenwriters wanted to cover all their ‘manly’ bases (within the range of ‘normal’, so minus the serial killers). There’s the full spectrum from the playboy to the politely prowling bachelor to the happily married husband. Perhaps it’s schematic, but it really works. The audience usually at least chuckles, even without a cue from the playback laughter. The show won five Emmys and CBS is currently screening the seventh season, so the producers obviously aren’t complaining, either. It’s funny, smart and a place on TV where men and women, on the whole are pretty good at being respectful and egalitarian. (And NPH is just incredibly awesome.) The worst sexism on the show is so bad you can’t take it seriously and you’re left laughing at Barney and being happy for Lily, Marshall and their baby. It’s pretty much a win-win in terms of combining comedy and an interesting portrayal of masculinity on television.
—Photo via hotpotofcoffee.tumblr.com