January 2018

Playboy Heroes in Television

It is impossible to ignore how television heroes and stories have described our society.  They blur the line between fantasy and reality, revealing much about us through who we admire and aspire to become.

by Claudia Lisa Moeller

Harvey Weinstein’s scandal is one of the most discussed events in 2017. After many years of unlimited power and abuses, many actresses and co-workers of the famous producer came out and revealed what was behind the magic, glamorous, and glittery life of Hollywood: systematic abuse. Exposing the producer and other important personalities (such as Oscar winner Kevin Spacey) was a first step in breaking a chain of sexual tyranny, where young men and women sacrificed their bodies on the unholy altar of Hollywood fame.

Weinstein might have been discredited, but are we collectively ready to accept the end of man-oriented and chauvinist society? Online, we should note that some Instagram celebrities are men who show off their sexual power by exhibiting women and money. Somehow, these profiles hint there is a correlation, if not a tight connection, between these two elements. For example, Dan Blizerian is now monogamous, but in the past, his Instagram profile was worth 22.2 million followers who loved and envied his “harem.”[1]

The Womanizer is a popular embodiment of these [sexist] desires.

Television has always portrayed fictional realities for men and women. However, it is impossible to ignore how television heroes and stories have described our society. They blur the line between fantasy and reality, revealing much about us through who we admire and aspire to become. The Womanizer is a popular embodiment of these desires. Especially in sitcoms, the Womanizer is sexually lucky and enjoys the company of many different women. Perhaps the most famous Womanizer in television is Fonzie (Henry Winkler) from Happy Days: his arrogant nature, his confidence, and his famous look made almost all women fall for him. In every episode, he is dating one or more young women at the same time, while the other protagonists of the series struggle to get a date. Fonzie started as a secondary character and quickly became one of the most popular and beloved personalities on the series.

Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and Fonzie (Winkler) are the two main protagonist of Happy Days (“Not with my sister, you don’t,”  season 2, episode 8). Richie looks up to Fonzie and often asks for sentimental advice. Fonzie can be considered one of the most successful portraits of womanizing characters in television. Via YouTube.

Perhaps in the ‘70s and ’80s we could accept a character like Fonzie, who snaps to get women, but can we accept men in modern times treating women as trophies? Can we accept revised forms of the cultural icons of our parents’ generation without reinforcing the patriarchal attitudes they embody?

Two and a Half Men has been one of the most beloved sitcoms in the last decade. Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) is the protagonist, together with his hapless brother Alan (Jon Cryer) and his son Jake (Angus T. Jones). Charlie is rich thanks to his creative musical work and he spends his time having multiple affairs with young women (very young and good looking, in most of the cases). His activity is so intense that in one episode called “Fish in a Drawer” (Season 5, Episode 17), the police have to inspect Charlie’s room. Once the ultraviolet rays are switched on, the police are shocked: there is semen everywhere and Charlie, very proud of his sexual encounters, points at a spot on the ceiling and adds that there is a very funny story behind that one. Women in this universe, and in many of Lorre’s series, are often ready to exchange their bodies to get fame or money.[2]

Charlie is a hero for exploiting women; his brother an anti-hero for being exploited by them.

Charlie uses women, prostitutes and otherwise, to please himself, and the only times Charlie falls in love are with women who are stalkers (Rose), careerists (Linda), artists (Courtney), cheaters (Lisa and Myra), or suffering an Oedipus complex (Angie). These women are one-dimensional characters defined by their flaws. Meanwhile, Charlie’s sexual behavior and careless and occasional relationships make him a hero and the protagonist of the show; while on the other hand, his brother Alan is poor and must live at his brother’s house because of his ex-wife, who is often mean and greedy.[3] Put simply: Charlie is a hero for exploiting women; his brother an anti-hero for being exploited by them.

charlie harper 2
Two and Half Men protagonist Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) and Courtney Leopold (Jenny McCarthy) are having a conversation about cars in the episode, “Shoes, Hats, Pickle Jar Lids” (season 5, episode 9). Via YouTube.

It is worth noting that Sheen’s own tumultuous life and sexual scandals make it difficult to divide the actor and the role. It seems that what we are watching in Two and Half Men has a real-life double, a perfect case of mimesis. Fiction and reality seems to have no distance.

Another interesting case is Charlie Harper’s cultural rivalry with another television playboy. To some, Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother is a better and more successful Womanizer. Googling the two names produces more than 300,000 answers to this dilemma.[4]

As with Charlie, what makes Barnie heroic is his exploitation of women; his opposite in Ted, exploited by women, a comic emotional anti-hero.

About Barney Stinson, there is very little to add. He started out a minor character in one of the most beloved and popular sitcoms in the last years, How I Met Your Mother, and soon became one of the most prominent roles. His catchphrase (“Legendary!”), his rules about dating and the female world (contained the “The Playbook”), and about friendship (“The Bro Code”), made him one of the most appreciated sitcom characters of the last decade. The Playbook and The Bro Code are today on sale in different languages as real guides. Barney’s face became a very popular meme online. Fans have written an online blog exactly like the one Barney had on the show.[5]

barney stinson 1
How I Met Your Mother main character Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) working through the Scuba Diver play. It is an elaborated plan to seduce women, which is performed and explained in “The Playbook” (season 5, episode 8). Via YouTube.

Barney Stinson’s popularity made Neil Patrick Harris, the actor behind the famous playboy, very rich. Indeed, at the end of season 9, Mr. Harris earned $210,000 per episode, almost $100,000 more than the real protagonist of the series, Ted Mosby (played by Josh Radnor).[6]

As with Charlie, what makes Barnie heroic is his exploitation of women; his opposite in Ted, exploited by women, a comic emotional anti-hero.

Between 1997 and 2004, two very different shows addressed men, women, and the play of love and sex. In the first, the cartoon Johnny Bravo on Cartoon Network, touted an illustrated playboy protagonist.[7] A very unlucky Womanizer, Bravo has no success with women despite his muscular physique. Though the cartoon pokes fun at the skirt chaser, whom women often turn down, it serves to reinforce the Womanizer trope. Bravo is a comic anti-hero precisely because he is unable to successfully exploit the women he encounters.

johhny bravo
Johnny Bravo intro. Via YouTube.

On HBO, in the same years (to be more precise, between 1998 and 2004), Sex and the City revolutionized television by deploying the trope of the Womanizer from the perspective of women. In deciding to depict women as overtly, even aggressively sexual, the show’s producers highlight the discrepancies in gendered power across the television landscape. In short, the show’s protagonists represented something entirely new on television, emphasizing just how male-dominated and exploitative previous depictions of female sexuality had been.

Bravo is a comic anti-hero precisely because he is unable to successfully exploit the women he encounters.

The protagonists of this show are four wealthy, high class, independent women. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a successful journalist and writer; her friends are a lawyer (Miranda, Cynthia Nixon), a very talented PR (Samantha, Kim Cattrall) and a gallerist (Charlotte, Kristin Davis). The protagonists are all privileged white women enjoying their independent lives. Sex and the City ran on HBO, a premium cable and satellite television network.[8] Both Two and Half Men and How I Met Your Mother, however, appeared on CBS, one of the most popular and important network channels in American television.[9]

sex and the city samantha hugh hefner
In one episode of Sex and the City (“Sex and Another city,” season 3, episode 14), Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) meets Playboy’s founder, Hugh Hefner, and she says to him: “I am a huge fan.” Via YouTube.

A different, restricted audience could watch and follow Carrie Bradshaw and her girls: the record rating of the show is around 10.6 million.[10][11]  Yet 16.45 million viewers watched the Harper men in Malibu, and Barney Stinson’s quote and Ted Mosby’s quest for love attracted 10.51 million viewers.[12] [13] It is easy to see how the different genre of show (drama vs. sitcom) and the different figures in ratings show us how those shows on CBS were more popular than any other show.

Sexually aggressive women are still rare in sitcoms or in other shows airing on national television.

It is interesting to see how in recent years a typology of stereotypical, male, womanizing character appeared in our televisions, while sexually aggressive women are still rare in sitcoms or in other shows airing on national television.[14] If Charlie Harper does not have any problem flirting with younger women and Barney Stinson does not date women who have already blown out 30 birthdays candles, it seems that women are mere objects of chauvinist desire in network television. They are not allowed to be sexually active and hungry on screen. In this age, we should pay attention to what television is showing and what we are watching at home.

Modern day Don Giovannis who are motivated by strong sexual desires have good reasons to treat women as objects. In the vision of a Charlie Harper or a Barney Stinson, women are greedy and selfish and they deserve this treatment. In Don Giovanni by Mozart, Zerlina is likely to sleep with the nobleman because of his advanced social status. Though expressed very differently, the trope of the Womanizer is common to all and represents a persistent force in Western culture.

Even if feminist fights have changed our society in the last century, in this respect television seems to be more conservative than its viewers; it is still describing, praising, and celebrating men whose aggressive sexual behavior remains a dream and a prototype for those watching at home.

IMG_6871Claudia Lisa Moeller was born in 1992 in Italy. She studied Philosophy at Università Vita Salute San Raffaele (Milano). She wrote both her BA and MA thesis on Kierkegaard. She is also interested in the hermeneutics of television.


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[1] https://www.instagram.com/danbilzerian/?hl=it

[2] In the episode “The Dead Hooker Justaposixtion” from The Big Bang Theory (Season 2, episode 14), another series produced by Chuck Lorre, the female protagonist Penny has to confront herself with the new tenant of the building, Alicia. They are both actresses, but Alicia has more success than Penny. At the end of the episode, it is explained why Alicia is more successful than Penny. It is hinted that Alicia has seduced a very important television producer and in the sheets of her bed, she is auditioning for her upcoming part in a famous criminal show. Penny, indeed, comments: “Dead whore in TV, live one in the real life.”

[3] From season 9, a new owner appears in the show. It is Walden Schmidt (Ashton Kutcher), who is rich, but he is suffering because his wife has dumped him and taken away from him a big part of his fortune.

[4] It is a bit confusing to see that one point against Barney Stinson is that in real life Neil Patrick Harris is gay. It is curious to see that some fans seem to ignore that Barney is a piece of imagination and an actor’s private life has most of the times very little to do with the part they play on stage or on screen. If you google Barney Stinson and the word gay, you read older forums, social posts and other texts about how concerned and “deeply” shocked are some Barney Stinson’s fans in finding out that the actor who plays Barney is gay. https://it.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110501144305AAyVPVo

[5] http://www.barneystinsonblog.com/category/my-blog/

[6] http://entertainment.time.com/2013/09/21/which-tv-stars-pull-in-the-most-dollars-per-episode/

[7] Cartoon Network has less than a million viewers. http://variety.com/2015/tv/features/kids-tv-strategy-nickelodeon-disney-digital-1201582874/

[8] “HBO had an estimated 49 million domestic subscribers. […] The premium cable and satellite service had 134 million subscribers worldwide by the end of 2016.” https://www.statista.com/statistics/329288/number-of-hbo-domestic-subscribers/

[9] “In fall 2016, “The Big Bang Theory” was pulling in 22.23 million people — with 35 days of viewing counted, across linear TV, DVR, VOD, and streaming outlets. CBS has released a batch of data, cobbled together from Nielsen, comScore/Rentrak, and its own internal streaming figures, that show that the network is drawing slightly more viewers for entertainment programs in 2016 than it was in the 2000-01 season (12.62 million on average, versus 12.61 million).” http://variety.com/2017/tv/news/tv-ratings-cbs-comparison-2016-2000-1201953346/

[10] The most popular TV series in 2016 – 2017 was “The Big Bang Theory” with 19 million viewers (always on CBS). http://www.indiewire.com/2017/05/most-watched-tv-show-2016-2017-season-the-walking-dead-this-is-us-football-1201832878/

[11] https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB107766792526938343 In 1998, 2.75 million viewers watched the first season of “Sex and The City.” See E. Edgerton and J. P. Jones, The essential HBO reader, University Press of Kentuky, 2009, p. 154.

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_and_a_Half_Men#American_television_ratings

[13] Curiously, the last and least appreciated season was the most followed one. The show had an average of 8 – 9 million viewers in the US; this proves how much “How I Met Your Mother” was loved. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_I_Met_Your_Mother#Nielsen_ratings

[14] In 2009, ABC aired a brave (at least at the beginning) series called “Cougar Town.” In the first season, the female protagonist flirts and goes out exclusively with younger men (therefore the name of the series), but in the development of the show, Jules Cobb (Courtney Cox) turns to older men, whose age is closer to hers.

1 comment on “Playboy Heroes in Television

  1. It is still describing, praising, and celebrating men whose aggressive sexual behavior remains a dream and a prototype for those watching at home <— fantastic conclusion.

    Liked by 1 person

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