"How I Met Your Mother’s" Cristin Milioti is a win for women

Fans claim Cristin Milioti isn't "pretty enough," but she shows you don't have to be a supermodel to be loved

Published September 20, 2013 11:00PM (EDT)

Cristin Milioti in "How I Met Your Mother"   (CBS/Cliff Lipson)
Cristin Milioti in "How I Met Your Mother" (CBS/Cliff Lipson)

Monday's season premiere of the ninth and final season of CBS’s "How I Met Your Mother" marks the bittersweet beginning-of-the-end for what is arguably the most beloved cast of friends since, well, "Friends." Given that we, though not Ted himself, have already met the mother, this season promises to be unlike any that has come before it. (When I say we have “already” met the mother, I say this not to casually brush off the years of agony experienced by "HIMYM" super fans when, at every turn, the producers left us hanging with yet another clever cliffhanger about the mother’s identity. I myself have had many a frustrated water cooler conversation with coworkers as we begged the showrunners to just get on with it already. Worry not; I am with you on this one.)

Last season’s reveal marked a far-reaching cultural development and moment in television history, given that the long-concealed identity of the mother goes down as one of television’s best-kept secrets, notable, particularly, because it was an exhausting ruse that somehow gained more viewers than it lost. Alas, for those who are not as familiar with the show, let me recap: Through eight seasons of frequently digressive storytelling, architect-turned-professor Ted Mosby recounts the moments that lead up to the day he met his wife as their two children listen with saint-like patience to the seemingly irrelevant antics of his twenty- and thirty-something life in New York City. And then, miraculously, triumphantly, at the end of last season, we finally arrived at the pinnacle weekend, on each of the gang’s trek to the wedding of consummate New York playboy Barney Stinson to the beautiful, driven and sometimes boyish Robin Scherbatsky, when we got our first glimpse (not to mention the now-famous five-word line) of the woman who bore his daughter and son.

I feel that this development, eight-plus years in the making, deserves a moment of silence.

Throughout the saga, the producers have paraded in front of us dozens of starlets established and up-and-coming as potential mates for Ted, from Katie Holmes to Carrie Underwood, Abigail Spencer to Ashley Benson. We have waited with bated breath as we tried to like each woman Ted wooed, on the off-chance that she would end up, somehow, “the one.” And until last season’s finale, she never was.

There is, to be certain, something comical about both the quality and quantity of women Ted has managed to date through the years without much success—especially in a city that is notorious for social terrain that renders real, substantive dating near impossible (or, in the immortal words of Barney, “possimpible”). A quick look at the list of actresses who played the thirty-plus former flings and girlfriends reveals that the man clearly lacked focus and had no semblance of a “type,” and so one could argue that it is no wonder that his self-matchmaking sputtered. One could also argue from perusing the long list that the man must have had serious game.

Regardless, the characters he dated range from certifiably crazy to civically active to cat-obsessed. Some Ted really liked, while others he merely liked to look at. (For that last category, see Barney’s infamous hot-to-crazy scale, which graphically charts how hot a woman needs to be in order to compensate for her level of craziness). The former were usually played by familiar-looking television actresses and their characters were, by profession, of the more down-to-earth variety (i.e., a stay-at-home mom, a cupcake baker). The latter roles, however, were often reserved for Hollywood’s heavy-hitters who would grace the silver screen for one episode only as highly publicized, ratings-boosting guest stars. Importantly, they were played by models who act and actresses who model.

The producers no doubt did a heck of a job at creating a mega-confusing orb around Ted’s love life, which served not only to engender sympathy and well wishes for the poor man but to set us up for even greater surprise when the “mother of all reveals” would finally take place.

And so, while Ted struck out with these women time after time, fans inevitably began to make predictions about the ultimate woman’s identity, and for some reason predictions usually fell vaguely in line with whatever girl-of-the-moment was gracing the most fashion and lifestyle magazines in a given month. I am guilty of developing the same cookie-cutter theories and expectations, but I believe we came by it honestly, given that the last eight years have, at times, vaguely resembled a Miss America pageant.

Once, I was sure that Scarlett Johansson would be the mother. I also had a hunch at one point that it would be Taylor Swift. I thought it would be a clever and catchy way for the show to poke fun of one of its own most ridiculous, albeit profitable, idiosyncrasies: Ted seems to have dated every actress, singer, and model in the business, much in the same way that Ms. Swift has made her vast fortune on dating and breaking up with young (and not so young) men only to call them out in a song that tops all the charts and wins all the awards months later.

No stranger to self-deprecation, the show has never taken itself too seriously, and so you can understand my dread that another over-exposed It-girl would be cast as the mother. My fear was that the fanfare surrounding the mother’s reveal, regardless of who the woman turned out to be, would chip away at the depth of character and relationship that the writers and producers have managed to craft over the years. It seemed highly likely that the sheer identity of the mother, particularly if she was some super-celeb or sultry starlet, would overpower the profound emotional moment the show had long been leading up to—which is to say, the moment around which the entire show was based.

And so, when the fresh face of relative unknown Cristin Milioti filled the screen to close out the season-ender, we knew that, finally, we were beholding the face of the mother. But just as soon as she flashed on and off screen, fans flocked to message boards not to express their gratefulness that the mystery had finally been solved and the agony was over, but, rather, that she was not pretty enough, and who the heck does she think she is, and couldn’t it have been so-and-so instead?

In their defense, viewers have grown accustomed to the Hollywood glamour of the guest-starring cast, which stands almost in juxtaposition to the slightly alternative, vaguely hipster vibe that gives the show its life. My knee-jerk reaction to the criticism is, chiefly, to urge viewers to chill out. We watch the show because of the master craft of Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, so we ought to trust in their vision and know that the decision to cast Milioti is just an extension of their genius. As the final season unfolds, I believe we will all understand the decision if we do not already, and fans of the show will end up Milioti devotees with no memory of their days of skepticism.

But I do think that the negative fan reaction is steeped in a greater, more disconcerting cultural ill. For the sake of my argument I have scoured a handful of "HIMYM" sites filled with fan comments, and beyond discovering that people take their television shows way too seriously (obviously myself included, this article being Exhibit A), I have also noticed that most of the Milioti naysayers, and almost all of the most extremely vociferous ones, are women.

The vast majority of the women (it bears distinction: the characters, not the actresses) Ted has dated and those he has, um, “dated” are vapid or wild or noncommittal or simply inappropriate for him. But because they were beautiful, and, importantly, Barney-approved, we automatically equated them with good, even if they were not good for Ted. And so we assumed that his future wife could only be better, which to us meant, perhaps singularly, even more physically stunning.

It must also be noted, and noted well, that the ones the men of the show (and, on occasion, Lily) considered to be the hottest (measured by number of inappropriate comments made about her physique) were flashes in the pan of Ted’s dating life. The ones with whom Ted was most serious were, instead, treated with equal seriousness by the gang, whether or not they liked these women, and inappropriate comments about their lady parts were either kept at a minimum or not included in the dialogue at all.

And yet, as suggested by the nature of the predictions of the mother’s identity, hotness somehow became the ultimate measure of a woman’s worth on the show. But it was chiefly substance and connection, not hotness, which foretold the success (measured by duration) of Ted’s relationships with women. If the women whom he liked most were pretty (and they all were), their prettiness was never the focal point of his affection for them; rather, it was merely one of many attributes that enhanced his attraction to them.

So there Cristin Milioti stands, alone in a crowded train station. No boob job. No blowout. Just a cute pair of boots and a case for her bass. She, the actress, is not a Hollywood star in the traditional sense, but she has her own unique and undeniable sparkle, which must have landed her the job in the first place. She -- the actress and the character -- is the everygirl. And she is that one special girl. And, somehow, though she is most of us, we find her inadequate.

It is not my intention to go the way of the brutal chat rooms to suggest that Ms. Milioti is not an attractive woman. Quite the contrary. It is my intention to address the most common complaint of the fans, which is, basically: “She is not pretty enough,” with the standard by which she is being measured being the Hollywood standard, which is, at once, brutal and illusory. Who’s to say, after all this time, that The Mother can’t be a little spritely thing with doe eyes and an impish smile? And who’s to say she shouldn’t be?

That we find her inadequate disappoints me. Despite all the “real beauty” and “power to the average woman” and “I heart my cellulite” campaigns and organizations that exist today to boost women’s self-esteem and to bring us more peace with our whole selves, we still remain stuck in a mindset that tells us the best kind of beauty is that created from hours of sitting in hair and makeup and days spent on the Stairmaster, which is then topped off by heavy airbrushing and maybe even a few rounds of plastic surgery.

This woman, both the actress and the character, has the world going for her. Before she, the actress, scored an audition for the starring role in the Broadway show "Once," she learned to play the piano in just ten days. Not for the part, but for the audition. That, ladies (and to a lesser extent, gentlemen), is what we call commitment to a craft. To the role, she brought “a winsome life force,” according to New York Times Broadway reviewer Ben Brantley. She was later nominated, not surprisingly, for a Tony. Watch her in one interview, and you will understand why casting must have chosen her, why she must have been the obvious choice. She manages, without a hint of self-consciousness, to be quite stunning and adorable, yet this comes almost as an afterthought to her enormous talentquick wit and readily apparent zest for life.

And what, to this point, do we know of the mother as a character? We know from her former roommate that men are always falling in love with her (must have something to do with that “winsome life force”), she has a thing for the poetry of Pablo Neruda, and she fills her time with what one might consider eccentric activities that include painting pictures of robots playing sports and making breakfast foods sing “hauntingly beautiful” show tunes. It is no wonder Ted speaks of her with wistfulness and fondness that I find reminiscent of my own grandfather, who, with a wry smile, refers to my grandmother as “a ton.”

And these details—the elements that make up the substance of her character on stage and off, the things that make her her—these should constitute the standard by which we assess our admiration for her, which isn’t really a standard to be assessed at all, because admiration flows freely in the face of authenticity.

To me, she sounds like a total winner—real and full of life and wonderfully, enchantingly offbeat. And she sounds a lot like the women, young and old, whom I respect most—for their unapologetic quirkiness, for their dedicated interest in subject matter that often lies outside the mainstream, for their self-contained self-confidence, and for their strong yet relaxed presence.

In light of these details, that the actress who plays her has never been the face of a major fashion house does not faze me. Rather, it encourages and inspires me.

As such, the rash reaction from fans is maddening. But it is mostly sad, sad that most women believe and expect, even if subconsciously, that one of the most legen-(wait for it)-dary romances in television could only exist between a man and a would-be, could-be, should-be starlet type. It is unfortunate that American women are attached to the notion that there is no way that the most enthusiastically long-winded courtship story packaged in the form of an 8-year television show could be based around a perfectly, fabulously, “normal” girl. (To be sure, Milioti’s character, as I’ve mentioned, has proven and will prove to be anything but normal, but I use the term only to suggest that she is outside the norm of what our Hollywood-monopolized imaginations have come to expect for women deserving of a great love).

So, ladies, herein lies a lesson: Stop listening to what you think Hollywood is telling you about your relative attractiveness, and stop listening to the Barneys of the world, who get their kicks from living a life of pleasure-seeking and superficiality.

We were never meant to take Barney seriously. And we were never meant to take seriously the edict of an entertainment culture that insists sameness begets attractiveness. So if your Ted sits your children down to tell them about how he met you, and he goes on and on about how great you were and are and always will be, let him. And believe him. And, while you’re at it, give yourself a pat on the back for raising the most attentive teenagers of all time.

By Tricia King

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