Representing the Underrepresented: How I Met Your Mother and Performative Contradictions

Every show has one… the token minority character. Tokenism, as we’re all aware, is wildly problematic. For example, the “token” character is often underdeveloped in order to avoid critique for being stereotypical (or racist, sexist, etc), while at the time is a tool used in television to be able to make jokes and have it “be ok” because the particular minority is the one who made the joke. The logic goes something like, if the gay character makes a homophobic joke, it’s not homophobic because the gay character said it. When the minority is demanded to be a stereotype of the group(s) they represent, it is because the script isn’t written for them, they’ve been written into the script.

Certain television shows are driven by their tokenism. Take Glee for example. I am both thoroughly entertained by the show and cringe about 20 times an episode. Still, as problematic as the conversation may be, there is a conversation about (dis)ability and ableism. Community, too, is driven by the tokenistic traits of their characters (Abed still represents the “being a minority” given that he is both Palestinian and reportedly has Asperger’s syndrom). Or take 30 Rock‘s Toofer, who received his name given that he is a “two-fer” token minority, being both “black” and “from Harvard.” The wittier shows love to comment on their own tokenism. They know it’s demanded of them, and that it ought to be done. Some seem to know that it ought to be done better…

I suppose what I mean is, I think that, even in stereotype, minorities ought be represented. Please note that this is a broad sweeping claim and I’m trying to highlight that tokenism is wildly problematic. What I mean is that I don’t expect society to be at its best within pop culture and, though I do not think that “any press is good press” really applies here, its ring of truth is that the value of being able to see different races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and cultures represented on TV is an invaluable step to building an aware and caring society that values more than tolerance.

So the question begins to feel very catch-twenty-two-y: we want the underrepresented to be represented, but we want it done in a way that doesn’t feed into the notion of the token minority.

Folks, I give you How I Met Your Mother.

How I Met Your Mother cast (Left to Right: Barney, Robin, Ted, Lily, and Marshall) all dressed in suits for Barney’s song about how he loves suits in the musical-inspired 100th episode.

It took me seasons to really appreciate HIMYM‘s value. [In fact, it took me mistaking a HIMYM joke as a Scrubs joke. And you know I love me some Scrubs.] The show is based around five (all white) friends living in Manhattan. It appears to be quite forward in its character “types,” but there’s a lot of twisting and perversion of expectations. Each character has plenty, actually, but I’m going to focus on two characters, Robin and Barney, and specifically how they represent a performative commentary on token minorities and contradict expectations, respectively, in television.

But, first, I want to note that I appreciate the way that the writers didn’t force a minority character into this group while still having visible minority characters. That is, I think it’s clear that they want to reject tokenism in their characters. In all of their characters. And differently in different characters. For example, both Robin and Lily play on the expectations of “woman” (both woman in society and what we expect to see from a woman character on TV), and they do so in very different ways.

Robin and Kevin, played by Kal Penn, dancing.

As another example, Robin has a long term relationship with Kevin, who actually begins as her psychiatrist. He’s played by Kal Penn, who was the co-star of  Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, one of the most infamous token movies of the last ten years (alongside Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay), but I digress”¦

My point being, the show incorporates minority characters essentially any time a character is intended to, uhm, stick around in the story line for awhile, therefore allowing the show not to be about their incorporation as a minority, but still maintains a conversation about being the ‘outsider’ in the form of dating one of the core group members, like in the case of Kevin.

ROBIN SCHERBATSKY

As you see in the picture to the right, Robin’s minority is “woman.” Otherwise, she’s white, tall, skinny (all things that fall into pop culture and society’s idea of conventionally attractive). She has made it clear that she’s not interested in having kids and that her career as a journalist and anchorwoman comes far before any relationship. She certainly doesn’t strike you as a particular minority. But alas! This is the brilliance of it. She’s Canadian. She’s an immigrant (she receives dual-citizenship eventually) who constantly struggles with her identity and non-identification with being a New Yorker, being Canadian, not feeling Canadian/losing her roots, etc…

I think the writers intentionally chose a “white, woman, Canadian” as their “token minority.” Their move represents going a step further than creating the character “Toofer.” They’re calling us out on our own expectations of what sorts of minorities “count” as minorities: visible minorities. Instead of participating in the game of ‘how to write in a minority to appease the broadcasting company, et all,’ they realized that, when it comes to tokenism, any representation is a misrepresentation, so let’s play a joke on this whole issue of representation. They realized that tokenism is really about the visibility.

But they don’t reject the visibility either, but, instead, they’ve written in a performance of the visibility. They make Canadian visible in Robin’s likes and dislikes, accents, sensibilities, habits, etc.

BARNEY STINSON

And no character on television is better at this sort of performative contradiction than Barney Stinson, played by the infinitely talented Neil Patrick Harris.

Image is set up like an inspirational poster, but, under a picture of the dashing Neil Patrick Harris who plays Barney Stinson, it reads “To succeed, you have to stop being ordinary and start being Legen – wait for it – dary.”

Barney’s character is, well, he’s the worst. He’s one of the biggest womanizer ever to be portrayed on television, and is done so unabashedly. Sleeping with women is a game, a game that inherently entails lying, cheating, sneaking out, and whatever the hell else he has to do to motorboat that fine lady at the bar…. He’s the creator of the Bro Code, which involves lovely “codes to live by” involving friend zones, chick flicks (always a NO!), moms and step-moms…  He created the hot/crazy graph, which as I’m sure you can imagine is totally horrible.

But something happens to Barney when you know more about the actor Neil Patrick Harris. He went from Doogie Houser to being outed by Perez Hilton. He hosts award shows and stars in Broadway plays. He plays the biggest womanizer on television and walks the red carpet with his partner David Burtka (who plays a small role in HIMYM, btw). NPH and his partner adopted twins and plan on getting married (YAY NY!!!), and at the same time NPH plays a straight dad in a movie.

I mean this to say two things. First, that NPH is a goddamn chameleon and has defied being type casted after being forcedly outed by PH. Second, that it’s precisely because of his personal life that makes Barney Stinson tolerable and, hell, one of my favorite characters on television. Having Barney be played by “The Gayest Man in Hollywood” provides depth to the character himself. It makes the character a mockery of the character himself, which adds to the layers in which this is already down within the show.

In the same way, Robin’s character is a mockery of the television industry’s demands for tokenism (compare with Big Bang Theory).

Barney and Robin’s characters directly defy the presuppositions made of what ought be expected of them. And this is what the whole show is about. Its about performing contradictionsand providing commentary on the assumptions placed onto a particular show or character by the industry, society, and, hell, myself as Viewer of All Things Legen – wait for it – dary.

The writers of How I Met Your Mother are awfully sneaky, as represented here by Barney Stinson in an “˜evil genius’ chair petting an all white bunny that happens to look exactly like my own bunny-love. The show is known for its novelistic, puzzle-like unfolding.

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philososaurus

Raised on the farmlands of the Midwest, this gluten-free, feminist bunny took New York City by storm earning an MA in Philosophy. She’s currently encroaching on the normative territories in Chicago, spending time jamming the Discursive machines of ‘health’ and ‘illness,' and relaxing with her animal companions: Pfeffer, Yoshi, and Mr(ish) 'Saurus, her human-animal partner.

13 thoughts on “Representing the Underrepresented: How I Met Your Mother and Performative Contradictions”

  1. I always liked that the biggest womanizer is played by a homosexual man (“Look, Hollywood! If it’s a good actor, he/she can do anything! Even play straight!”). I also like that Lily is clearly the ‘mother’ of the group, but still other sides are shown of her (teacher, geek, artist). I’m not such a HIMYM fan as I used to, but I like that they can make this work without a lot of ..trumpeting it. I’m not saying this right. Without patting their own back over outsmarting people.

  2. I really need that one particular ‘my mind is blown’ .gif right now with the fireworks and the bespectacled guy, but I don’t know .gifs! At all!

    Just pretend that you’re seeing it right here: [               ]

  3. I love HIMYM. What I find amusing, to me, is that the least-real character, is Ted, who is supposed to be the main character. After all the seasons, I feel like Ted’s character has grown the least, and he is annoying me.

    But, I still love the show. It’s funny, still!

    1. HAAA! I totally agree! I actually think that when Ted is ‘most real’ is when he gives into Barney’s lifestyle a little bit. I think it’s one of the most interesting things about his character… when he stops looking for the love of his life. I get annoyed with him for the same reasons Robin does… the over-the-top romantic stuff, buts his doing so is another mini-perversion in the show. It’s the man wanting to find a woman that loves that stuff and thus far the women have totally hated that shit  (i.e. Robin mainly, whom he was convinced was the love of his life, even though we’ve known since like… season 2 that she’s Aunt Robin, ergo not Mother).

  4. I enjoy HIMYM.  The show is well written, deriving many hours of laughter in my household.  There are not many shows that I enjoy watching after the first few seasons….I especially abandon ship when they try to jump the shark.  But HIMYM has stayed true to the comedic genius in its design.

     

    1. p.s. I was (re) watching Community yesterday and they also used the phrase ‘jump the shark.’ I had always thought I got the gist of what this meant, but I looked it up AND ITS A THEORY ABOUT TV. How the fuck did I not know this?!

      Now I’m thinking all about HIMYM’s last Jump The Shark ploy toward the end of this last season (which I won’t spoil just. in. case. people want to see it, but it’s not really a big surprise either).

  5. DUDE.  I have not thought neeeearly this much about HIMYM, but I… I never thought about it this way!  As — outing myself slightly here — an anglo Ontarian living in Quebec, I get a lot of Robin’s Canadian-in-New-York struggles (different context, obviously, but I see parallels), and while it’s sometimes played a little hammily (the Canadian bar!), I think they really nail that arc.

    This is some seriously good thinking, philososaurus!  There is much to ponder and consider :)

    1. I also deal with an interesting split-but-never-in-either-place identity being from (and back in) the Midwest, but identifying more directly with my (relatively short) time in NYC. But Lorrie Moore (the writer) is way better at encapsulating that than HIMYM…

      I think neaaarrrrrly way too much about television. I really. really love television. I’d write about Community more except that my head my explode…

  6. This is very interesting. The extent of my exposure to HIMYM was when some individuals in Mr. Silverwane fraternity decided to “rate” all the member’s girlfriends on the hot/crazy graph, and then freaking post this in poster format a common area. And of course, act like offended people were overreacting and Unfunny.

    Fortunately the BF was having none of that and told them how stupid they were being (including forcing them to take down the fucking thing), but as you can probably imagine, it left a bad taste in my mouth toward the show.

    I think about these sort of things a lot when it comes to sneaky subversion. For instance, Stephen Colbert is hilarious when you’re in on the joke, but there have been prominent Republicans who thought he was 100% serious. Sure, we get to laugh at how stupid they are, but what if no one points out that it was a subversion? What if they see this as supporting their bad shit?

    I do think it’s cool that they’re subverting the tropes in these ways, but I wonder how obvious it is that they’re doing the subversion, and whether or not it is noticeable/thought-provoking to the vast majority of people who watch the show. And additionally, if it isn’t, should anything be done about that?

    1. There are people who also take the bro code as some sort of ACTUAL bro code, when the whole thing is making fun of this sort of thing. It’s very ‘this is why Dave Chapelle left Hollywood…’

      The second problem with this, and I should have made more explicit mention, is that the underrepresented are still less visible in this model.

      I think that the most visible subversion is NPH playing Barney Stinson. Otherwise, it’s not seeable to the naked eye (though perhaps the naked ear?)

      As another example, take Marshall. He’s a guy. Guys like sex, right? They like sex with many partners. That’s why the bro code and the crazy/hot scale attract idiots like said fraternity members, right? Well, what is made obvious in the show is that Marshall is not one of these guys. He loves his wife. And he’s proud that she’s been his only sexual partner. They often make this clear, even in the form of taking on the, uhm, “Barney way” of talking about sexual excursions… but we all obviously know who he is talking about. So, my point being, THIS subversion is super obvious in the show and everyone is in on the joke. And the only person who really teases him about this in the form of ‘prudishness’ has been his wife (though the boys will say, for example, that he’s ineligible for the competition about ‘who has more game’ because he’s married/been with the same and only woman, etc).

      (also, I’m writing an academic paper right now, so I feel like I wrote that really complicatedly. I don’t translate my ‘speak’ or flow back and forth very well, hugs.)

      ETA: Oh, and there’s definitely a lot of commentary on the group finding Barney/his lifestyle 1) disgusting, or 2) pathetic, or 3) absurd, or 4) they don’t believe him/know he’s full of shit, etc. etc.

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