Ever since the controversial episode of "Girls" in which Adam (Adam Sackler) had disturbing sexual relations with his girlfriend Natalia (Shiri Appleby), the web has been abuzz with what constitutes sexual consent. In the process, other popular shows have been the focus of some scrutiny, including the womanizing role of Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) on “How I Met Your Mother.”
His role only became more problematic with the most recent “HIMYM” episode, “The Fortress,” which aired Mar. 18, 2013. Barney’s fiancee Robin (Cobie Smulders) insists that he sell his apartment, or what he calls his fortress of solitude, in part because of all his creepy patent-pending devices, like the “Hoe-be-gone sleep system,” which makes it easy for him to get rid of girls when they ask to stay the night.
Yet, by episode’s end, Robin may think all these technologies are creepy, but also that they’re ingenious. They’re a part of who Barney is, and she doesn’t want him to change too much from the person she fell in love with.
That sentiment is, in ways, disturbing enough. After all, it’s as if she’s given a free pass to his long-winded womanizing and manipulative history. At the same time, "How I Met Your Mother" has applauded Barney for the ways he changed in season eight. Barney has settled down. He’s fallen in love. He’s getting married. But does that mean he should get a free pass for his past indiscretions?
This Examiner has long been a fan of "HIMYM." Quirky storylines like the cockamouse and the pineapple incident, as well as the songs -- “Lily made some creme brue-lee-lee-lee-lee” -- bring the laughs. The relationships bring the tears, both good and bad, from Marshall (Jason Segel) sitting on the front stoop with Lily’s (Alyson Hannigan) engagement ring at the end of season one, to the moment Robin and Barney finally really and truly get together on the roof of World Wide News. The characters are now 30-somethings that fans across the country can relate to, cheer for, and laugh with.
But what about Barney? How are his questionable pick-up techniques justifiable? Past episodes of the CBS comedy have implied that it is the girls that are fault, that they’re “stupid” enough to fall for Barney’s ridiculous stunts and plays. But that’s victim blaming, and it should have no place in any prime-time TV, even if it is “joking.”
Alyssa Rosenberg has another theory about the show.
“How I Met Your Mother” is decidedly vague on the question of whether Barney’s seduction techniques or the kinds of sex he’s had with someone have ever hurt someone, in part because that would require the show to reckon more carefully with the consequences of the very thing that made Barney a breakout character: his riff on the pick-up artist playbook.
There have been moments where it’s easy to cringe at Barney’s actions and ploys, but this Examiner would posit another theory: Barney’s likability by many "HIMYM" fans has less to do with his womanizing ways and more to do with other aspects of his personality.
He’s coined a number of catchphrases, such as “legen -- wait for it -- dary.” He’s come up with all sorts of theories, such as “crazy eyes.” And he’s created new dating rules, like the “lemon law,” in which it takes just five minutes to determine if that person is worth spending a whole night with, or not.
This is not to say that Barney hasn’t had questionable behavior, but it’s to point out that Barney’s character is about much more than just the way he treated women in the past.
Plus, Rosenberg does hit it on the head in a way. “HIMYM” is at heart a comedy, despite its number of emotional moments over the past eight seasons, and it’s hard for a comedy such as this one to address such emotionally charged topics as sexual consent in any direct way. HBO’s "Girls" seems a better forum; it may be a “comedy” too in ways, but it’s also much more real, and less of a sitcom packed with memorable one liners.
But the CBS show is dealing with the issues in some ways, albeit less obviously. In fact, one must look at Barney’s actions over the past eight seasons and how they’ve changed over time.
Barney as a character grew up in a culture in which he didn’t know how to have a normal relationship. He didn’t know how to handle love, or even dating, and he saw one-night stands as his only option. Over the seasons, he grew up and learned the value of love and relationships, and that’s what made the relationship between Barney and Robin even possible.
Robin’s acceptance of his devices isn’t that she supports his past womanizing ways, but that she sees the creative uses for Barney’s creations. If the end of “How I Met Your Mother” “Fortress” proved anything, it’s that Barney has started to realize he can be a “magician” and creator of “patent-pending” devices and not go running from women in the same breath. For one, his escape chute can also be used for things like escaping a showing of “Woodsworth Manor” with Ted (Josh Radnor) and the gang.
So, yes, Barney has played with the line between unacceptable and acceptable behavior in the past, but if “HIMYM” is has to be a part of the conversation about what constitutes consent, then one must look at how Barney’s character has evolved over the seasons. His past deserves critique, but his continuously-evolving character also shows that his actions are no longer valorized as they were back in season one.
© Elizabeth SanFilippo 2013