Why I should stop expecting sitcoms to be feminist

I’m very fond of How I Met Your Mother. I like the way characters are allowed to get drunk without it being a plot point. I like the way it has a normal couple in the main group. I like how it messes with linear narrative. OK, I’m not all that thrilled with the way it treats the “strippers, skanks and bimbos” Barney screws around with, but having him played by a gay man does subvert the character somewhat. As does making him a douche.

I like the way its single woman, Robin, is uncompromisingly feisty and career minded. Or, I did until the last couple of episodes. Just to catch you up, Robin Scherbatsky is a TV journalist. She wants to travel and work abroad. She’s not that bothered about having a long term relationship. And she definitely, definitely does not want kids.

In the episode before the mid season break, Robin discovers that she actually can’t have children. It was Cobie Smulders’ Emmy shot: the character has to deal with having the choice of whether or not to have kids taken away from her. There’s a lot of wandering through snow and being upset. Naturally. But then came the final voiceover line, as Robin returns home to find Ted has decked out the apartment in all its Christmas finery for her – something like, “because kids, the one thing your Aunt Robin never was, was alone”.

OH FUCK OFF. Don’t you dare take a strong female character and imply that without children, her life would be empty. That winding up alone is a distinct possibility for the childless woman. Is the childless woman not allowed to have lifelong friends? Is the childless woman not allowed to have other family? Are the children of a fertile woman guaranteed to never fall out / emigrate / do whatever else they could do to fail to fulfil their apparent destiny to make sure their mother is never ‘alone’? Is the childless woman not allowed to get married?

Hmm. Well. This last was addressed in this week’s episode. Robin’s bland [i.e., ‘nice’ in TV land] boyfriend of about six months proposes to her. She tells him she can’t have children. He still wants to marry her. Hooray! Then she explains that even though she can’t have children, she’s still choosing not to have any – which rules out adoption, surrogacy, etc. He does want children after all, so he breaks it off. OK, fine. Incompatible life plans. This is still about Robin’s choices, not her infertility. It’s quite empowering. Until the final scene where Robin, weeping, explains to Ted what’s happened, and says “he couldn’t look past it [the infertility]. Who could?”

SERIOUSLY. JUST FUCKING FUCK OFF. A moment ago this was about Robin not wanting children, now we’re back to her being doomed to a life of staring at walls because her womb will be forever empty? I find this offensive, both as someone who chooses not to have children and someone with a friend who has recently been told she’s infertile. How the hell did this show go from having a strong female character who knows what she wants from life, to this supposedly tragic figure? When Robin declared she didn’t want children, were we supposed to be thinking ‘ah, she’ll change her mind’, because everyone knows having children is what women do?

There was an opportunity here to show the shock, internal conflict and coming to terms with being told you’re infertile, which they did quite nicely. Shame it was undone by falling back on ‘she can’t have children OH NO HER LIFE IS RUINED’.

(I’ve spoilered myself about the ending to this series, and I know that the producers aren’t planning for Robin to end up alone. That being the case – some more enlightened dialogue, please, for pity’s sake.)

(Also: this series hasn’t been very good in general. I’m starting to hope Ted meets the mother soon, and puts the show out of its misery.)

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One response to “Why I should stop expecting sitcoms to be feminist

  1. Lora September 19, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Hi, Rachel! I just want to say: i sooo agree with you!
    Society / parents want us to get married and have kids. I am in my twenties and i feel constant pressure. Because I don’t want to have kids either. Maybe i will someday, but i never wanted this, and i am not sure i ever will want this. What i like about ‘how i met your mother’ is that they show Robin, as you said – a strong confident woman who just doesn’t want kids. it’s her decision. I liked that in this show no one told her how to live, no one told her she is making a mistake not wanting kids. Because in my life people do tell me this stuff, and i can’t tell you how much it pisses me off!
    I don’t owe it to anyone, and if someone thinks that without kids i am going to be unhappy, i gotta say: yeah, working + cooking + cleaning + washing your hubbies socks + giving birth to children + ruining your health and body in general + baby sitting + dealing with teens and keeping working working working as a man, THIS is happiness? Are you freaking kidding me?

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