Cultural Expectations on How I Met Your Mother S06 E17

"I'm Barney Stinson. I don't get smitten; I smite."

I’ve already rationalized my viewing relationship with Barney Stinson by discussing Neil Patrick Harris’ tongue-in-cheek performance, but now I’d like to pose a different question about Barney’s encounters with women. Last night’s episode featured several competing plotlines, but the Barney-Robin narrative dealt with Robin’s desire for Barney to pursue one of her friends. Barney feigns disinterest, but Robin maintains that he’s smitten and devises a series of inane tests to prove her point. Despite his innumerable protests that he’s not the relationship type, at the end of the episode, Barney acknowledges his feelings for the friend and asks Robin for her number.

Not exactly riveting television, I know, but I suppose I watch this show to gain a sense of what American viewers of other demographics are watching. Since I can’t tune in to Two and a Half Men without undergoing some form of cardiac arrest, I’ll shed my liberal elite East Coast values once a week and see what la mère Palin is allowing Willow and Piper to watch. How I Met Your Mother seems like a safe bet. The jokes are innocuous, visual depictions of sex are minimal, and even according to Palin’s strange brand of pseudo-feminism, Barney is the character to be laughed at, but never taken seriously.

The main reason that I identify this as a Palin-friendly show is through the depiction of Barney. In this episode, we see Robin’s consistent efforts to place Barney in a traditional monogamous heterosexual relationship (If I were really a Cultural Studies nut job, this is where I’d offer one of two arguments: 1. How I Met Your Mother is trying to repress Barney’s queerness [which is obviously there, since he’s played by Harris] by forcing him to take a traditional approach to relationships; 2. Harris’ portrayal of Barney is actually subversive, and he’s queering up network TV by playing the typical guy who needs to sow his wild oats before settling down).

But since I’m not a Cultural Studies nut job, my question is this: If the character of Barney has been established as an unrepentant womanizer, why does he need to “settle down”? Why can’t Barney continue to live as he’s always lived, instead of being told by both female and male characters that he needs a conventional relationship? And with this new episode, is Barney beginning to convince himself that this is the sort of relationship he needs?

I feel like there’s a cultural trope at work in this episode in which youthful debauchery is acceptable until a certain age, but then one is expected to find a so-called adult relationship. In many way, Barney is still the child-like Peter Pan figure. His friends have tolerated his behavior for a long time, so why are they telling him to grow-up now?

As I watch this show, I keep trying to figure out how life experience correlates to familial classification. Lily and Marshall are clearly the parent figures since they’re trying to have a child of their own, and they’re the only members of the group in a secure, monogamous marriage. Ted and Robin are like rebellious teenagers: they know what they want (adult relationships!), but they’re not sure how to get there. So does that mean Barney is a child because, at least until this episode, he doesn’t want a traditional monogamous relationship? This means that our cultural definition of maturity is in part defined by one’s ability to realize a certain type of relationship with another person.

Think about the stereotypical guy in his late-twenties with the good job, the fancy car, the luxury apartment, and bottle service at clubs. Think Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, except with money. When I hear people talk about this type (I use the word “type” because nearly everyone on television is presented as being a particular “type”), one of the first comments I hear is, “Good for him. Now when’s he going to grow-up and get married?” In common scenarios like this one, an arbitrary correlation is made between adulthood and marriage. We see the mechanics of this connection in Barney, especially through his behavior as a single guy on the town and his behavior in the few supposedly adult relationships he’s had. Remember what a gentleman he was when he was seeing Robin?

I know there are probably more questions and observations in this post than categorical assessments of specific characters, but here’s what I was thinking about when watching this TV. Stay tuned!

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