Barney Stinson, the popular character from How I Met Your Mother, had a huge impact on pop culture. But in recent years, it’s become clear that he was a tad problematic, meaning a character like him will probably never grace our screens again. But does this leave our TV shows better off, or boring?
The year was 2005. George W. Bush was the President of the United States, YouTube had just been launched, Prince Charles finally married his mistress Camilla and Lance Armstrong triumphantly won his seventh straight Tours de France (triumphantly because, you know, this was before it had proven he’d been using performance-enhancing drugs).
The sitcom How I Met Your Mother also aired on our televisions for the first time and introduced us to Ted Mosby, a man telling his children the story of how he met their mother. The series became an instant classic and went on to win 10 Primetime Emmys among many other countless awards.
Not only did How I Met Your Mother introduce us to Ted, a hopeless romantic desperate to find the love of his life, but we also met Marshall Eriksen, Robin Scherbatsky, Lily Aldrin and Barney Stinson… arguably one of the most iconic – and retrospectively problematic – characters of all time.
Played by Neil Patrick Harris, Barney Stinson had a huge impact on pop culture and despite being a fictional character, influenced the real world in multiple ways. Barney’s catchphrases, like “Suit up!”, “Legendary!” and “Wait for it”, became things people would regularly say in real life back in the mid to late 2000s.
Plus, Barney had four books published in real life – The Bro Code, Bro on the Go, The Playbook and Bro Code for Parents: What to Expect When You’re Awesome. Seriously, the fictional character Barney Stinson is listed as the co-author of these books, which are still available for purchase in most bookstores and websites (the other co-author is Matt Kuhn, who was a staff writer for How I Met Your Mother).
And while Barney was beloved, in hindsight, he did many things over the course of How I Met Your Mother’s nine seasons that were extremely problematic. He regularly lied to women to get them into bed – examples include The Lorenzo Von Matterhorn, The Snasa and The Time Traveller. This is actually a crime, called ‘rape by deception’.
Barney also regularly filmed women during sex, without their consent. Again, this is a crime. Of course, I realise that Barney is a fictional character and most of this behaviour was played for laughs and was not intended to be replicated in the real world. Plus, Harris himself has defended the character; in 2021 the actor told The Guardian:
“Well, my take on How I Met Your Mother is that it was not all real. The structure of the show is future Ted telling his children the story. In doing so, he’s fictionalising the narrative and he’s talking about his friend who was the wingman, the buddy, the guy that was always wanting to party and have fun and make any experience an event. So, I think of Barney as this weird anti-superhero, who when he failed would just make up a story to make him succeed.”
“Some people will be offended by it in retrospect and there’s not much one can do in retrospect. But the experience of making that show for nine seasons was very good energy… and there was never a sense of doing things with bad intent.”Neil Patrick Harris
WATCH: some of Barney’s most problematic moments from ‘How I Met Your Mother’ involved plays from The Playbook…
As someone who was (and still is) a huge fan of the show, I can recognise some of Barney’s misdeeds were truly awful and if he were a real person, I’d be gunning for him to be put in prison. But I have the ability to separate fact from fiction and have a small soft spot for the character who also licked the Liberty Bell, made laser tag cool again and performed some seriously awesome magic tricks.
I’m sure many feel the same way; I mean, while Marshall was always my favourite character, I knew numerous people who idolised Barney back then and probably still think of the character fondly. However, times have changed and if How I Met Your Mother was released today, it would probably be swiftly cancelled and no one would revere Barney.
Not one recent television show has had a main character like Barney – womanising, depraved and sleazy but presented in a glorified almost heroic way. And that’s because people wouldn’t stand for it; we’ve become better educated; our sensibilities have changed. That’s not to say that television shows no longer show characters engaging in f*cked up behaviour at all, but it’s no longer romanticised the way Barney’s was.
But I’d argue that television hasn’t figured out yet how to create iconically funny characters that aren’t problematic. Look at How I Met Your Mother’s spinoff, How I Met Your Father. The show has the exact same premise, just set in the present with new characters. And yet, it’s nowhere near as funny as the original.
And I think part of why How I Met Your Father isn’t that funny is because there’s no Barney equivalent; for the most part, Barney was the main comic relief of How I Met Your Mother. Sure, some of his ‘hilarity’ came from doing problematic things but, in my opinion, most of his hilarity didn’t.
His obsession with suits, catchphrases, laser tag and convincing everyone blogging was still cool (when it wasn’t) weren’t problematic at all; they were simply funny. Plus, it was admirable that no matter how much Barney’s friends made fun of him, he always continued to confidently be himself (wearing suits, playing laser tag, performing magic tricks, blogging, etc.) But How I Met Your Father, and other current sitcoms, have avoided adding ‘heroic’ or ‘good’ characters that are similar to Barney in any way, shape or form entirely.
It’s like all of Barney’s ‘bad’ has overshadowed the things that made him a good character, to the point where writers endeavour to make sure another Barney is never created or shown onscreen again. And that’s actually a shame. Because when you think about it, it’s kind of cool that a character had such an effect on the world.
Hopefully, someone can and does create a character that has a similar impact on pop culture but isn’t problematic. But the cynic in me says that’s unlikely to happen for quite some time… I guess I’ll just have to ‘wait for it’.