How I Met Your Mother: Emphasized Femininity & it’s Harmful Messages to Society

By: Laura Huo & Karina Garcia

Emphasized femininity is the dominant societal view of women that is represented in the media. The identity of emphasized femininity is a white, thin, heterosexual, cisgender woman, and this character is typically embodied with the personality traits of being emotional and in need of protection. This dominant form of gender in media being used repeatedly keeps the perception that all women are emotional and dependent on men. The show “How I Met Your Mother” is about Ted Mosby telling his future children how he met their mother. The television series was a huge success and continued for 9 seasons; however, this success means that there is a large audience base viewing how the show portrayed the general roles of men and women. Unfortunately, throughout the series, this show gives the audience problematic ideas of how women are and should be treated. For example, for much of the series, Barney Stinson uses a playbook to get women to sleep with him giving men the idea that they can easily manipulate women to do what they want. As Barney interacts with the women he is trying to sleep with he treats them and talks about them as if they are objects rather than people; his character makes generalizations that give off the wrong perception of women. This concept in the media reinforces problematic behavior and ideas that women need to be dominated by and dependent on men.

The Male Gaze 

First we would like to discuss how women are perceived through the male gaze throughout the series. As we begin to recognize the male gaze, we are able to understand how women were perceived in this television show and other media content. The Gaze is the cisgender, heterosexual male gaze that studies how women are objects of male desire. In this scene Ted Mosby is in a bar, discussing how he is ready to meet the love of his life, where he sees Robin Scherbatsky for the first time. As he feasts his eyes on her, he instantly falls in love with her, without knowing a single thing about her. His lust and attraction to Robin without even talking to her is objectifying, because as soon as he looks at her, Ted just knows that he must have her. This scene is showing that because a woman is conventionally beautiful, is a justifiable reason to fixate and want to be with someone. The camera is focused solely on Robin making her look passive, feminine, and intriguing. The camera is focused on her as she is talking to someone, but we are all just looking at her appearance. The male is also described as the prolonged glances that are often accompanied with sexual evaluation (Zurbriggen, E., Ramsey, L., & Jaworski, B. 2011).  In this glance of Robin, Ted and Barney express these ideas as Ted just stares in awe at her, and Barney makes comments about her appearance and how she looks like “she likes it dirty.” Not only does this tell us how men see women in the media but the male gaze also tells women how they should present themselves to attract men.

How I Met Your Mother Season 3 Episode 5

In the concept of emphasized femininity, women are given the pressure of trying to attract the gazes of men (Korobov, 2011). This gives the audience the idea that women must act a certain way to attract the attention of a man, and that women must be conventionally good looking. As this television series progresses, we become more familiar with Barney as a player who has many rules for sleeping with women. Barney has this concept of the Hot-Crazy scale, which explains that there is an acceptable amount of crazy that a woman can be as long as she is as equally hot as she is crazy. He states that if a woman is “crazier” than she is hot, then she is not worth dating. This objectification of women highlights that certain things are acceptable as long as a woman is attractive. This concept is also generalizing that all women are “crazy” or emotional, not giving any attention to the reasons why they act the way they do, giving the idea that the man must deal with the fact that women are crazy. Women have accepted this perception of women because they have been fed this idea that they should want to be taken care of by a man. 

How Women Are Treated in The Show 

As discussed earlier, a major concept in emphasized femininity is that women are dependent on men. In this episode, it is February 13th, which Barney coined as Desperation day since it is the day women are frantically looking for a guy so they have a date for Valentine’s day. On this day, women do not care about the qualities of the man they date as long as they are not alone for Valentine’s day. The whole concept of this episode gives the perception that women need men because it’s better to date than be alone. Robin and her friends are at the bar hanging out because they claimed they did not care about valentine’s day, but as the clock reached closer to midnight, her friends left with random guys. When she confronted them about this, their only logical reason for ditching her was because “but tomorrow is valentine’s day.” This concept is controversial for the audience as it gives women the perception that rather than being independent women, they still need men to take care of them, and that it’s better to have someone than no one. 

Following this recurring theme of women needing men in the show, the second picture is of Becky, one of Ted’s short-term love interests who he falls for due to her childlike personality. In this scene, Becky is hiding behind Ted after yelling “Ah, a spider!” and this marks the moment when Ted first realizes that he is attracted to her. The male characters state that Ted, like many men would have, fell for Becky because she, who closely follows traits of emphasized femininity, brought out the masculinity in him as she cried out in need of protection from a man. However, Barney’s challenge (to himself) to get a girl while acting childish highlights a contrasting effect when men take on these immature traits; women were appalled by his behavior highlighting the gender binary stereotypes to an even greater extent. Women are expected and idealized to be innocent or childlike and weaker while men are “supposed” to be masculine and hide their vulnerability. This expectation limits individuals and their roles by their gender, rejecting them if they deviate from what they’re “supposed” to be.

How I Met Your Mother Season 5 Episode 8

Now that we have discussed the ways in which Barney perceives women as sexual objects, we can begin discussing how he treats women. Another concept of emphasized femininity is that it encourages that idea women should be compliant with men’s sexual advances (Korobov 2011). These ideas and advances on women are problematic because as men begin to objectify women, they have a harder time forming a connection with them (Zurbriggen, E., Ramsey, L., & Jaworski, B. 2011).  The character Barney Stinson throughout the show is seen as a womanizer, sleeping with hundreds of women. Barney’s tactics to get this is to manipulate and dominate women. Typically, throughout the show, he uses his playbook which is made up of plays that he has used to trick women into sleeping with him. Many of his plays give the female characters the impression that he is taking care of them after he either puts women down, or he aims the plays specifically towards vulnerable women. This gives the impression that women can be easily outsmarted and tricked. These schemes give the audience the idea that even though these methods are problematic, they work because though Barney has tricked many girls, women still find that his character can be redeemable.Women are constantly trying to change him into a better person or into a committed relationship because they believe after he has done a few nice things that he can change. This gives women the idea that a bad guy can change; he just has not met the right girl. Furthermore, by the end of the show, Barney is teaching his ways of the playbook to younger 20-year-old men to continue his “legacy.”

How The Women on The Show Are Portrayed 
How I Met Your Mother Season 2 Episode 2

Lily is the prime example when we mention emphasized femininity. Most if not all of her characteristics seem to be copy paste from the definition of emphasized femininity. Throughout most of the series, Lily’s career is a kindergarten teacher showing her caring and patient side. The scene above rises from a situation where Lily spontaneously acted upon her emotions by breaking up with her fiance, Marshall, and moving to San Francisco to pursue an art career. Lily returns a few months after breaking up with Marshall, and we learn that without him, her life was absolutely miserable. Her character is tied to that of Marshall’s, and this was the only period of time the couple was separated; however, during this time where she was supposed to find her identity, the only conclusion that she was able to come to was that leaving Marshall was a mistake. Further, even after she returns we are able to hear her thoughts where there is only one thing on her mind: Marshall. Along with her personal traits, her appearance matches the identity of the dominant form of the female gender in media: straight, white, and cisgender. 

How I Met Your Mother Season 4 Episode 6

Emphasized femininity is a hegemonic form of femininity that women should have a continuous desire to have a romantic partner. Women who resist this idea are perceived as a potential threat to hegemonic masculinity (Korobov 2011). In this photo is a scene where Robin telling the rest of the gang how her father had always wanted a son, and he treated her that she was a boy. He had Robin do all the things he believed men did as well having her character participate in hockey on the boys team. This backstory of her upbringing is the reason she believes she acts like a guy. In the series, there have been many episodes discussing how Robin’s character strays away from emphasized femininity, contrasting her character from Lily’s. For example, in the episode where Becky is completely dependent on Ted and needs someone to watch over her, there is a conversation about how Robin never makes the guys she dates feel needed. This distinction of her character makes Robin come across as intimidating to both men and women. Men are intimidated by her because they never feel like she needs to be taken care of. In other words, if a woman attempts to demonstrate that she is independent and self-sufficient, men are intimidated because to be with these women, they must negotiate masculinity. Women are intimidated by her as she fits with the ideas of hegemonic masculinity and perceive those traits on her as rude and closed-off. These perceptions toward ;Robin make it difficult for her to make friends with other women, and for men to feel like they cannot “handle her”. This can be problematic for the audience because it can make men believe that if a woman is independent and confident, they would be “too much work to handle.”

The beautiful women pictured above are the five people Ted had an actual relationship throughout the show: Robin Scherbatsky, Victoria, Stella Zinman, Zoey Pierson, Tracy McConnell. When you look at what they all have in common, you can see that they all conform with the representation of a beautiful woman: white, thin, and attractive. This reinforces a dominant idea of a beautiful woman in an audience’s mind, as well as the idea that women are only beautiful if they fit a certain description, leaving women that stray from this standardization feeling dissatisfied with their appearances (Foo 8). If representation on the show wasn’t enough to send this negative message to the audience, Barney further boasts that he is “Mr. Charity” because he “frequently sleeps with sixes, chubsters, over-thirties.” His blatant comment is hurtful as it suggests that anyone that does not follow the “standard of beauty” is unattractive and undesirable to men. 

 “How I Met Your Mother” has been a successful series with people still considering it to be one of the best sitcoms. Even with the success of this television show, it failed to acknowledge or refrain from the depiction of emphasized femininity. Women are constantly being viewed through the male gaze, being objectified and seen as nothing more than sexual beings in need of a man. There are instances in which women have attempted to stray away from popularized gender ideals, however in doing so, they are ridiculed by both men and women. Unfortunately, many people blindly follow actions they see in the media assuming that it is “the norm” so the stereotypical examples seen in this show are disappointing as it has such a large fan-base. It is important that as the world develops, the media follows and accurately represents these groups as otherwise, they further engrain the audience’s thoughts on these groups which are inaccurate and stereotypical.

Works Cited

Foo, S. Y. (2010). The Beauty Trap: How the pressure to conform to society’s and media’s standards of beauty leave women experiencing body dissatisfaction (Unpublished master’s thesis). Auckland University of Technology. Retrieved July 1, 2020, from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/56361799.pdf

Korobov, N. (2011). Young Men’s Vulnerability in Relation to Women’s Resistance to Emphasized Femininity. Men and Masculinities, 14(1), 51–75. https://doi.org/10.1177/1097184X09356904

 Zurbriggen, E., Ramsey, L., & Jaworski, B. (2011). Self- and Partner-objectification in Romantic Relationships: Associations with Media Consumption and Relationship Satisfaction. Sex Roles, 64(7), 449–462. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-9933-4

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