Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Case for Robin Scherbatsky

How I Met Your Mother's Robin Scherbatsky, played exquisitely by Cobie Smulders, is on the very short list of my favorite female characters ever. Some of this is has, as personal preferences tend to, a lot to do with me: I'm also into sports and highly competitive, and I spent three years on a college newspaper and worked at a tv news station one summer so I enjoy hearing about Robin's career in news.
But from a less individual standpoint, I think Robin is a unique female character who displays strength of character without being perfect, ambition without being heartless, and moments of struggle and doubt without being weak.
A few highlights:
1. While Robin is ultimately successful at her job, we appreciate her for her personality and character long before her journalism dreams are reached. What this means is that her career path is  presented as an important part of the show. While some (e.g. here and here) have criticized the show for making Robin struggle so much in her pursuit of journalism greatness, this has a lot to do with the fact that Robin has chosen broadcast journalism, a very difficult career in which advancement comes not only with persistence but also with a lot of luck. Don Frank, for example, only got his job because the more qualified and more professional Robin turned it down. Moreover, Robin's struggles make her ultimate success even more of a testament to her perseverance and her ability to act with confidence even when she herself feels great doubt.
Moreover, the fact that we meet Robin long before she has much success in her career or personal relationships means that we actually come to respect and admire her for her strength of character and strong sense of self. Imagine appreciating female characters not because they're more successful than others but because they are people with convictions and thoughts and feelings.  Additionally, and this is very important for me, Robin is consistently portrayed as at least as intelligent as any of the male characters in the story.
Finally, the portrayal of Robin's coworkers in journalism suggests that it is easier for men to make it in her career than women. Nora is the coworker we know best because she dates Barney. Like Robin, Nora has very strong sense of self, morality, and conviction. Meanwhile, Robin's male coanchors, Sandy Rivers and Don Frank receive great opportunities despite being unprofessional and far less motivated than Robin.
2. Robin doesn't want to have kids, and this isn't portrayed in a way that makes her uncaring, unattractive, or robotic. Even before Robin connects with a little kid in "Little Boys" in season three, she shows her nurturing side by taking care of Barney when he is sick and looking out for her little sister when she comes to visit. She's very committed to her friendships, even caring about Ted greatly as she rejects him.
In "Symphony of Illumination", Robin is shown to have a more complicated relationship with the notion of children that she had previously thought and is actually saddened when she finds out that she can never have any. But when Kevin notes to her in "The Drunk Train" that there are other ways of having kids, she reaffirms her commitment to not having children.
Whether or not a character wants kids can be a sensitive subject, especially since the pop culture has been criticized for assuming that all women want children, and not surprisingly, Robin's character has drawn criticism from some who resent that the show might somehow imply that a life without kids cannot be full (apparently not sold by Ted's description of Robin's incredibly full life at the end of "Symphony of Illumination"). This, however, is unfair. Because so many tv characters are shown as wanting kids, no single character is tasked with representing the entirety of mothers. It's seen to be a nearly universal experience, and each character represents just one take on it. Robin's feelings similarly should not be seen as a representation of the emotions all women experience when they decide that they do not want children. As this blog post shows, Robin's spectrum of emotions was relatable to at least some.
But to me, whether or not Robin's experiences speak a universal truth is secondary. More important is the fact that Robin is shown as a full character who contemplates the issue thoughtfully and with an independent mind and because her decision is not shown as placing a limit on her potential for happiness.
3. So what if Robin has "daddy issues"? Four of the five characters have major issues with their parents. Jason Segel's Marshall is the only one who does not seem to have any emotional residue from his upbringing. His family is mocked extensively but for their quirkiness and wackiness. Moreover, Robin emerging as confident as she is despite her traumatic upbringing is a tribute to her strength of character.
4. While Robin is very strong, she's not perfect. Robin is a realistic character because she doesn't do everything right. She smokes (though she will eventually quit), she can have a hot temper, she makes bad decisions sometimes, and she shows occasional signs of trauma from her upbringing. Yet it is her strengths that stand out more than her weaknesses, a credit to the show and to Smulders' acting. Robin is independent, intelligent, thoughtful, and loyal. And that strength is what makes her a great character.
5. Oh, and this:
Let's Go to the Mall!
excerpt from show
full video

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