Female Objectification in ‘How I Met Your Mother’: Media Analysis Essay

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‘How I Met Your Mother’, which aired on CBS from 2005 to 2014, is a sitcom/romantic comedy created by Craig Thomas and Carter Bays. The series is set in Manhattan, New York and follows the lives of five close friends: Ted Mosby, Marshall Eriksen, Lily Aldrin, Barney Stinson and Robin Scherbatsky. ‘How I Met Your Mother‘ addresses many different areas of social status, especially those involving gender and sexuality. The series is based on Ted Mosby's exploits and uses flashback narration from a future Ted in 2030 as he explains to his kids the events that led him to meet their mother, hence the show's title. The episodes are usually separate, individual smaller stories which supposedly, however, add something new to the main storyline and move it forward. Although it is not discussed in the series itself, the tragic events of 9/11 inspired the making of ‘How I Met Your Mother’. As co-creator Carter Bays states, “It really was a 'do it now or never do it' moment. Life is short — this is something we want to do eventually, we should do it”, when recalling his move to Los Angeles to pitch the idea of the show to CBS. In earlier seasons, the series received mostly positive reviews with mixed reviews in later seasons and received 93 award nominations, winning 25 of them. Like many other sitcoms, very distinct personalities and their relationship together often establish the comedic quality of the series. Similar television sitcom series that follow this same formula are ‘Friends’, ‘Two and a Half Men’, and ‘The Big Bang Theory’.

While the series focuses primarily on the events surrounding Ted, the show's female characters are a driving force in pushing the story forward. Still, ‘How I Met Your Mother’ reinforces many stereotypical gender and sexuality representations that reflect and strengthen our society's hegemonic ideology. Portraying men as strong and pursuant is normal in our culture. Women are the objects that are being pursued in the case of ‘How I Met Your Mother’. It is a common stereotype among women in our society to be vulnerable and open to male companionship, and ‘How I Met Your Mother’ does not shy away from enforcing this stereotype. The show's female characters are often victims of objectification and discrimination. While the show attempts to change gender roles and stereotypes at times, the sexism towards the shows female characters still exists. In Alissa Quart’s article for The Cut titled ‘The Age of Hipster Sexism’, she claims: “On the other hand, Hipster Sexism flatters us by letting us feel like we are beyond low-level, obvious humiliation of women and now we can enjoy snickering at it. Beautiful young chicks in little bikinis, urinating on the street, are funny!”. Quart insists that if it is performed in an ironic fashion, we are in an era where women's objectification is appropriate and even humorous. We can see the concept of Quart’s theory in action by analyzing the characters of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and how they are represented in the show. Using it's narrative and cinematography, ‘How I Met Your Mother’ openly objectifies and discriminates against its female characters.

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The first section of this paper will address the theory of 'male gaze' by Laura Mulvey and how this concept is used in ‘How I Met Your Mother’ to objectify the show's female characters. To do this, I will analyze a scene involving Ted, Marshall, and Barney watching groups of women walk past their doorstep the morning after Halloween. The next section will discuss how the show uses stereotypes to perpetuate societies sexist ideology and extend the Freudian theory of narcissistic identification to Barney's role. I will analyze a scene involving dialogue by Barney explaining what an ideal woman should be to do so. The following section will focus on challenging gender roles and how characters are punished for doing so. To do this, I will examine a scene involving a sexual encounter with Robin.

One way ‘How I met Your Mother’ objectifies against its female characters is by using the ‘male gaze’. In Laura Mulvey’s essay titled ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, she states: “Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium”. Mulvey believes women on screen are overly sexualized and assumes a heterosexual male audience while doing so by displaying the woman as a sexual object. A scene showing Mulvey's 'male gaze' theory takes place in Season 6, Episode 7, 'Canning Randy'. The day after the Halloween parade in New York, Ted, Barney, and Marshall are casually sitting on their front steps observing women as they walk past them. Each male makes remarks about the possible one-night stands of the women based on the costumes they are wearing as they walk by in what they call the ‘Annual Post-Halloween Walk of Shame Parade’. The camera uses a wide establishing shot before dialogue is exchanged as the first two women walk by highlighting their bodies completely. The camera switches to a medium-wide shot as soon as dialogue begins between the male characters, further emphasizing the features of the women as they pass by.

Not only does the camerawork fetishize the body of each female as they pass by, but the male characters’ snarky comments degrade and objectify each female. In this way, the female characters are reduced to sexual objects on display for the men. The scene applies the concept of scopophilia, or the pleasure in looking, and makes the women as objects to be observed. One may also argue, given the time period of the scene, it is not unusual for women to wear revealing costumes. However, throughout the entire scene, men are not being objectified in the same fashion the women are because the only men present are Ted, Barney, and Marshall. Had the male characters made snarky comments about men and women passing by them, the scene could have been interpreted differently. While the camera works by fetishizing the women's bodies, the significance lies within the dialogue itself. The scene encourages the viewer to join the men in objectifying the women because it is presented in a humorous manner. Therefore, reinforcing the idea that the passing women are simply sexual objects to be shown in front of men for their amusement and pleasure.

‘How I Met Your Mother’ further objectifies women throughout the show by reinforcing sexist stereotypes about women. Harris O’Malley, a writer for The Washington Post, claims: “As soon as the ‘crazy’ card is in play, women are put on the defensive. It derails the discussion from what she’s saying to how she’s saying it. We insist that someone can’t be emotional and rational at the same time, so she has to prove that she’s not being irrational. Anything she says to the contrary can just be used as evidence against her”. This can be seen through the narrative surrounding the shows hyper-masculine womanizer Barney. Barney refers to himself as the ‘Yoda of Picking Up Chicks’, which is an intertextual reference to ‘Star Wars’. For instance, Barney uses a ‘playbook’ he wrote himself which consists of different scams and techniques that can be used in order to manipulate women to sleep with them. However, using Barney, ‘How I Met Your Mother’ punishes women who stray away from being easily manipulated by the character and labels them ‘crazy’ when doing so. The show uses the stereotype that if a woman is good-looking, only than is it acceptable to be emotionally unstable. If it’s the latter, it holds a negative connotation. A scene that demonstrates this sexist stereotype takes place in Season 3, Episode 5, ‘How I Met Everyone Else’. While the gang is introduced to Ted’s girlfriend at the time, the characters reminisce on other past romances they’ve had. Barney explains his ex-girlfriend by using what he refers to as the ‘Hot/Crazy Scale’. According to Barney, a woman can be crazy, if she is equally hot. By this standard, you want your girlfriend to be above the diagonal line, indicating that they are hotter than they are crazy.

The scene serves as an example of media building narrative to display stereotypes about women as hegemonic ideology. Its blatant sexism reinforces the idea of women being delusional or mentally unstable as a way of subordinating them by promoting stereotypes that are widely accepted by the audience because they are presented as jokes. ‘How I Met Your Mother’ exploits this ideology with its use of Barney to enforce a patriarchal way of looking at society. A Freudian analysis can be done on Barney’s character to connect with the audience through narcissistic identification. Barney attracts heterosexual male viewers through his masculine lifestyle, because sleeping with plenty of women holds a positive connotation for men in society. Therefore, the show promotes ideals of masculine men using this character and encourages the audience to follow the gender roles that are presented. Ironically, the actor playing the character of Barney announced he was gay during the filming of the show. Knowing this one may view the character’s tactics and treatment of women justifiable because he is gay in real life. However, this is also a clever way to disguise the shows negative portrayal of women by using this character to do it. This is significant because the culture of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ represents dominant ideologies of gender that are portrayed in the media today.

Aside from objectification, ‘How I Met Your Mother’ punishes characters when they step outside the conventional gender roles in the show. According Kate Manne, “Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don’t”. An example of this can be taken from a scene from Season 4, Episode 9, ‘The Naked Man’. While the gang is at the bar conversing about the antics of Mitch, who is labeled as the 'Naked Man’, Robin admits to sleeping with him because he was naked in the apartment and, according to Robin, “it just happened”. Marshall interjects by calling Robin a slut, and goes on to explain that “all that separates you from sex is the clothes”. Robin and Marshall then argue for the reasons Robin slept with the man. Robin claims they had a connection, but Marshall insists it was only because the man was naked in the apartment. This is an example of the double standard between the male and female characters of the show and how the female characters are punished for it. Robin is the ‘cool girl’ tomboy of the show. The other male characters also mark her as ‘one of the guys’, but once she does something that upsets her expected gender role and how she should act as a woman, she is immediately punished for it. However, for these same actions, involving sex with plenty of girls, male characters like Ted and Barney are never punished. Instead, the show's active audience praises them and looks up to them as heroes with accompanied laugh tracks. This is significant because it reinforces a patriarchal culture that women are expected to follow their designated gender norms.

The portrayal and objectification of female characters in ‘How I Met Your Mother’ are linked to the ideologies of sexism in the media and in our culture. Through representations of societies gender stereotypes, the female characters are actively discriminated against. The audience is then expected to embrace the popular gender stereotypes that are presented in the show, even though its depiction of female characters is a way to subordinate them in favor of men being in control. This ties back to Quart’s theory of hipster sexism. Because female objectification is displayed as humorous in the show, we are expected not to think of it as such a big deal. As a result, the show reflects dominant ideologies of gender that have been developed in the media. Using values that strengthen masculine ideologies and objectifying its female characters, ‘How I Met Your Mother’ portrays sexism within our society today.

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Female Objectification in ‘How I Met Your Mother’: Media Analysis Essay. (2023, September 19). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/female-objectification-in-how-i-met-your-mother-media-analysis-essay/
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Female Objectification in ‘How I Met Your Mother’: Media Analysis Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Sept 19 [cited 2024 Jun 22]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/female-objectification-in-how-i-met-your-mother-media-analysis-essay/
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