Watching Parks & Recreation is kind of like going to a women’s college.
Unfortunately, most men (the exception, for now, being transmen) will never get to experience the absolutely kick-ass, convention-busting, powerful support of a women’s college.
Which means men have to work way harder to bust those conventions. (They’re usually about what women vs. men should do or should want to do or are allowed to do. A lot of stuff about ambition & sexual agency, ya know).
And that way is to watch Parks & Recreation.
Are you familiar with the show? A brief explanation (yes, minor SPOILER ALERTS):
Amy Poehler’s main character, Leslie Knope, is the deputy director of the Parks & Recreation dept. of a small town in Indiana – and also the town’s first-ever city councilwoman (beginning in season 5). She eats waffles constantly & reads political biographies; she has photos of Madeleine Albright, Barbara Boxer, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton & more lining her walls. Her mustachioed boss (Ron Swanson) is a libertarian who works for local government. Her best friend is a nurse, her husband is a campaign strategist/accountant/financial adviser, and she only needs to sleep about 4 hours a night.
“Well what makes the show so like a women’s college?”
Well, first off, the main character is a woman, and she’s in a position of power.
But more importantly: it’s No Big Deal. It just seems natural and obvious because, duh, she’s extremely motivated and endearing and talented and brings a ton of energy to her work. So it’s only right that she can carry a show by herself and excel at her bitchin’ job.
So, the show has a strong female lead (who is a politician). That’s obviously media-paradigm-breaking feminism, but it’s the quieter, more subversive feminist elements that make this show shine.
I think that the real game-changers in the feminism of this show are the men.
Yep, the men.
Let’s start with Leslie’s assistant, Tom Haverford.
Tom (played by Aziz Ansari) is unapologetically metrosexual. He’s famous among the characters for his Bumble & Bumble hair care products, his cheese plates, his chenille throws, his cashmere sweaters, his fear of grass stains on his summer linens, and his sweet sweet mixed drinks.
And while he might be a critique of the extremes of consumer society…
… The characters on the show do not emasculate him. He may be annoying, but it’s because he’s a hyperconsumer, not because he’s a man who acts like a woman. And thereby an opportunity to mark traditionally feminine behaviors as annoying, embarrassing, and inferior to traditionally male behaviors is skipped.
And, honestly, I get the impression that if a character did try to make Tom feel inferior by using derogatory female insults… he probably wouldn’t care. He likes how he lives his life and the fact that lots of women enjoy it too wouldn’t ever make him consider rejecting it.
Proceed on to Jerry Gergich.
Jerry’s both a schlemiel and schlemazel on the show. But one of the show’s big paradoxes is that his wife and daughters are smokin’ hot. His wife is played by Christie Brinkley, actually.
When the show’s very fit, very enthusiastic, very positive Chris Traeger (played to the hilt by Rob Lowe) starts dating Jerry’s lithe blonde daughter Millicent (basically the cliché of the tempting young thing in need of protection from… well… temptation), he offers to keep Jerry apprised of their goings-on and to keep everything PG for a while.
Jerry, instead of being the blustering, protective father who is enraged by the idea of his daughter as a sexual being, firmly declines Chris’s offer.
“Millie’s a grown woman,” he says, and he trusts her to date whoever she wants and do whatever she wants. It’s really none of his business, he says.
Thank you, sir – can I have another?
Seriously, I wish more TV dads were like this. (And more real dads).
Jerry doesn’t for one second think that he has anything to do with his daughter’s sex life, nor that she should be expected to desire or do anything different from what Chris desires and does.
Right on, Señor Gergich. Right on.
Andy is a goofball, who may veer into the Doofy Husbands Trope, however something about his character makes me feel like he evades that cliché. My best guess why? His doofyness comes from not taking himself seriously; not from failing to perform basic tasks and incurring the eye-rolling of a much-put-upon wife.
He isn’t ashamed to be excited and enthusiastic about anything, and while it’s played up for comedic effect, it’s never scorned. (It’s also part of a great dichotomy when paired with his surly, cynical wife, April).
For Andy, it would never occur to him to believe in or even absorb stereotypes.
He’s got the innocence of a child, but shows viewers how you can still be an adult… and somehow still have a child-like lack of jerkiness.
Plus, he takes a women’s studies class at the community college and LOVES it. And again, it’s really No Big Deal. It’s just an awesome class and he thinks his professor rocks and he’s just so excited about the cool women they’re studying because he is equally excited about everyone.
And finally, the cherry on top of our character cake: the ineffable Ron Swanson.
Nick Offerman’s mustachioed character is a complex and paradoxical man. He’s often viewed as a traditional Man’s Man – he’s a carpenter; lives in a cabin; consumes only steak, bacon, eggs, and whiskey; hates “feelings talk”; and is constantly annoyed by Leslie’s enthusiasm and verve for government work. (He’s “a staunch libertarian,” you see).
But his sometime distaste for Leslie’s political beliefs never crosses into a disrespect for her as a person.
He never suggests that she has less of a right to disagree with him because she’s a woman, and his “traditional” political ideas never bleed into support for traditional gender roles.
In one episode, Andy tells his women’s studies prof that Ron is a feminist role model for him. Ron notes, “I don’t really consider myself an anything -ist, but my life has been shaped by strong women.”
(While generally denials of being a feminist induce eye-rolling from me because “feminism” shouldn’t be a dirty word, this makes perfect sense in the context of Ron’s no-nonsense, secretive, allegiance-shirking, libertarian ways).
And, to seal the deal, he even starts dating sexy, powerful, no-nonsense Diane in season 5 – played by none other than Lucy Lawless, a.k.a. XENA, WARRIOR PRINCESS.
The choice to have Xena play the role of Ron’s significant other was no coincidence, I am sure. It’s an obvious nod to the fact that Ron respects, and indeed is only attracted to, strong and powerful women, and has absolutely no compunctions about it.
The ferocity of and power wielded by his two ex-wives (Tammy I, a brilliantly brutal IRS auditor, and Tammy II, a sexually ravenous and manipulative librarian) only underscores this fact. While it’s clear that they’re crazy b****es, they didn’t gain b**** status because they lost their ladylike politeness/demureness/goodness when they took on these traditionally masculine traits of ambition and power.
No one’s got a problem with them being so power-hungry. Rather, they’re b****es because they literally try to ruin Ron’s life and steal the gold he has buried around his property. Not an exclusively feminine trait.
I’ll throw a nod in here to Ben Wyatt, Leslie’s admirable husband, for while I think his character’s deep vein of geekiness is an untapped opportunity to make a commentary on female geek culture, he at the very least constantly shows that his wife’s ambition is pretty much the sexiest thing about her. His character’s political and career redemption is only achieved through her political and career achievements, and later he is the one who takes a step back from his career to support hers.
• • •
OK, so did you notice a lot of negative words in those feminist bios?
A lot of “isn’t” and “no big deal” or “don’t”?
Well, that’s kind of the point.
We could be watching a show that’s constantly, directly discussing feminism and women’s empowerment and undermining traditional gender roles…
But we’re not.
Instead, we’re watching a show that simply doesn’t have misogyny in it.
And what are you left with when you simply don’t include misogyny?
You’ve only got feminist ideas.
So you don’t have to make a big deal about it. It’s just there. It fills the vacuum left by douchey guys and sexist jokes and clichéd women’s storylines with a laid-back, authentic, subtly empowering story that just happens to be feminist.
And that brings me back to my point about P&R being like a women’s college.
Women’s colleges are not a place to foster hatred of men or put them down or constantly duke it out with misogynistic ideas. They’re simply places where misogyny is largely absent. (This does not mean that all men bring misogyny with them, but it’s a lot harder for it to sneak in when it props up no one within the student body).
And when it’s absent, it becomes natural to not second-guess yourself or other women, to not avoid taking on leadership roles, to not compare yourself to gender stereotypes.
That’s what Parks & Rec does. It doesn’t have to make a big deal of actively doing or saying feminist stuff. They just make a point to not do or say un-feminist stuff.
That’s what feminism actually is – the absence of misogyny.
(Rather than the presence of bra-burning, or whatever other stereotype is popular today).
So, thank you Parks & Rec. Thank you, Amy Poehler. Thank you, Ron and Jerry and Tom and Andy and Ben and Chris.
Keep up the good work, and stay cool.