Friday, June 22, 2012

The Importance of Being Lily Erickson (and Marital Sex)

Let's talk about sex.

Specifically, let's talk about sex and How I Met Your Mother. Good? Good.

Sex on sitcoms has always been a tricky proposition. In the olden days of television, they would show married couples sleeping in different beds. Later, they would imply, but not say. Now, the trend seems to have reversed: everyone says everything, and subtlety is dead.

But with a more liberated sexual presence comes a few common hangups. I think you can guess what they are. A man who has a lot of sex is a stud, a woman who has a lot of sex is a whore. Even so, it goes a little deeper than that. It's unseemly to show a female character who is "into" sex. It's a little bit awkward when the woman wants sex more than the man, and it's show to be perverse or just creepy if that's the case.

Except, it isn't creepy, sometimes that's how it is.

How I Met Your Mother is a CBS sitcom, and it's been running for seven years, so I feel like I shouldn't have to explain it to you. But for the .2% of you who don't know what it's about, it's the story of Ted looking for and eventually meeting the love of his life. As narrated to his children.

His four best friends weave in and out of the story, but remain pretty constant. There's Robin, the girl Ted thought was the one but isn't, who's actually a badass Canadian reporter. Marshall is Ted's best friend since college, an environmental lawyer who loves food and his wife, Lily. Lily's a kindergarten teacher and now a mom, and is totally happy with her husband. And last, there's Barney, a high-functioning crazy person who uses women like tissues and has enough emotional problems to fill a small country. But he's pretty fun.

It's a nice show about attractive white people living in "New York", and trying to get by in love and life, basically. Why are we talking about it here, then? Because it's got some pretty awesome views on sex.

It all comes back to sex here.

There are two characters who best represent the attitudes toward sex on this show: Lily and Barney.

Lily is in a loving marriage and has been with her husband since the first week of their freshman year of college. She and Marshall are a textbook example of the couple that is both highly functional and incredibly loving, but also realistic and just crazy enough to make sense. Lily is at times flighty and irrational, but she is clearly invested in her marriage. They've been through a lot with each other, and it shows.

Lily is also the sexually aggressive one in their relationship. She is the one who crawls all over Marshall and complains that they haven't had time to themselves in far too long. There are even several episodes where the driving point of her storyline is her attempts to get Marshall into bed.

Now, by itself, this is just a fun character who really likes sex. But within the context of current television and the moral restraints within which we expect our characters to function, Lily Erickson is a shining beacon of sexual liberty.

She loves her husband, is in a monogamous, loving relationship, and she's totally into sex. That's freaking awesome.

And then there's Barney. Barney is a lady's man, it's pretty much his defining character trait. He's always trying to sleep with a woman, get her number, or making sexual innuendo about his many conquests. At one point they calculate his success rate, and it's a little alarming.

But here's the thing: it's not okay, and the show doesn't say that it is. Barney has a lot of problems. He never knew his father, was traumatically dumped by the woman he loved when he discovered that she was only after sex and money, and forced himself into the role of the aggressive skirt chaser. He's shown to be very sad, deep down inside, and the show tracks his progress as he starts to care about women, is able to have relationships with them, and eventually, we know, he's getting married.

So what's the deal here? A woman is shown to be sexually aggressive and it's good, and the man is sexually aggressive and it's bad? This is clearly some sort of evil feminist brainwashing.

Except it's not. The characters share some basic moral lessons: sex outside of relationships, sex that tries to cover over emotional problems, or fix them, that's bad. Sex inside of a relationship, between two loving people whose bond is strong is reaffirmed by it? That's good.

It's as easy as that.

And seriously, how adorable are they?


  1. Having not seen more than half an episode of this show, I don't have much to say. But I do not think that having sex outside a relationship has to be a bad thing. Having casual sex doesn't need to be shamed, if all parties involved are happy to interact, there is nothing wrong with that.

    1. It's more that sex used to cover over an emotional problem or a deep unhappiness is bad and unhealthy, and it's perfectly good to show people why. To help girls with their sexuality, teaching them that sex is supposed to be meaningful, and that using sex for validation they can't find elsewhere is bad, I think that's a pretty good thing.

  2. It probably makes me the most nerdy person ever that I know this bit of trivia, but Lily planned to keep her last name when she got married (to her MIL's chagrin). Therefore, her last name is Aldrin, not Eriksen. On topic, one thing that delights me about Lily is that she's bi-curious, and its presented in a way that centers her own desires. She has a "girl-crush" on Robin, drops hints about being interested in a threesome and fantasizes about her stripper dopppelganger, and none of this is about performing for Marshall. It's rare to find a narrative where bi-curiosity is an organic extension of the woman's sexuality rather than a sham to pander to men, and HIMYM stands out to me in this respect.

    1. Good call on the last name thing: I thought I heard her referred to somewhere like that, but I couldn't remember specifics.

      As for her bicuriousity, I totally agree. She's definitely a character with a healthy understanding of herself, and it's presented as not just good, but enviable. I love it.

  3. Fact is.... the amount and the degree to which she and Barney both "want it", her from Marshall and he from anyone, AREN'T OK. She needs to keep it in her paints and so does he. She does literally CRAWL ALL OVER Marshall, even in public, which is disgusting. She often uses sex as a weapon, as blackmail or as a way to get out of trouble with her husband. There are many episodes where rather than do what he should be doing (studying, sleeping before an important day at work, etc.) she forces him to have sex with her. I like sex as much as the next guy..... but she is extreme.... and it is repulsive.

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