Ever fans started arguing about which show is

Ever since the release of the TV
show How I Met Your Mother in 2005
fans could not but notice and reflect on the features it shared with an older,
apparently-ever-living sitcom, Friends.
And there are many: both follow a group of friends in New York City as they
face life’s challenges; both groups seem to spend all their time out in a café
(Friends) or pub (How I Met Your Mother); both groups
involve one stable, romantic couple (starting mid-series in Friends); and in both series we
encounter the epic womanizer who doesn’t want to settle down. It was not long
until “camps” raised and fans started arguing about which show is the best,
which one has the best narrative, the best setting, the best characters, and so
on.

      But the idea for this essay came after
one random post that came up on my Facebook News Feed one day, about how
today’s teenagers can’t stand watching Friends
because of its transphobic, anti-feminist and homophobic lines. It included
screenshots of Twitter posts in which random people were sharing which scene
they found to be the most disturbing. The post also implied that maybe the show
was becoming a bit too old to be watched by new generations because nowadays
the mentality is much more different and the ways in which the sitcom treated
various sensitive subjects are no longer represented and tolerated. But this
made me wonder: aren’t there newer or contemporary sitcoms or TV shows that
still include this type of humor? And that teenagers these days do enjoy
watching? I decided to compare it with How
I Met Your Mother because it is, let’s say, just as popular, and it ended
quite recently (2014); and because I have not found posts on my News Feed that
claimed this show was becoming too old because of its jokes. So my purpose is
to try to decide not which TV show has the best characters, plot etc. but which
is more “disturbing” due to crude jokes or just the way they touch sensitive
topics. I also wanted to look a little into reader-response (or, in this case,
viewer-response) to try to determine why, if they are so disturbing, are they
still so popular and loved by the general public (with emphasis on the
character of Barney Stinson)

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      One big debating topic in the feminism
world has been that of pornography, something that is included throughout both
sitcoms. Basically, there are two main feminist groups: one that is against
pornography, and one named “pro-sex”. The former has been quite vocal for the
last few decades, mainly sustaining that “the function of pornography as an influence on
consciousness is a major public issue of our time, when a multibillion-dollar
industry has the power to disseminate increasingly sadistic, women-degrading
visual images” (Rich 20). David Bryden, in his 1985
article on feminism and pornography, mentioned that “feminists of the seventies decided that pornography expresses
the ideology of male supremacy” (148). And it is still true nowadays as pornography
still promotes women as sexual objects, created for men’s pleasure and to be
commanded, portrayed as “devoid of emotional context, without individual meaning
or personality” (Rich 20).  The “pro-sex” group on the other hand argued
that “radical feminism’s representation of women as
disempowered actors fails to see women as sexual subjects in their own right”
(Glick 20). This group supports women to enjoy their sexual freedom and to no
longer focus on pornography as a source of oppression. But I think that this
debate, among many other factors, contributed to the main ambivalence that many
people in general have on pornographic materials. And this is clearly seen in both
TV shows. In How I Met Your Mother,
characters either rebuke each other for watching porn (Ted after his mother’s
wedding, Barney for his extensive porn collection that he was exhibiting at
home) or are more or less encouraging each other to watch it (a false Ted Mosby
starring in a porno movie, and a secret videotape of Robin that the others
think it’s pornographic). Barney “introducing” Robin’s
tape has a tone that can be considered as mocking. In Friends we have more or less the same attitudes towards
pornography, they either condemn it or encourage it, but there is a wonderful
scene in which a character actually stands up and refuses to be mocked for “a
little erotica”. When Joey discovers Rachel’s “dirty” book and makes fun of it,
Rachel’s response is “Hey-hey, y’know what? I don’t care! I’m not ashamed of my
book. There’s nothing with a woman enjoying a little…erotica. It’s just a
healthy expression of female sexuality, which by the way, you will never understand.”
(and no, Joey still doesn’t understand).I have not been able to find something
similar in How I Met Your Mother, but Friends gets another point for making
the female characters speak up about dirty, derogatory jokes appearing in
magazines like Playboy (when Ross
sends a joke to the magazine and he argues with Chandler about who actually
came up with the joke, Monica responding that neither should claim it as it is
offensive to women). So trying to conclude whether the way in which they
include the topic of pornography in the series is good or not really depends on
the viewer’s stand on this subject, but the bottom line is that neither of them
did it in a way it encouraged to see women as sexual objects (if anything, they
actually discouraged it).

      Feminism in general is about equal rights
for both men and women, and both TV shows appeared after the third wave of feminism
started, altough one might expect to find “problems”
in Friends since it appeared 11 years
earlier. Generally both sitcoms show women to be equal to men, but there are
situations, that also involve gender and queer studies, which can make some
viewers either cringe or clap. In Friends,
season 1, there is the scene in which the boys talk about playing poker, and
when Rachel asks them why they never invite them (the girls) to play, Phoebe
has a more elaborate and straight-on question: “Yeah, what is that? Like, some
kind of guy thing? Like, some kind of sexist guy thing? Like it’s poker, so
only guys can play?” Joey sustains that they just don’t know any women who play
poker, to which Monica responds „I
mean, that’s a typical guy response.” The creators probably intended to mock the idea that only men could play poker, and they
handled it splendidly through three very vocal female characters. In How I Met Your Mother we have Barney and
Robin who are both against getting married           and
having kids (the former maybe a bit more than the latter) but Robin seems to be
a little more criticized for it than Barney. Robin is representing here
numerous women out there who turn down a heteronormative lifestyle – the one “where
there’s a Mom and a Dad and a baby and a dog and a white picket fence and a mortgage
on a house in the suburbs with nice neighbors and a nice lawn with pretty
flowers” (Shmoop Editorial Team) – for a career, and face criticism for it.

      Heteronormativity is everywhere in these
shows, but perhaps even more often we encounter instances of essentialism or
gender norms. “Men should behave as men and women as women…” a mentality that
has been ruling our world historically and that has been generally associating
power and aggressiveness with men, and sweetness and passive attitude with
women (Jóhannsdóttir 7). It’s everywhere, even in TV shows, but some of these
instances are more disturbing than others. In Friends we have the famous situation of the male nanny. Rachel and
Ross are looking for a babysitter, and the perfect one comes to their door
(Sandy). The only problem is, at least for Ross, that the babysitter is male.
The first assumption that Ross has is that Sandy is gay, and even asks him if
he is. Rachel loves him and thinks he’s the one but Ross doesn’t want to hire
him because “what kind of job is that for a man? A nanny? I-It’s like if a
woman wanted to be…” and after Rachel provokes him to finish the sentence he
responds with “King?”. The situation seems very well handled at first, with
Rachel calling out Ross for believing in a gender stereotype and managing to
hire Sandy, but by the end of the episode they fire him because it made Ross
uncomfortable (which sends a good message for how to resolve a conflict but not
so much for the lesson on gender norms and roles). In How I Met Your Mother they also deal with nannies. Barney is
inspired by the fact that Marshall and Lily are looking for a nanny and lures
potential candidates in his apartment, even the one that Marshall and Lily
chose, making her decline the job after she finds out he’d been lying. Barney
finally gets a well deserved revenge from all the nannies.

            Female
characters are seen doing “manly” things throughout both series. Robin is way
too into hockey, smokes cigars, drinks scotch and has a “passion” for handguns,
while Monica, for example, is seen in the last season taking initiative and
destroying a foosball table (in which a baby duck and a baby chick were stuck)
after Chandler and Joey decide that they can’t do it. But while the girls are
rather pictured as “cool” for doing these things and never called “you guys
over there”, the male characters don’t quite have the same luck. A fear that
they will be called out as gay or girlie by the other boys (and even the girls)
seems to haunt them. Joey and Chandler prefer hugs when being happy or saying
good-bye but they do wonder various times whether they do that too much or even
if they should go for the “cool” handshake. Joey and Ross accidentally take a
nap together and wake up shy and scared, promising not to talk about it again.
When they do decide to repeat the experience because “it was the best nap
they ever had” they are caught by the other friends, who look mockingly at
them. Ted and Chandler have been especially categorized as the “gays” in each
group. Ted because of crying easily, liking “girlie” stuff like weddings and
farmer markets, his passion for cooking and for calligraphy, while Chandler
because of many “feminine” gestures and (sometimes) unconscious remarks (like
“I wish I was a lesbian” in the very first episode). But the former actually is
not as bothered by this as the latter. In one episode Chandler is shocked to
learn that almost all people who meet him for the first time assume he is gay.
He tries to find out what exactly is it about him that makes people think that,
until he says “Well, don’t we look nice all dressed up? …It’s stuff like
that, isn’t it?”

            In
that Facebook post many people were calling out Friends for their transphobic jokes and general disrespect in
regards to Chandler’s father, who is actually a transgender woman, named Helena
Handbasket. The characters keep addressing her with the wrong pronouns
throughout the show, and to make matters even worse, the writers don’t make her
standing up to this or correcting them. And while it can be seen as irony and
we can argue that maybe it was more acceptable back when the sitcom was filmed,
it seems to be going for too long, with too many crude comments, especially
coming from her son.

            But
now I want to go back to gender norms/roles by talking about bromance, and
especially the interesting character of Barney Stinson. The term bromance has
been in use for about a decade and a half now, so it doesn’t appear in Friends, even though we may see Chandler
and Joey’s friendship as a bromance nowadays, but it is a great source of humor
in How I Met Your Mother. The term
refers to a close relationship between men, definitely not sexual, but
platonic, and it also gives the idea of “boys club” and excluding women
(Sargent 23). Barney is the one who values this type of relationship the most,
and even comes out with the Bro Code, “a
theoretical guideline for appropriate treatment of and interaction with other
men, and most recently as an actual written set of rules, presented as a
constitution of manhood for white men in America” (Sargent 41). Barney is the
ultimate womanizer; rich, smart, great career, handsome… and has slept with
over 200 women. And even though he has been ridiculed for his lifestyle and
often seen as “gross” , he still remains the most loved character in the series. He is “an iconic and representative figure, both reflective of a
preexisting masculine hegemony and a model for perpetuation or expansion of a
masculine ideal”. His treatment of women and just general personality would not
make good in a drama or action TV series? Why are viewers considering it okay
just because it is a comedy? Sargent also has a few, brilliant ideas, saying
that “how
Barney Stinson functions as a character, how his detestable personality traits
actually make him more humorous, as well as how the character typifies a
standard of American masculinity are all significant factors that explain

how the comic
representation both transgresses heteronormative values and simultaneously

reinforces them”
(idem). After closely analysing the character, the author concludes that “the narrative element that allows Barney to be a beloved
character is the audience acknowledgment that his rarely well-intentioned
behavior is portrayed self-consciously, nodding to a cultural and social model
in contemporary American society for “appropriate” and “correct” masculinity.
The resulting comedic effect is derived from anawareness of preexisting norms
and values in heterosexual masculine culture, as well as from recognition of
the absurdity and extremity of Barney’s behavior as a critique on socially
acceptable masculine behavior. Without a hegemonic masculine model as a point
of comparison for Barney’s character, the humor would not be successful” (56) So
is it okay to have TV shows that has characters who promote this kind of
behaviour? Well, many men wouldn’t see it just as irony and humor, and many
problems come from that.

            What I can conclude after analysing
these two sitcoms is that it is difficult since they are commedies and we could
argue that they are part of the irony and humor intended. Both sitcoms contain
many sensitive and risky jokes. Friends does
have its big number of gay and mysoginistic jokes, but How I Met Your Mother’s character promoting bad gtreatment of women
makes up for them. They can both be acclaimed for the way in which they deal
with some of these issues, but the main point remains that even if they are
humor-intented, some viewers can’t make the difference.

 

Works Cited

Compulsory Heterosexuality and
Lesbian Existence (1980) Rich, Adrienne Cecile. Journal of Women’s History,
Volume 15, Number 3, Autumn 2003, pp. 11-48 (Article)

Shmoop Editorial Team. “Queer
Theory Buzzwords.” Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov.
2008. Web. 19 Jan. 2018.

Shmoop Editorial Team.
“Feminist Theory Buzzwords.” Shmoop. Shmoop University,
Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 19 Jan. 2018.

Glick, Elisa, Sex Positive: Feminism, Queer Theory, and the Politics of
Transgression

Jóhannsdóttir Nina Katrin: Patriarchy and the subordination of women,
May 2009

Sargent, Diana, “American Masculinity and Homosocial
Behavior in the Bromance Era.” Thesis, Georgia State University, 2013.

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