I grew up with two brothers in a house where I got points for being as sports-obsessed and tough as the boys. And because of that, I was secretly relieved when I found out my first child would be a boy. It had become clear to me over the first trimester, as I imagined my new life as a parent, that I had no idea how to raise a girl. I didn’t know how to fix hair or do makeovers or regulate dating. A boy, I thought, would be so much easier.
Naturally I got my comeuppance on the next go-round, when I had a girl. And while I still haven’t learned how to french braid, I’ve figured out most everything up to age six or so. I still spend too much time anxiously rehearsing various talks we’ll need to have in another few years, but then again, it’s become clear that boys present their own unique challenges that I’m just as ill-equipped to meet. The point is that I never had a preference for having children of a particular gender; I was just more afraid of one case than the other.
So I sympathize with Marshall’s terror at the ways he might fail a daughter, and the ways the world might treat her -- basically, the way he treated girls before marriage, and the way creepy Barney treats them now. And I salute “Baby Talk”’s genius connection of that terror with the infantilization of women in sex and romance. I’ve always thought that “Who’s your daddy?” was a disgusting and nonsensical way of macking on a lady. Now, the show doesn’t quite play fair with its contention that the gender reversal doesn’t work; just because “who’s your mommy?” isn’t a catchphrase doesn’t mean that “come to Mama” or “Mama’s gonna make it all better” aren’t female-to-male equivalents. Still, layering on Robin’s discovery that her capable, strong attitude was a turn-off for Ted puts “Baby Talk” in the top echelon of HIMYM episodes for thematic complexity.
The only bit that doesn’t quite fit is the name thing, which is where we start. Marshall and Lily are determined to figure out acceptable baby names ahead of time so as not to end up like their friends Stuart and Claudia, hurling accusations at each other over their unnamed baby (Tiffany is a whore’s name -- just like Stuart’s mother; they could name her “Frigid Shrew” after Claudia; or to ensure that Stuart will hold her tight, “Vodka”). But all the names Marshall thinks of are either too NBA for their white baby (LeBron, Shaquille, Hakeem, Dikembe) or already attached to kindergarteners who terrorize Lily on a daily basis with goldfish swallowing and paint flinging. Meanwhile, Lily’s proposals for names remind Marshall of high school hotties (“Tara / Your booty is so smooth / I hope this isn’t rude / But I wanna get up on it”) or strippers with unusual talents (Esther’s act involves doing the following with her hooha: blowing up balloons, propelling darts to bust said balloons, spraying a deck of cards all over the audience, and showering confetti as the big finale).
Notice, though, that the names break down cleanly along gender lines -- all boys for Marshall, all girls for LIly. And that’s where we leave the names behind and get to the attempts to conceive a certain gender. Marshall’s dad clues him into the Erickson secret for three generations of male-only offspring: Eat pickled herring, dunk your man-sac in ice, point your woman due north. Meanwhile Lily’s checking out girl-conception tips on the internet: Eat lemons, heat up your lady parts to a balmy 105 degrees, and orient yourself to the south.
And Robin can’t figure out why everyone loves her new co-host Becky and her little-girl act (“Can I do this story about the horse? I love horsies!”). Including Ted, who adopted the natural role as Becky’s protector when she came over to the apartment and became frightened by a spider (then saddened when Ted stepped on the spider). “Spider’s gotta die so trees can grow,” he philosophizes in a laconic cowboyish manner, and held her tight while she grieved. “Later today, a Manhatan architect gets punched in the throat,” Robin reports on the air after learning that Becky went out with Ted. Cut to Ted holding his throat in McLaren’s.
Ted tells her that Becky makes him feel needed in a way that Robin, with her self-sufficient paying for stuff and running off intruders with shotguns never did. All the while, Barney pursues one of his self-imposed challenges -- to find a woman who will be turned on by his little-boy act. “Wow, yoooooou got some tit-o-bitties!” “You’re body’s a total ... this many!” “You wanna wrestle with our special bathing suit places?” “I wet myself, will you change me?” No dice.
It’s to Barney, then, that Robin goes to find out whether her independence is driving men away. And it’s Barney who tells her how wonderful that makes her -- just before asking her to get rid of the woman he finally conquered with his own dependent posturing, the one whose yen for punishing him turns out to be more scary than sexy. What does all this have to do with where we started -- baby names? Not much, as Marshall’s awkward attempt to bring them together shows: “We shouldn’t worry about whether it’s a boy or girl or what to name it.” Yeah, nobody really worries about what to name it, Marshall and Lily. Especially before you even get pregnant, thinking of the perfect baby name is a fun game, not a divisive struggle. But we worry a lot about what their gender will portend for their future, and that’s uncomfortably correlated with whether they’ll be dependent or independent, with whether the world will tear down their self-esteem ahead of time or just clean up the mess afterwards. We adopt roles with each other based on the examples of our parents and the emotions connected with our childhood relationships to them. That’s creepy at best, pathological at worst. We’re lucky it doesn’t stop us having kids at all. And we’re really lucky if we get a chance to think it through somewhere between the imagination of what could be and the terror of how we could screw it up.
- Best line of the night -- funny because it describes an actual but little commented-upon phenomenon: Marshall explains that he’s never seen Becky, Robin’s new co-anchor, on Come On, Get Up New York! because “our DVR won’t recognize it as a television program.”
- Marshall repeatedly pictures himself trying to keep his daughter off the pole (“He ruined my childhood, that’s why I do this!”) and off of extremely disturbing old man Barney in a wig and with his lower lip all pushed out. Ewwwwwwww.
- Marshall’s parents can’t figure out Skype. Either they’re too close or too far away (“how’s this?” his dad calls faintly as they back toward the window?), and his mom asks him if he wants a beer (“I’m in a computer, mom,” he reminds her.
- Ted’s spider-killing manliness was all an act. “I think I only wounded the spider. It crawled off toward my bedroom,” he confesses to Robin. “Is that why you slept on the couch last night?” she asks. “Yeah, I slept,” he responds with an eyeroll.
- “Nobody cares about the challenge.”
- “Hey, that was my card!”