Earlier bitch chronicles have celebrated highly evolved bitches, but How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) acknowledges bitch’s baser uses, too. For instance, you can deploy weaponized bitch against people you hate or despise. You can use it glibly to abuse anyone outside your own group, exactly the opposite of using bitch to build solidarity within the group. But you cannot use basic bitch against a woman friend, neither to her face nor indirectly in a way that gets back to her. HIMYM demonstrates over and over just how rhetorically and stylistically impressive a bitch can be, but some bitches confront a stone face and stop time.
At the beginning of HIMYM, which aired on CBS from 2005–2014 — for more on the show, if you need it, see the very first bitch chronicle — Marshall Erickson and Lily Aldrin seem like the rock-solidest of couples. But in Season Two, Lily has a crisis and abandons Marshall, by then her fiancé, for art school, not in New York, where the show is set, but literally across the country, in San Francisco. It breaks Marshall’s heart, and Lily — previously much beloved by all, including Ted Mosby, who, like Marshall, met her in college — becomes persona non grata. Fans of the show can argue forever about Lily’s culpability and about the terms on which Marshall might take her back. Take her back he does, of course.
In the episode “How Lily Stole Christmas” (11 December 2006), Lily returns, and Ted provides some background to the episode’s underlying conflict, which is a bitch. Lily accidentally hears a message from Ted to Marshall about her, a message she was never meant to hear:
Answering Machine Ted: Hey Marshall. Are you lyin’ on the couch right now, moping about Lily? You are, aren’t you? Well, stop it. She’s not worth it. You gotta get over that Grinch.
Narrator Ted: But I didn’t say Grinch. I said a bad word — a very, very word.
Ted: Oh, fudge.
Narrator Ted: But I didn’t say fudge.
Lily was lucky in Ted’s gaffe. She crushed her erstwhile fiancé and abandoned her friends, but one bad word turns the tables and suddenly she’s the aggrieved one. So, we’re reminded, plain bitch hurts and offends, and men shouldn’t use it, especially if they mean it, but probably not at all. Although HIMYM does on occasion propose that men can use bitch in the familiar way that women can among themselves, doing so leads to an incongruity which leads to comedy in a certain situation, which works well in situation comedy, but not in real life.
HIMYM proves something we probably already know: the hypocrisy of bitch. No one can call you plain bitch, but you call others plain bitch all the time — and mean it — and you don’t mind when friends refer to those you dislike with bitch. Gender is less an issue in this regard than you might think, though HIMYM writers play the usual incongruities for laughs. So, in “Third Wheel” (8 October 2007), Lily fights with another woman over a pair of discounted boots — the last of their kind in the store. Having lost the battle, but with her eye on the war, she cries, “You just made the list, bitch.” But in “Everything Must Go” (3.19; 12 May 2008), Ted and Lily have the following after-school-special conversation:
Ted: Hey, how was your day?
Lily: Today I yelled at a little girl for painting a rainbow [all that the little girl ever painted, it was frustrating].
Ted: A rainbow? Sounds like that bitch had it coming.
Notice that when Ted calls a little girl a bitch, there is no Lily umbrage. We want our friends to call the bitches who have it coming bitch, but we are never that bitch.
The willingness of women to use bitch against one another and to authorize its use by their male allies should cause some concern, because plain bitch is originally demeaning man talk, as HIMYM plentifully acknowledges and illustrates. In “The Perfect Cocktail” (2 May 2011), Barney moralizes, “What kind of dirtbag doesn’t stand by his best friends but instead sides with some self-righteous bitch with a pointless cause and a megaphone.” When Ted called Lily a bitch, it was man-to-man talk with Marshall. Much later in the series, in “Who Wants to Be a Godparent?” (15 October 2012), Barney bitches in the same way: “I know this hurts, little buddy, but you’ll love again someday. Because time will heal a broken heart, but not that bitch’s window.” The usually optimistic Ted is bitter with bitch in “The Best Man” (19 September 2011): “I used to believe in destiny, you know? I’d go to the bagel place, see a pretty girl in line, reading my favorite novel, whistling the song that’s been stuck in my head all week, and I think, ‘Wow, hey, maybe she’s the one.’ Now I think, ‘I just know that bitch is gonna take the last whole-wheat everything bagel.’” He just wants what’s coming to him; he just wants his fair share; but he can’t decide whether that’s a woman or a bagel — is it even reasonable to expect both? And the root of this misogynistic bagel-envy, for Ted and perhaps for all men, is revealed in “Rally” (24 February 2014), when Ted says, of his mother, “Oh, my God, that bitch lied to me.” She’ll never let you back into the womb now, Ted Mosby.
Nevertheless, women in HIMYM use plain bitch freely. Lily, in “Challenge Accepted” (16 May 2011), dismisses women Ted likes as cavalierly as Ted and Barney: “Yeah, I wasn’t listening, either. Ted really can go on about a bitch.” Robin employs bitch much more aggressively in “The Stinson Missile Crisis” (3 October 2011): “Patrice said maybe he met someone else. She’s such a bitch, right?” — Patrice is frequently Robin’s bitch. Bitch is masculated in the fantastic space of one of the group’s favorite pastimes, robot wrestling. In “Robots vs. Wrestlers” (10 May 2010), a combative robot challenges a wrestler with “That all you got, bitch?” But it’s a prospective mother-in-law, daughter-in-law catfight when Robin throws down before her wedding to Barney:
Loretta: You won the battle, I’ll win the war.
Robin: Game on bitch.
When it’s not a weapon, bitch acknowledges subordination. Lily uses it to cast herself as an object of aggression, in “Last Words” (17 January 2011), the story of Marshall’s father’s wake, in which she addresses her troubled relationship with Marshall’s mother: “Guys, I have a role — I’m Judy’s bitch.” Plain bitch is used — figuratively — to emasculate Ted. Desperate, in “The Over-Correction” (10 December 2012), he’s been “dating” an inmate, and they’re talking in one of those prison visiting hours booths on visiting hours phones:
Ted: No, you hang up first.
Inmate: No, you hang up first.
Ted: No, you hang up first.
Inmate: Hang up, you little bitch!
These are all later — and some of the scarier — re-manifestations of HIMYM’s very first bitch, in the pilot episode (19 September 2005):
Marshall: So? Did you kiss her?
Ted: No, the moment wasn’t right. Look, this woman could eventually be my future wife. I want our first kiss to be amazing.
Lily: Oh, Ted, that is so sweet. So, you chickened out like a little bitch.
It’s hard to know exactly what Lily means here, whether facetiousness mitigates profanity, or whether she’s having it both ways, or whether women can use bitch against men, because it’s a sort of re-appropriation, whereas it’s plain wrong when a man uses plain bitch against a woman.
Plain bitch in HIMYM seems to confirm Robin Dunbar’s argument about gossip, grooming, and the evolution of language. You can’t call the chimpanzee who picks your nits bitch and get away with it, unless it’s played for humor, or to address unbalanced interpersonal power. You can however, foster intimacy with that chimp by calling someone in the larger social group bitch; the whole social group can build solidarity by calling chimps from other groups bitch with impunity. These prehistoric gossipy behaviors — some of our slang and profanity, among other things — end up well illustrated in HIMYM. We may encounter highly evolved, twenty-first specimens of bitch on television and elsewhere, but plain bitch and other bad words may enact some of our atavistic tendencies.