The Recent Controversy of “How I Met Your Mother”

Screengrab from "Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmarra"

Screengrab from “Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmarra”

I’m an Asian-American and I’m a big fan of “How I Met Your Mother.” Never has that been a more difficult position for me than this week.

For those that might be somewhat out of the loop, “How I Met Your Mother” came off its winter break with another Slap Bet-themed episode framed as an homage to the kung-fu action film. The basic plot was that Marshall wanted to slap Barney so hard that he visited three different slapping masters in order to train for the big day. In Marshall’s story, the three masters were depicted as Robin, Lily and Ted in what the internet would later refer to as “yellow face” — dressed as Asians, but actually white. Ted actually had a fu manchu mustache.

Needless to say, the internet exploded with anger and accusations of racism began, even spawning a #HowIMetYourRacism hashtag.

Before going any further, what was done in “How I Met Your Mother” was offensive. It’s really difficult to argue against that point, regardless of whether the intention was to be racist. But as someone who’s watched the show over the course of its lifetime on a regular basis, I didn’t find the general concept (General Concept *salute*) of the episode offensive. It was pretty clear to me that the episode was meant to be a riff on the classic kung-fu genre, and at the time of watching the episode, it didn’t make me actively uncomfortable. After all, the gag of “I want to slap Barney Stinson” is far funnier if the master is someone Marshall — and the viewer — actually knows, and putting Robin, Lily and Ted in the roles of the masters was the easiest way to do that.

It was unfathomable to me that Carter Bays and Craig Thomas — the creators of the series — actively meant for this episode to be offensive. (They’ve actually already apologized for the episode.) But regardless of intent, I later realized that it’s somewhat illustrative of a larger problem in the show as a whole — namely that diversity on the series wasn’t really all that existent to begin with, and it has a history of not handling Asian-Americans with anything other than stereotypes.

In its 9-season run so far, “How I Met Your Mother” has had one significant Asian-American actor on as a guest star in a non-stereotypical role: the fantastic John Cho guest starred in a single episode as Jefferson Coatsworth, the lawyer that got Marshall to work for Nicholson, Hewitt and West. It was, in fact, the one memorable Asian-American role that didn’t play on any stereotypes whatsoever.

The show has long had an uncomfortable history with its approach to Asians dating all the way back to the first season — more specifically, to the pilot.

“Hey, so you know how I’ve always had a thing for half-Asian girls? Well now I’ve got a new favorite: Lebanese girls. Lebanese girls are the new half-Asians.”

That’s a quote from womanizer Barney Stinson about two or three minutes into the pilot. Beyond a nameless Asian-American Kindergarten teacher that Lily invites over in “Okay Awesome,” there isn’t really any mention — or even notable appearance — of an Asian or Asian-American actor in the series until season 2 in “Atlantic City” when Barney encounters a number of Chinese gamblers, who speak exclusively in Chinese. The next appearance is during season 3, in “I’m Not That Guy,” when John Cho appears as Jefferson Coatsworth (I kept hoping he’d show back up because I LOVE John Cho, but alas, it was not to be).

Jason Segal as Marshall Eriksen and John Cho as Jefferson Coatsworth

Jason Segal as Marshall Eriksen and John Cho as Jefferson Coatsworth

Then, it’s another two seasons until the episode “Robin 101,” where one of Ted’s students, Shin-Ya, was “auditing” the class that Ted was teaching Barney about Robin. Shin-Ya speaks only in Japanese and Ted makes a reference to him “wrecking the curve.” Shin-Ya has glasses and dresses in a light blue button-down with a vest.

The final notable appearance of an Asian-American in the show is also in season 5: “Perfect Week” and it might be the worst of the bunch. Ted’s storyline in this episode has to do with him assuming the name “Cook Pu” is a fake name, and uncomfortably calling the student out while taking roll. One of the episode’s running gags involves most of the main characters laughing and making jokes about her name.

Of course, if we’re splitting hairs, there are a few other minor appearances, like in “The Magicians Code” during season seven, when Marshall visits an old Chinatown dry cleaner in a short flashback, or “Slapsgiving 2″ when an Asian bodega owner is “dead” to Lily, but beyond that, there’s not much else.

To be fair, this kind of thing isn’t really limited to “How I Met Your Mother.” Most American television shows don’t have Asian-American lead actors, and even when Asians do get roles in those shows, it’s limited to somewhat stereotypical roles. It’s eternally frustrating, especially given that it doesn’t necessarily represent the diversity of people who are actually watching television.

As an aside, though, shout out to long-running drama “The Mentalist” and their awesome character Agent Kimbal Cho, who is not only an integral part of the series, but a well-rounded, fully-realized character that doesn’t resort to the stereotype. Applause all around, “The Mentalist.”

And, in total fairness, Thomas and Bays’ other series, “The Goodwin Games,” actually featured an Asian-American in a leading role: April Cho, a lawyer who was starting to get some decent character development before the show got cancelled. This point is made to emphasize that I don’t believe the treatment of Asians on “How I Met Your Mother” to be intentional — but it is a massive oversight on the part of the show runners and the writing staff.

Now, I don’t profess to be an expert on what people like to see on television — I don’t even profess to be an expert on the people that watch television — but I can say that as an Asian-American viewer of “How I Met Your Mother,” I’m really quite disappointed at how one of my favorite shows on television, created by alumni of my alma mater — Wesleyan University — has handled my ethnicity, both historically and recently. How is it that all the gags involving Asians or Asian-Americans on the show are that stereotypical? It’s inexcusable.

The series is in its final season, so I realize there isn’t much that can be done to change things. Bays and Thomas have apologized, that will hopefully be the end of the matter and the series can finish its run without any more offenses. Even more importantly, I hope they can take what they’ve learned from this instance and apply it to their upcoming television projects. The duo are immensely talented, and I would hate for their other projects to suffer from the same kind of nearsighted portrayal of my ethnic group that “How I Met Your Mother” has. Step up your game, gentlemen. We expect better of you.

About Steve Sunu