I have a complicated relationship with Barney Stinson, the infinitely quotable womanizer from How I Met Your Mother. Barney is a notorious philanderer whose advances are aggressive and whose insecurity is limitless. Barney pesters women with juvenile quips, complete with Tex Avery sound effects, in the perpetual hope that his conversation partners will spread their legs.
Despite Barney’s constant uniform of an expensive Italian suit, his wooing strategy is decidedly verbal. He slays his conquests with slick talk, and then brags, in equally descriptive and affected language, to his semi-disinterested friends. Barney’s friends roll their eyes and laugh off his lewd descriptions with a “boys will be boys” wink to the viewers, but occasionally Robin will interrupt his inflated stories to dispute the veracity of a certain fact. But that’s about it. Characters rarely question his statements about women to a degree that would incite conflict because this is a comedy after all, and Barney will be Barney.
We can’t really call Barney a misogynist because he loves women. His lascivious comments aren’t borne out of hatred, but rather out of an intense desire to fuck anything with two legs and two breasts. Barney is obsessed with women, and as Robin dryly notes in this episode, he is “a high-functioning sociopath and my ex.” If Barney is so enamored of women, then why does he talk about them as if they’re animals or children? And how do these comments translate into humor?
My guess is that we experience a disconnect between the actor playing Barney, Neil Patrick Harris, and the character himself. Harris, openly gay nearly since the show’s inception (and surely a known fact to his co-stars), plays this Lothario character with a sort of dual purpose. There is Barney, the seducer of women, and then there’s Harris-as-Barney, the gay man playing the womanizer.
Harris has always been a fairly public figure since his first major role as the young Dr. Doogie Howser. The audience for How I Met Your Mother is familiar with his background and his career, and Harris knows this. When he plays the lecherous Barney Stinson, he is dramatizing a character with whom he has very little personal connection. Were Vince Vaughn to play this same role, we almost certainly wouldn’t laugh as hard. That’s because an actor like Vaughn has created a public persona where the deprecating comments about women just might feel a little too real.
Will Barney ever find true love? Have I exhausted my vocabulary for comic sexual predators? Stay tuned!