I Get By With A Little Help From My Bros: An Analysis of the Male Homosocial Relationship on 'How I Met Your Mother'
As children, we idolize the relationship of our parents. We watch their love and affection and assume that such relationships are easy to find−that love comes naturally. This naïveté is portrayed on the television sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” On “How I Met Your Mother,” the naïve child is Ted Mosby, who is 28 at the start of the series, and the show follows his struggle through bachelorhood. An older Ted Mosby, in his fifties, narrates the show from the future, telling his two children the story of how he met his wife. Ted grew up idolizing his parents’ relationship and, as a bachelor, desired to settle down as quickly as possible; this desire presents itself numerous times throughout the series, as Ted quickly falls for many women and deems them all soulmates. However, while the title of the show seems to indicate a focus on male-female intimate relationships, it quickly becomes apparent that it is the relationship between the three male leads that holds more significance. The friendship between Ted and his two best friends, Marshall Eriksen and Barney Stinson, does not typify standard male-male relationships depicted in popular culture. While on the surface the three male leads’ relationship seems similar to the usual depictions of male relationships in popular culture, it becomes evident that Ted, Marshall, and Barney’s interactions on the show are unique in comparison. The male-male relationships take on the characteristic of a “bromance,” an emerging construct in popular culture. On “How I Met Your Mother,” the bromance distinguishes itself from an ordinary male-male relationship through the ways the main characters employ the bromance in their everyday lives.
Social psychologists typically refer to male-male relationships as homosocial interactions. Jean Lipman-Blumen, Professor of Public Policy at Claremont Graduate University, states that homosocial interactions are those relationships that involve “the seeking, enjoyment and/or preference for the company of the same sex” (16). Lipman-Blumen goes on to note that these types of relationships usually are purely platonic. The media has depicted these male homosocial interactions for many years; however, they have adhered to a stereotypically masculine notion of friendship. Close brotherhood due to strife and male objectification of women typically defines homosocial interactions in the media. For example, many movies examine the bond that develops between men at war, such as: “Saving Private Ryan,” “Forrest Gump,” or “Band of Brothers.” These movies demonstrate that situations involving strife, such as war, develops bonds of brotherhood between men. Furthermore, these bonds are inherently masculine; the concept of soldiers at war contains overwhelmingly masculine undertones. Similarly, the media also portrays male companionship as rooted in shared objectification of women. "Buddy" movies such as “The Hangover” and the “American Pie” series portray this type of male companionship; films of this type typically portray a group of guys who strive for new sexual conquests and relive stories of prior escapades. Michael Flood, a researcher at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, notes that male homosocial relationships center on sexual storytelling and that heterosexual sex is the “medium through which male bonding is enacted” (342). Evidently, filmmakers have identified this trend and have employed it when making films that revolve around relationships between men.
While male homosocial relationships have plainly existed in popular culture for many years, the relationship between the three male leads on “How I Met Your Mother” represents a new type of male-male interaction: the bromance. In the past, stereotypically masculine ideals typically defined male-male interactions−the bromance represents a stereotypically feminine approach to the male homosocial relationship. The bromance can then be defined as perhaps the most intimate point of friendship for men without entering into the realm of homosexuality. It is analogous to the close, emotion-based friendships that the media typically portrays between women. Members of the bromance are comfortable enough with each other to discuss their emotions, confide deep secrets about themselves and their significant others, and seek relationship advice from their other bros. It is evident that the bromance represents a uniquely feminine approach to the male-male homosocial relationship.
As stated previously, although the show discusses Ted’s journey to meet his wife, “How I Met Your Mother” is more significantly about the interpersonal relationships between men, specifically Ted, Marshall, and Barney, than it is about any of their relationships with women. The series portrays the feminine nature of the bromance by exploring the dynamics between the three male leads. However, while the show does approach male relationships with a stereotypically feminine approach, it should be noted that the presence of the standard overtones of male relationships remains. Ted, Marshall, and Barney’s relationship was formed and strengthened through shared experiences of personal strife and collective objectification of women. One of the hallmarks of the show is Ted and Barney’s ability to be a “wingman” for one another to hit on women; in one instance, Barney becomes extremely excited because all three of the leads are simultaneously single for the first time and can hit on women together (“The Scorpion and the Toad”). The show’s approach to friendship, therefore, is revolutionary in its subtle coalescence of both a standard masculine approach to friendship with a stereotypically feminine nuance. In short, the male-male homosocial relationships on “How I Met Your Mother” are not entirely feminine; they are based on a foundation of classic and stereotypically masculine qualities.
Therefore, viewers distinguish the bromance on “How I Met Your Mother” from similar male-male homosocial relationships by the stereotypically feminine approach that the writers and producers have taken with respect to the relationship between Ted, Marshall, and Barney. This feminine approach is characterized by three factors: the elevation of the bromance over other relationships, regardless of type, the use of the bromance as an outlet for feminine expression, and the use of the bromance to act as a gauge for other relationships in each of the bros’ lives. These three factors present themselves multiple times over the course of the show, indicating that the relationship between the three male leads, the bromance, is not one typically present in popular culture.
Generally, men rarely make long lasting friendships with other men. In fact, Geoffrey Greif, a Professor of Social Work at the University of Maryland, notes that men have trouble forming lasting meaningful friendships with other men−it is far more likely for a man to have only one good male friend rather than a group of good male friends (39). As a result, it is unlikely that men have to rank the male-male and male-female relationships in their lives by order of importance or significance. Conversely, the conflict between male-male relationships and male-female relationships on “How I Met Your Mother” frequently requires the bros to rank their relationships with each other and with women. In these rankings, the obligations that involve other bros usually take precedence, indicating that these rankings place the male-male relationships of the bromance over other relationships. Sharon Bird has identified this method of ranking relationships as the practice of “hegemonic masculinity,” which can be defined as the use of homosocial relationships to enforce gender differences between men and women (120-21).
This theory of hegemonic masculinity presents itself in “How I Met Your Mother” as the bros all make decisions that favor relationships within in the bromance rather than relationships with other people. For example, when Ted has a girlfriend on the show, it frequently arises that he betrays his significant other and reveals their secrets confided to him in confidence to his bros. During his relationship with Robin, Ted learns that Robin is deathly afraid of strip malls. When Robin eventually explains to Ted the basis for her fear, she pleads with him: “just please don’t tell anyone about this” (“Slap Bet”). Although Ted agrees to keep her secret, the next scene displays Ted instantly divulging her secret to his bros, Marshall and Barney. As a result, Ted elevates his bromance with Marshall and Barney over his relationship with Robin by utterly disregarding her pleas for secrecy. This situation arises again when Ted dates Stella in the fourth season, indicating that it is more than a one-time occurrence (“Rebound Bro”). Clearly, although Ted may value his relationship with Robin, it is his relationship with Marshall and Barney that holds greater strength. In short, while Ted might desire to maintain a strong relationship with Robin, Ted is more intimate with Marshall and Barney−he places higher priority to aspects of his life associated with his bromance.
Just as Ted favors his relationship with his bros over his relationships with women, Marshall too places the bromance higher in precedence over his relationship with his wife, Lily Aldrin. Ordinarily one would assume that when a man has found the woman to spend the rest of his life with and to have children with, their relationship would be slightly more important than his male friendships, but this is not the case. In the fourth season when Ted and Marshall start to pack in order to move out of their apartment, Ted starts to have a slight breakdown about moving in with his girlfriend. In response, Lily asks Marshall to counsel Ted, since they are both going through the same situation. During their conversation, Marshall vehemently declares: “[I will] start unpacking too, I'm staying here, right by your side, forever buddy!” (“Intervention”). Here Marshall favors living with his bro Ted over moving into a new apartment with his wife Lily; this choice indicates a ranking of the male-male homosocial relationship over the relationship between a husband and wife. It is evident that the members of the bromance favor their relationships with each other over their relationships with individuals outside of the bromance.
Along with favoring the bromance over relationships with other people, the bromance on “How I Met Your Mother” takes on a stereotypically feminine dynamic on the show. The bros serve as an emotional support system for each other, a system typically perceived amongst women in popular culture rather than men. Michael Flood notes the rarity of men with a femininely perceived personality in his analysis of the cadets at the Australian Defense Academy, where he describes the two lone cadets who participate in a mixed-sex friendship circle. He notes that these cadets believe they get along better with women than with the other cadets and that they describe themselves as “[having] ‘feminine sides’ and are ‘sensitive’...” (348). This rarity of femininely nuanced men mirrors the rarity of the bromance in popular culture−just as there were few cadets who had femininely perceived personalities at the Academy, so too are there few relationships that are similar in feminine qualities to the bromance on “How I Met Your Mother.”
The bros on “How I Met Your Mother” are similar to these cadets in that they too have a feminine sensitive side, which reveals itself in their interactions. For example, after having a fight with Robin for the first time, Ted goes to Barney and Marshall to analyze the fight. Similarly, Robin meets Lily to debate the fight as well (“Ted Mosby: Architect”). The episode compares the two by flashing back and forth between the two groups; although Ted meets his bros at the bar and Robin and Lily at a nail salon, the two groups both discuss the fight and its effects on Ted and Robin’s relationship. Barney and Marshall form a unique support system for Ted during periods of emotional stress, just as Lily serves as a support system for Robin during times of emotional strife. It is clear that the bromance on “How I Met Your Mother” is not an inherently masculine construct−it seems to take a more stereotypically feminine approach to a traditional male-male relationship.
The male leads further reveal their feminine sides later that season. Shortly after Marshall and Lily break up, Ted and Barney try hard to motivate Marshall to get over Lily and date someone new. Eventually Marshall begins to date Chloe, a girl who works at the bros’ favorite coffee shop. When Marshall introduces Chloe to Ted and Barney, the two step in and warn Marshall that Chloe has the “crazy eyes,” and that Marshall should break it off immediately (“Swarley”). In this case, Marshall introduces his girlfriend to his bros in the hope of attaining their approval−just as a girl might introduce a new boyfriend to her girlfriends for evaluation. Moreover, Marshall receives a warning to break up with Chloe. Barney and Ted assume the role of the protective friends, immediately identifying Chloe as a potential problem and proclaiming: “Dude, you’ve got to ditch her” (“Swarley”). Clearly, the trio uses their bromance as a way to express their feelings in a way normal masculine relationships would not allow.
Possibly one of the more interesting uses of the bromance is as a gauge for other relationships. Over the course of the show’s plot line, it becomes apparent that the relationships within the bromance can help to determine the relative strength of male-female relationships. Put more simply, an ideal partner for a bro is a female bro. This indicates that the bromance acts as a standard by which to compare potential soulmates. The concept of the bromance acting as the standard comes up multiple times in “How I Met Your Mother,” and it is easy to understand why. Geoffrey Greif classifies friends into four categories: “the must friend, the trust friend, the rust friend, and the just friend” (42-43). Bros fall into the category of the “must friend” or the friend that everything must be confided in−this categorization was seen earlier when Ted immediately told his best friends his girlfriend’s secrets. Therefore, when searching for someone to spend the rest of one’s life with, it would be smart to hold a potential soulmate to the same standard.
On “How I Met Your Mother,” the most evident example of a strong male-female relationship is that between Marshall and Lily. The two, despite their brief three-month breakup, are the strongest heterosexual couple on the show. This strength stems from the fact that Lily represents a female bro; there are numerous instances in which Lily demonstrates masculine qualities. For example, one episode depicts Lily winning a beer-chugging contest in which Marshall, Ted, and Barney are excitedly cheering her on (“Okay Awesome”). Evidently, Lily is simply a pseudo-bro−a female bro−which makes her very attractive to Marshall−he frequently expresses greater affection towards her when she does something bro-like. In the first season, Marshall notes that he loves Lily because she “laughs every time…[she says]...the word sack” (“Life Among the Gorillas”). This approval of Lily’s masculine sense of humor indicates Marshall’s satisfaction with his relationship with Lily−she is comparable to a bro that he can have a heterosexual relationship with−the ideal companion.
Perhaps a more significant example of a character using the bromance as a barometer for a relationship is Barney Stinson. On the show, Barney represents the show’s expert womanizer, plotting elaborate methods to con women into sleeping with him. These plans range from the basic to the ridiculous, one of the most ludicrous involving coming out of a bag at baggage claim to hit on an attractive woman (“Sweet Taste of Liberty”). Nonetheless, even Barney is love struck when he finds that Robin, although a girl, is a more than suitable bro. In the second season Barney and Robin hang out alone for the first time when Ted, Lily, and Marshall are otherwise occupied; Barney discovers that Robin almost makes a better bro than Ted and Marshall do (“Zip, Zip, Zip”). Robin makes a good bro because she’s easy to hang out with, makes jokes at the other bros’ expense, and honors the “bro code,” making sure to help Barney hook up before she meets someone. Moreover, Robin, in addition to being a good bro, is a girl, which makes her irresistibly attractive to Barney−at the end of that very episode he tries to make a move on her; by the end of the fourth season, the two are dating. Even Barney, the perpetual playboy, is struck down when he finds that Robin can be a good bro and a girlfriend, a combination that he finds entrancing. Evidently, to each of the bros, the prospect of finding a soulmate is equivalent to finding a female bro to spend the rest of their lives with.
Overall, viewers can observe the bromance on “How I Met Your Mother” as a shift in the media's depiction of male friendships. At first male friendships were depicted as forming under great stress and cemented by shared male objectification of women, as evidenced by the war film and buddy film genres. The depiction of a bromance on “How I Met Your Mother” demonstrates a new stereotypically feminine approach to the typical male-male homosocial relationship. In a show titled on the relationship between a husband and a wife, it becomes surprisingly apparent that the interactions between the three male leads take precedence over any other relationship on the show. In examining the interactions between Ted Mosby, Marshall Eriksen, and Barney Stinson, it becomes quickly evident that their friendships are not similar to the usual friendship that forms between men, in essence they have something more: a bromance. Their bromance is typified on the show by its elevation over other relationships, which enforces hegemonic masculinity by elevating male-male relationships over male-female relationships, especially relationships between Ted, Marshall, and Barney and their significant others. Furthermore, the bromance is serves as an outlet for feminine expression; the bromance becomes analogous to the relationship between three close girlfriends than three guys, as they serve as a support system for one another. Finally the bromance’s most important use on the show is perhaps to gauge the validity of the trio’s relationships with women; if the bros can find a girl that measures up to the bromance, she is most likely a suitable companion for them. In short, the idea of the bromance is central to the show and the three leads’ lives; through all the trials and tribulations that they all have faced and will face, they still have the support of their two other bros.
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