Women in Competition (How I Met Your Mother)

A couple of weeks ago, on this thread, I mentioned that men are constantly portrayed as competing for women in a way that makes the woman essentially irrelevant. We use game metaphors to describe the system, but the winner and loser–the agents of participation–are always just the men. The women, I said, are the ball, the object you score with.

How I Met Your Mother decided to construct an entire episode (“The Belt”) around proving this point for me, throwing in the additional jaw-droppingly double-standard driven repetition of the idea that women are competitive bitches.

Barney and Ted have a long-standing competition as to who will successfully have a threesome first (two women, of course). They literally have a belt to give the winner–one of those super-tacky, wrestling championship style things. When Ted meets two women in a bar, he’s at first not sure which one he should go for. He keeps sneaking off to make phone calls to evaluate his strategy–note that he never gives a damn about the personalities of either of the women. One is just as good as the other, as long as making a move on the first doesn’t kill his chances of “scoring”.

Then the possibility of a threesome starts to appear, and the phone calls and consultations with his friends ramp up. Now it’s definitely a statement of manliness, and the relevant parties are Ted and Barney, but no one ever criticizes the men for it, or even refers to it using the word ‘competitive’. Everything, down to the belt, is played in a completely ‘boys will be boys’ kind of way.

The word “competitive” is reserved for the two former sorority sisters Ted is flirting with, and used in a sort of eye-rolling “this is going to get in my way” kind of manner. Additional methods of emphasizing that women constantly compete with each other, especially over men, and that when they do it, they look silly and irrational:

  • Lily got into a hair-pulling tug-of-war with another woman over a pair of boots. The scene was some sort of designer clearance sale, and the place was packed with hyena-like women with feral looks in their eyes, just desperate to get their hands on these boots.
  • Robin went out on a first date with a guy she ended up really liking, and the waitress schemes to steal the guy out from under her (this involved an exceptionally obnoxious bit about not having shaved her legs before this date, but then realizing she should have, having the waitress–who calls her “Sasquatch”–buy her a razor at the drugstore, and finally the painfully embarrassing attempt to shave her legs in the sink at the public washroom using butter as shaving cream)
  • Lily, who is mainly being ‘one of the boys’ during the whole threesome discussion, gets to be the one to remind us (again, repeatedly) that women who do these things are “sluts”.

So let’s recap: Our hero is first competing with himself to gain the standard notch-in-the-headboard, and needs game strategy to do it. Then he’s aiming for the major coup of a threesome, and he and his male friend even have a literal championship belt to mark the occasion. The game is with his male buddy, the women don’t matter. Oh, but it’s women who are competitive, and when they do it, it’s not fun. They’ll scratch each other’s eyes out for hot boots, they’ll call each other names and leave them unconscious and bleeding on the bathroom floor (yes, literally). And they’ll lower themselves and look like idiots while they do it, but the men? Oh, when they’re doing it, it’s manly, suave and sexy.


  1. says

    You know, shows like that suggest to me something I’m not sure they mean to: that most men belief themselves incapable of attracting a woman by being themselves, and thus see seduction as a series of tricks, and can’t respect women who do sleep with them because that means she fell for tricks (even when that’s not the case).

    What I’m saying is: this set of stereotypes is based in profound low male self-esteem. That’s the only way it all gels together for me. And it would also explain why, when men run the world, they build monuments and require wars to feel good about themselves… whereas it appears matriarchies are far less competitive and… well, “bitchy” is the word I need. Patriarchies are precisely that set of traits they themselves call “bitchy”.

    Really, patriarchies are splendid textbook examples of projection. In the show you’re talking about, men who have a competition complete with a prize aren’t competitive: women are. Men who are lowering themselves to be nothing more than the salami in a bun-stuffing competition aren’t petty and sleazy: women who fight over stuff are.

    I’d go on, but I think my breakfast is coming back up, and you probably all get the point. 😉

  2. SunlessNick says

    Patriarchies are precisely that set of traits they themselves call “bitchy”.

    A friend of mine once defined PMS as women spending a few days behaving the way men behave all the time.

  3. says

    Thank you for this. I usually enjoy this show, but oh, how I hated this episode. (I was especially sad for the guest stars involved!) Actually, Ted’s general behavior so far this season has really rubbed me the wrong way. This episode and the one following (when Ted and Barney compete for the same woman) very nearly turned me off the show.

  4. says

    Tessa–the show is generally decent, and I normally hate sitcoms, which is one of the reasons why it was so jarring to see something so blatantly misogynistic. I mean, even without the whole competition theme, Robin’s “didn’t shave my legs” storyline and the desperation involved was just horrendous.

    I’m wrapping my head around Betacandy’s overall theory, but this kind of thing certainly contributes to the notion that somebody, somewhere is pretty hung up on the notion of making women look stupid and feel inferior. And that, like the Cylons, they totally have a plan, I just don’t know what it is yet.

    Anerda–I had to force out of my head the knowledge that one of those sorority girls was Danica McKellar. It sounds like I should be glad I missed the following episode.

  5. says

    Nick – I’m going to steal your friend’s line! Thanks! 😀

    Purtek – some background on my theory. We all know if you want money, you have to go out and do something to get some, right? Money’s inert – it’s not going to get up and walk to you. Well, it seems to me men are so inundated from birth by messages about how to “get chicks” that they’re confused when they realize women are not inert, and sometimes just being yourself is enough to bring a woman to you.

    Only they don’t have a self to be. They’ve dehumanized themselves to a series of stats: how many “chicks” they’ve done, how old they were when they first had sex, how much money they make, etc. As with women who reduce themselves to a size on a dress rack or a scorecard of rich or famous lovers, I think this behavior is all rooted in a lack of self-esteem.

  6. says

    Betacandy–I can definitely see a lack of self-esteem in the behaviour, and I like the way you put it in saying “they don’t have a self to be”. We understand our worth as humans based on stats and external validation criteria (I can certainly look back on my own life and see the ways in which this is true) and the “scorecard” concept certainly represents that. Where I’m hesitating is on the chicken-or-egg question. I don’t know if lack of self esteem explains the behaviour or if the constant message that this is the way you get self-esteem explains the lack of self-esteem, so I’m not entirely comfortable that the self-esteem is really the ‘root’. Plus, I can’t connect the lack of self-esteem to the willingness to dehumanize the women in this equation–there’s the standard ‘bullying as projection of weakness’ explanation, but something about that angle has always felt inadequate to me. Maybe because it doesn’t account for why it’s not universal among both men and women, because as I’ve said, I can certainly see the ways my own insecurities have led to badness and destruction in the past.

  7. says

    When I ask myself “where did people get the idea that self-esteem comes from stats” the answer I get is “from not knowing what self-esteem is, and therefore lacking it”. That’s just my take on it, right or wrong.

    As for why one’s lack of self-esteem would lead one to dehumanize others… well, it depends because – according to me, anyway – there are two main sources of low self-esteem. (1) Being taught that you suck and others are better (what women generally suffer from, but men can too) and (2) being so privileged you have no confidence you could get anywhere in life if people didn’t favor you. At its worst, number two results in so-called “Men’s Rights Activists” who are lashing out viciously from the unadulterated terror that they can’t compete in a fair world where 6 billion people have roughly equal opportunities.

    If you have low self-esteem because of privilege, you are aware on some level that you’re only privileged because of your stats: white, male, salary of X, etc. You recognize your own objectification, and assume everyone else accepts their objectification as well. You don’t even understand what people are talking about when they complain you don’t see them as a person: you see them as “human” as much as you see yourself as “human”.

    This is the sort of theory I revisit from time to time, so it may change or evolve over time. :)

  8. says

    As much as I don’t want to act all self-satisfied for not watching television, I’m increasingly horrified by the stuff I read about here. BC (especiallially in #4) may be onto something…

  9. MaggieCat says

    When I ask myself “where did people get the idea that self-esteem comes from stats” the answer I get is “from not knowing what self-esteem is, and therefore lacking it”.

    I think lacking self esteem may be a part of it, I’m not sure that not knowing what it is would be the problem. I think part of it may be that finding self esteem from internal sources rather than external is damned difficult, sometimes unpleasant, and is more of a process than a destination.

    But judging your worth based on how many people you’ve slept with? That’s a nice quantifiable number that doesn’t require anything more than the ability to not really care about the people and to do basic addition. Much easier all around.

  10. says

    Betacandy–your clarification is really well put. I really like that paragraph about recognizing that the privilege comes from the stats, so the maintenance and inflation of those stats becomes absolutely paramount given that it’s the tenuous foundation of the whole thing. I think that’s got some explanatory power.

  11. says

    C.L., it’s hard not to feel smug when you look at some of the stuff that’s most popular on TV. 😉

    Maggie, that’s a very good point. As children, we’re dependent on the esteem of others if our needs are to be met. It takes work to set your own standards and concern yourself with meeting those and not everyone else’s, and there’s no part of life that makes it easy.

    Purtek, thanks. :)

  12. Amber says

    What really pissed me off about this particular episode is the comment (and I’m paraphrasing) “I look like a Turkish lesbian” in response to Robin needing to shave her legs to get with the man. I had to explain to my friend in great detail why I, as a Turkish American, found this completely infuriating.

    • Anonymous says

      So, there is some racist writer on the team of How I Met Your Mother… But even if that idiotic person wrote it, there were others (the bosses) who approved it, and Robin’s character didn’t have a problem saying it. It’s just sad that a stupid comment like this can pass through so many people and none of them would see anything wrong with it. Frankly, it’s one of the lines that spoiled show for me…

  13. says

    WTF??? You had to explain why that was infuriating? I didn’t even see it, and yet:

    (1) I resent the fact that leg shaving is treated like a hygenic requirement when it is just fashion bullshit.

    (2) I resent the fact that some people think not shaving your legs is a statement of anything at all, let alone that you are not sexually available to men or that you hate them. I suspect lots of lesbians shave because it pleases them or their lovers; I’ve no doubt lots of heterosexual women would never do it if they weren’t made to feel like not shaving is hygienically equivalent to never washing your hair.

    (3) I have no idea why Turkish people got dragged into this bit of stereotyping, but that’s just shitty. I’m assuming the character is a white person? There is no hairier race than white people, in general. There is specifically no hairier ethnic group on this earth than the Irish/Scottish and their descendants (I say this as a member of that group whose been made to feel all her life as if letting her natural brown arm hair show is an assault on public decency). So not only is this ugly ethnic stereotyping, it also shows how unbelievably ignorant a white moron can be and still get employed in Hollywood.


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