How I Met Your Mother: Season 9, Episode 19 “Vesuvius”
*CAUTION: SPOILER ALERT!
*Note: Episode is on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube (albeit with some funky voice alterations)
I’ve been binge-watching How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) on Netflix since mid-January, but I loved the show long before that. However, although the show is a mixture of hilarious and heart-warming, I can’t help but notice many problematic aspects of the HIMYM. While watching “Vesuvius,” one of the final episodes in the show’s final season, I identified many stereotypical representations of gender, sexuality, race, and class that both reflect and reinforce the hegemonic ideology of our culture. However, I was able to take a negotiated position and enjoy HIMYM by rejecting stereotypical representations and ignoring certain comments. As bell hooks explains, “Writing about black looking relations in ‘Black British Cinema: Spectatorship and Identity Formation in Territories,’ Manthia Diawara identifies the power of the spectator: ‘Every narration places the spectator in a position of agency; and race, class, and sexual relations influence the way in which this subjecthood is filled by the spectator.’ Of particular concern for him are moments of ‘rupture’ when the spectator resists ‘complete identification with the film’s discourse’” (117). While these specific representations stuck out to me the most because of my identity and positionality, many other examples of problematic material could be identified in this episode (and show).
Robin and Lily
The first problematic representation in “Vesuvius” occurs in the opening scene when Robin, one of the main characters, is shown playing hockey with her sister inside a hotel room where she is staying for her upcoming wedding. Both Robin and her sister are donned in full hockey gear as the two women are taunting each other about each other’s hockey skills. In HIMYM, Robin’s masculinity is a main source of comedy for the show. For example, Robin’s voice often deepens when she assumes a tough, masculine attitude, such as when she’s taunting her sister during their indoor hockey game. During Robin’s performances of masculinity, the producers of HIMYM decided to add laugh tracks from episode screenings to signal to viewers what that they should find Robin’s untraditional performances of femininity odd and comical.
Robin’s identity as “one of the guys” is often contrasted with another character’s, Lily, traditional performances of femininity. For example, in “Vesuvius,” Lily repeatedly brings up the fact that Robin isn’t hysterical or “freaking out” because it’s her wedding day. When she finds Robin playing indoor hockey with her sister, Lily exclaims, “How about we switch to an activity that’s more-suited to somebody’s who’s, you know, GETTING MARRIED TODAY!” and later “Robin, this is a day you only get to do once!” (Adler), suggesting that Lily believes in more traditional views of marriage. Later, Lily later rants to her husband, Marshall, “I mean, I know Robin’s not the girliest girl. But you’d think on her wedding day she’d be at least a little sentimental!”
One exception to the contrasting of Robin’s masculinity and Lily’s femininity in this episode of How I Met Your Mother is when Robin’s mom unexpectedly arrives to witness Robin get married. As Robin is searching for the ice machine, she comes across her mom and instantly bursts into tears with surprise and relief (emotional/crying as a feminine expectation). Many breaks in her “one of the guys” identity happen throughout HIMYM but still highlight stereotypical ideas about how certain people are expected to feel and act.
Barney and Ted/Marshall
Just as Robin and Lily’s displays of femininity are contrasted, so, too, are the male characters’ performances of masculinity contrasted on HIMYM. Barney is often portrayed as hyper-masculine and as a womanizer, whereas Ted and Marshall often take on stereotypical feminine attitudes and activities, such as expressing excitement about watching a “chick flick” called “The Wedding Bride, Too”. Just as the laugh tracks accompany many of Robin’s masculine moment, laugh tracks are added during moments when Ted and/or Marshall perform femininity.
Later in the episode, Ted, a main character, is shown crying while his wife, Tracy, (although she shows emotion) acts as the “strong” one while a flashback of Barney before his marriage to Robin occurs where he and Ted can’t find a suit to wear that he hasn’t “banged” another woman in. This hyper-masculine display, as are most of Barney’s other sexist, crude comments, is meant to be funny and is (again) accompanied by an added laugh track. Such moments also assume a psychoanalytic male gaze for the show’s viewers (white, male, active gaze).
Later in the episode, Ted tells his wife a story about Barney stealing a scuba suit and tells her, “He stole it…He walked right into a sporting goods store, tried on a scuba suit, and walked right out the door” (Adler). This story showcases Barney’s hyper-masculinity and disregard for the law. It also shows white privilege and class privilege in many ways (ex: he just walked out of a store with merchandise and wasn’t questioned/arrested).
My Oppositional Gaze
The examples I analyzed in this episode of How I Met Your Mother point out stereotypical gender roles and expectations of the main characters. However, as I mentioned previously, my analysis is subjective; the gender stereotypes and expectations/performances I have learned are dependent upon my socialization and positionality. While watching this episode of HIMYM, I had to take a negotiated stance in order to ignore the very hegemonic ideals being represented and reproduced within the show. From Robin’s “comical” displays of masculinity to Barney’s sociopathic attitudes about women, I had to “put my blinders on” in order to identify with any of the characters and to ignore the extremely problematic representations offered in the show. As bell hooks explains, many viewers facing oppression from their intersectional identities, “…to experience fully the pleasure of that cinema…had to close down critique, analysis; they had to forget racism. And mostly they did not think about sexism” (120). Moreover, because the main cast of HIMYM is all white, middle-to-upper class, and cisgendered, various other critiques could be formed alongside my analysis of this specific episode of How I Met Your Mother. In conclusion, although HIMYM is generally a good time, in order for critical audiences to enjoy the show, they must take a negotiated or oppositional viewing position to create situations that push back against the hegemonic ideology represented and reproduced on screen.
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