Did Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders) deserve what she got at the end? She spent most of How I Met Your Mother being an aspirational career woman who put ambition before love. So why does her ending still center around who she’s with? Watch this video for a closer look at Robin’s shifting life goals, and whether or not her endpoint suits her character.
How I Met Your Mother is a show about a man looking for his soulmate. But while Ted Mosby finds the woman of his dreams in the very first episode, Robin Scherbatsky doesn’t share his fantasy of life-changing romance. Despite attracting the admirations of a long line of men, Robin has other things on her mind besides finding the perfect guy.
Refreshingly, this character, who was the center of the show’s major love triangle, fits the archetype of the quintessential career woman, who puts ambition before love, doesn’t want kids, and is okay with being single.
Robin: “I don’t want kids, I’ve never wanted kids, and never, in a million years, will I ever want kids.” - How I Met Your Mother 7x12
Robin made choices like these appear not only valid but even aspirational, representing a powerful moment for a character type that rarely gets positive treatments in pop culture. Yet in the show’s home stretch, How I Met Your Mother arguably let Robin down by turning her into a stock love interest, there to deliver a happy ending for its protagonist, and not following through on the person she really was.
Robin: “It’s a great look. But you’re looking at the wrong girl.” - How I Met Your Mother 1x2
Here’s our take on Robin, and why her role as a professionally focused woman on an influential love-centered sitcom mattered.
The Woman Who Acts Like a Man
The premise of How I Met Your Mother is that Ted is the male version of the stereotypical rom-com heroine, looking for someone to sweep him off his feet. He’s so in touch with his feelings that he throws himself at Robin on their very first date. Ted has a plan that’s more traditionally assumed to be the fixation of women. He wants to fall in love, get married, have kids, and live out the Norman Rockwell American dream. But Robin doesn’t want that dream.
Robin: “I don’t know where I’m going to be in five years, and I don’t want to know. I want my life to be an adventure.” - How I Met Your Mother 2x22
The inverse of Ted, Robin is driven by priorities our culture normally associates with men’s ambition, intensity, selfishness, and living for the moment without her future set in stone. When she meets Ted, what she really wants isn’t a boyfriend but a group of fun friends to take the edge off. She’s passionate about becoming successful in TV news, and almost always chooses her work over the possibility of romance starting with the night of her very first date with Ted.
Robin’s whole personality is also stereotypically male, from her taste in liquor and pop culture to her comfort with guns. The conceit of the man who acts like a woman, pining for the woman who acts like a man, was central to the romantic tension driving How I Met Your Mother.
Co-creator Craig Thomas said, “We wanted to show a guy who is in love with this girl and she just doesn’t want that.” By flipping the stereotypical gender attitudes toward romance in Ted and Robin, the show got the opportunity to explore both male sensitivity and vulnerability, and female independence and self-determination.
As a woman who acts like a man, Robin is a prime example of the “cool girl“ trope. The Take made a previous video about. Just like one of the guys but much prettier, she’s a male fantasy. She’s basically a collection of male tastes and behaviors in a hot female body, and men obsess over her at least in part because she expresses not wanting the commitment that the more stereotypical woman demands.
Looking closer, though, Robin’s tomboyish behavior has more complicated roots stemming from her childhood. Robin’s father wanted her to be a boy, so she is the way she is because her father raised her to embrace stereotypically male activities like shooting, smoking, drinking, and hockey until he could no longer keep denying the fact that she was a girl.
Though the show usually plays Robin’s boyishness for laughs or as an attractive quirk, her acting like a boy while growing up was her way of trying to please and be accepted by the first man in her life. And as an adult, she’s still haunted by her father’s rejection. So this suggests that, on some level, Robin’s “cool girl“ persona down to her beliefs that she isn’t like other girls and doesn’t want a relationship is rooted in the desire to be desirable to men.
Lily: “What is it with you and women?”
Robin: “Ugh, they’re so annoying. I’m glad that you’re my only female friend. Girls are always whining and crying over every little thing.” - How I Met Your Mother 9x4
Robin actively avoids the appearance of being like other women and is deeply upset when her jealousy for Ted makes her not recognize herself. And whenever Robin has feelings that aren’t convenient, like for Ted or Barney, she represses them, always playing the “cool girl” instead of expressing her real emotions. Moreover, being a commitment-phobe also doesn’t automatically mean she doesn’t want a commitment, but rather that she’s scared of it.
How I Met Your Mother suggests that Robin’s really trying to avoid the possibility of getting hurt. And these fears are justified when, in her relationship with Don, she uncharacteristically turns down a career opportunity in order to put romance first, only to be burned when Don chooses that very job over her.
Robin’s character development eventually shows her becoming a person who does want real love. But actually the man who helps her discover this most naturally, and in spite of herself is not the uber-romantic Ted, who’s long been obsessed with her, but the equally commitment-phobic Barney, the member of the gang most like Robin, whom she eventually marries.
Barney: “We both think the marriage-commitment thing’s a drag, we both want something casual and fun, and we clearly get along really well.” - How I Met Your Mother 1x14
Even though they get divorced in the finale, for most of its run How I Met Your Mother makes a compelling argument that Barney is a much better match for Robin than Ted. Not only do both of them share a love of cigars, booze, and laser tag, but both of them are also adamant about their lack of a desire to ever have children.
Robin: “Kids are not my favorite thing in the world, but I like them.”
Ted: “Well, you don’t want to have them.”
Robin: “I like sports cars but it doesn’t mean I want to push a Ferrari through my vagina.” - How I Met Your Mother 3x4
Robin’s lack of interest in kids, her desire to put other priorities first, was an important, positive alternative to most female role models on screen. Despite her not having this end goal, Robin and her happiness were still valued by this romantic comedy.
Like her relationship hang-ups, Robin’s feelings about motherhood are also complex. She’s painted as having a phobia, and when the choice is taken away from her, because she discovers she’s unable to have biological children, her response isn’t what she, or we, expected.
Robin: “I guess, it’s just nice knowing that you could someday do it if you changed your mind.” - How I Met Your Mother 7x12
Ultimately, there’s honesty in the fact that she’s conflicted about big life questions, that her behaviors are shaped by her environment, and that she has to confront doubts about the decisions she’s made. In the end, though, the show let down the complexity it had built up for Robin, as it barrelled toward its rom-com fairy tale ending.
Having It All: The Career Woman’s Dilemma
Often, the story of the single career woman is captured in the question: Can women have it all? The traditional example of the Working Woman onscreen is trained to avoid emotional attachment, focusing on her professional success and putting relationships second, or not worrying about them at all.
Modeled on the tenets of Second Wave Feminism from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, inspirational pop culture about the Career Women like Mary Tyler Moore put forward a version of female life that prized workplace equality and access to the same opportunities as men. Women in this time period were encouraged to act just like men, to have any chance of succeeding.
Later examples, from Working Girl in the late ‘80s to Sex and the City starting in the late ‘90s, reflected the conversations of their time periods as well, by working the questions of femininity and romance back into the picture. In Sex and the City, four female characters have prioritized work well into their thirties and set out to be “women who have sex like men.” But as they remain unattached, these working women also question their decisions and spend a great deal of time fixating on their interactions with men.
Miranda: “How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends?” - Sex and the City 2x1
Career women characters since then have continued to juggle finding fulfillment in their work with deciding how much of a traditional domestic life they want, while being presented with an ever-shifting set of role models. And we can see the influence of the career woman’s history-shaping Robin as well.
She’s incredibly driven with an enviable work ethic, even when she’s toiling in obscurity on a little-watched show. She repeatedly watches her romances suffer due to work, and finds that men are not as okay with her all-consuming ambition as they profess to be. Her commitment to what she wanted in spite of all of that made Robin an important entry in the pantheon of Career Women characters throughout the years. She’s the most professionally accomplished among her gang, and that’s not even counting the whole other career she has behind her.
Robin: “I was a teenage pop star in Canada.” - How I Met Your Mother 2x9
How Robin Got Her Ending
What happens to these women, as they get older and it’s time for the TV show to end? Generally speaking, they wind up settling down, no matter how much they’ve protested. As University College Dublin Professor of Film Studies and Screen Culture Diane Negra put it, Sex and the City “came to closure in a strikingly ideologically conservative fashion with the safe settlement of its four ensemble members into commitment and motherhood.”
30 Rock finds a more practical, modern solution by marrying Liz Lemon to a man willing to do most of the domestic work around the house. Peggy Olson on Mad Men finds her romantic happiness inside the workplace, ending up with her co-worker, and so does BoJack Horseman‘s Princess Carolyn, who marries her former assistant, Judah.
Some of these working women also navigate motherhood, but in the most realistic-feeling examples, this is not always something that comes as naturally to them, and their most defining relationships may still be at work.
Princess Carolyn: “Work makes sense to me, and I’m good at it. I don’t feel that way about my baby.” - BoJack Horseman 6x2
Like so much of pop culture, How I Met Your Mother pays lip service to the idea that women can and should be fulfilled without needing a traditional partner and family, only to undercut that idea with its resolution.
By the end of How I Met Your Mother, Robin has achieved the level of professional success she always wanted but winds up traveling to such a degree that it damages her relationship with Barney, eventually leading them to divorce. This is the same problem Robin’s had in all of her relationships, so this break-up seems to confirm the message that Robin’s career is incompatible with a forever romance. While the divorce is a disappointing resolution for fans of the couple, having How I Met Your Mother leave Robin as a content, single woman would have made a lot of sense.
But that’s not what happens. Robin no longer fits into the group now that she’s not dating Ted or Barney. In the shows’ final moments, Robin’s rescued from her lonely existence and winds up with Ted, proving that, no matter how much Robin insists she wants to be and is comfortable being alone, this can’t be considered a happy ending.
Ted: “The point of this story is that—”
Penny: “—is that you totally, totally, totally have the hots for Aunt Robin.” - How I Met Your Mother 9x24
Robin’s resolution with Ted feels both inevitable and forced, which it was the conclusion scene with Ted’s future children was shot eight years before the show actually ended, long before the story followed Robin’s career taking off and developed her chemistry with Barney. The best parts of How I Met Your Mother give Robin a complexity outside of her relationships with both Ted and Barney, but as the show goes on, those parts of her identity become harder and harder to find. Even though Robin has never wanted children, and even though she’s made her priorities clear, she still feels a little too sad and melancholy when that door is actually closed to her.
Robin: “This way there’s no one to hold me back in life. No one to keep me from traveling where I want to travel. No one getting in the way of my career.” - How I Met Your Mother 7x12
When Barney is finally so happy to become a dad at the end of the show, the implicit message is that Robin wasn’t able to give him what he really wanted, and she’s ultimately pushed into Ted’s existing family, even though there’s no reason to believe her work ethic won’t present exactly the same problems it did for her and Barney, which will only be compounded by adding Ted’s kids into that picture.
And so How I Met Your Mother, like so many other TV shows that started out differently than they ended up, winds up arguing that the only way women can truly be fulfilled is through a romantic relationship, one that often serves her male counterpart’s story more than it makes sense with her own character development.
Ted: “And when you love someone you just don’t stop. Ever. Even when people roll their eyes or call you crazy! Even then. Especially then!” - How I Met Your Mother 9x17
A more fun, consistent, and interesting version of Robin could have stuck to her guns and found genuine professional happiness without needing Ted. Because if you’re paying attention, this is who she’s really been all along: an independent woman who’s doing just fine without being rescued by a fairytale.