Just a few weeks ago, New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley observed that there’s “a babying boom on television.” Prime time, she said, has an “unquenchable fascination with parenting.” Her colleague Neil Genzlinger riffed on the “harrowing” depictions of birth in six different current shows. No matter how much screaming and swearing went on in those birthing scenes, the message on television still remains: Having a kid is a pivotal, perhaps necessary landmark in a woman’s life.
This message was driven home this week by the way two prime-time shows—How I Met Your Mother and Whitney—dealt with female characters who say they don’t want children. While this may be an uncommon choice on an American sitcom, it’s of course not an uncommon choice in America; the share of American women who don’t have kids has doubled since 1976. But neither of these characters—Robin (Cobie Smulders) on HIMYM and the titular Whitney (Whitney Cummings, also the show’s creator)—was allowed to fully embrace her desire not to have kids. Though Robin’s conflicted feelings about baby-rearing were treated in a much more enlightened way, it’s telling that on both shows, the characters who don’t want babies are women who like shooting guns and talking dirty, but who are grossed out by feelings. These shows are implicitly saying: Of course only a woman who’s not really feminine wouldn’t want to be a mom.
Still, there’s a big difference between the way HIMYM handled Robin’s aversion to spawning and the way Whitney dealt with the issue. (Warning: massive spoilers ahead.) Robin, who has always said she never wants kids, has a pregnancy scare at the beginning of this week’s episode, “Symphony of Illumination.” She’s overjoyed when she discovers that she’s not with child. But then, her doctor discovers something else: Robin can’t ever have kids. This news is strangely devastating for Robin because, as explained previously, she hates feelings, Robin won’t tell her friends that she can’t have babies. Instead, she says she’s discovered that she can’t become an Olympic pole vaulter. Lily, who’s pregnant, asks Robin why she looks so upset:
Robin: I guess this pole vaulting thing is kind of hitting me.
Lily: Did you really want to be a pole vaulter?
Robin: No. I was always adamantly against a pole vaulting career, even though it’s what most women want.
Lily: Most women want to be a pole vaulter?
Robin: In Canada, it’s very big up there. You know, meet a nice guy, get married, vault some poles. But I never wanted that. Of course it’s one thing not to want something, it’s another to be told you can’t have it. I guess it’s just nice knowing that you could someday do it if you changed your mind. But now, all of a sudden that door is closed.
It seems like Robin is responding to a few things here. It’s not just that the writers of HIMYM are acknowledging that there’s a profound cultural pressure put on women to reproduce. (“It’s what most women want.”) They’re also acknowledging that Robin isn’t necessarily mourning the fact that she can’t have kids—she’s mourning the curtailing of possibility. The show ends with Ted, HIMYM’s hapless narrator, explaining that Robin went on to lead an incredibly full life without babies—she became a famous journalist, a successful businesswoman, traveled the world, and even briefly a bullfighter.
Whitney—sigh—Whitney is a whole other story. In last week’s episode, “Up All Night,” Whit suffers terrible insomnia because she’s stressing out over planning a friend’s engagement party. A crackpot shrink, played by Chelsea Handler, prescribes her sleeping pills, which make Whitney act bonkers while she’s asleep. One of the things she does while sleeping is shop—for baby shoes. She goes to the shrink with her boyfriend to figure out what ordering “widdle shoesies” may mean for her subconscious. At the shrink’s office, Whitney's boyfriend, Alex, reveals a surprise:
Whitney: Kids are not part of our thing. I’m not thinking about kids, he’s not thinking about kids.
Alex: How do you know? We never even talked about it.
Whitney: That’s because neither of us wants kids.
Alex: No, I want kids. We haven’t talked about it because I was afraid that you don’t, and …
Alex: It’s kind of a deal-breaker.
Whitney is meant to be an independent woman, one who gets joy out of standing up for herself, giving her boyfriend the business, and making jokes about balls. So what does she do when she learns that kids are a deal-breaker for her boyfriend? She completely folds. And not just on the no-kids issue—her character, who has spent all season saying that she doesn’t want to get married, and doesn’t believe in marriage, and thinks people can be happy in long-term relationships just living together—says she’d consider getting hitched, too. When Whitney admits that she’d consider getting married and having babies with Alex, he responds, “Oh my god, Whit, you’re like a person!”
The implication that Whitney has to agree to consider all the trappings of traditional womanhood to be “like a person” is pretty pathetic. What’s more, Whitney’s concession toward marriage and babies is seen as a fully positive development in the show. After Alex—who is generally portrayed as the more reasonable, level-headed member of the pair—utters that “like a person” line, Whitney responds, in a deliberately petulant voice, “Shut up, no I’m not. I’m scared of marriage and I’m scared of having kids, but with you it’s the first time I can imagine it.” This choice is shown as the proper path toward adulthood, and it’s astoundingly retro for a show that purports to be about a modern twentysomething.
Still, it’s not surprising that HIMYM would be more sensitive in dealing with the issue of having children than Whitney is. Married couple Marshall and Lily deliberated for a long time about having babies. They even had a long road to the altar in the first place—Lily left Marshall for a while to pursue her dreams of being an artist in San Francisco, and this choice was seen as reasonable and necessary, if sad. In its short lifespan, the characters on Whitney seem both marriage- and baby-obsessed, and not in a nuanced way. Whitney’s pal, also named Lily, is consumed with her forthcoming wedding, and the subplot of last week’s episode involved Whitney’s other friend, Roxanne, freezing her eggs.
Certainly, the decision to have children is a life-altering one about which lots of women have conflicted feelings, and I don’t doubt that there are women out there who have had experiences like Robin’s and even Whitney’s (which are probably more common than we’d like to imagine). But in the context of a prime-time television schedule chock-full of parents—and a culture obsessed with watching baby bumps—it’s hard not to wish that there were more women in prime time sitcoms who were childfree and proud of it. Must Leslie Knope be our only hope?