Monday, February 28, 2011

Why I Expect More from Parks and Recreation

As much as I love television (and you know I love me some television), I don't often push shows on my friends. I'll casually recommend an episode of 30 Rock or a show like Party Down, but I don't mention it again. I'll make a Hank Hill or "that's what she said" joke, but I won't make them all the time. People have different tastes, and I can't make them like something, right?

But I tried to make all my friends like Parks and Recreation.The closer of my friends, I conned into coming over to my house and watching several season two episodes on Netflix. The rest of them got spammed on their facebook feed. One quote or another is always my GChat status (currently: "It's your basic dogs playing poker, with an everything's on fire theme"). And my dear fiance's begrudging acceptance of it as pre-bed or during-dinner watching eventually turned him into a somewhat enthusiastic fan.

I'm a Greg Daniels nerd - two of my other very favorite shows are The Office and King of the Hill - so it's natural that I would get real enthusiastic about his most pro-woman creation. And what's more, I can actually like it from a feminist perspective, which is quite rare for me. Almost every show I like is in spite of its political implications, including the occasionally socially insightful shows cited above. But Parks and Recreation is awesome. I love all the characters and the relatively diverse cast. There are few jokes predicated on the marginalization of people (though there are definitely some).

And best of all, there's Leslie Knope. Knope is someone I actually like, rather than tolerate, guiltily identify with, or laugh at. She is funny, and she's good, and she's many of the things I am at my best: competent, hard-working, respectful. She's a big feminist, too, and it's framed not as a flaw on her part, but as a part of her enthusiasm for herself and others. Sady Doyle articulated this better back in April of 2010 at Feministe:
You [Leslie Knope] have only the most cursory understanding of what “feminism” means. It’s “feminist,” for example, for ladies to do well in politics, and so in your office you have several inspirational pictures of female politicians, selected with no regard for their actual politics whatsoever. Clinton, Condoleeza Rice. Madeline Albright, Margaret Thatcher. I could probably find a Palin picture in there somewhere, if I had TiVo and HD. You just love ladies! You just want them to do well! That’s “feminist,” right?
And yet, although you have no understanding of the theory, your practice is continually good. You are the girl who can’t fake it: You see the entire world as an intrinsically fair place, where people who do well are rewarded, and so you just continually act out of this understanding that everyone is a person deserving of respect, and you should try really hard and be really nice, and then you will of course become President, because that is how things work, in this just and moral universe we live in. Even though everything and everyone continually informs you this is not the case, AT ALL, you keep acting on principle and only on principle, because that is who you are.
Leslie Knope, and the rest of the characters on the show, are good people who despite their various privileges try their best not to hurt people, except for Jerry. They try, for the most part, to treat people with respect and care, except for Jerry. They make mistakes and need to apologize sometimes, even to Jerry. It's a show I can watch where people won't make lots of jokes about rape, or make a lot of jokes at the expense of people with disabilities. Parks and Recreation is, in short, something of a safe space for me.

But despite this honest faith effort to not hurt people with their comedy, the writers, producers, and performers still have some major ongoing issues that I begin to notice after the nth time rewatching the amazing second season on Netflix. Stalking is a humorous plotline, a sign of affection rather than a threat. Heterosexuality is a norm that goes mostly unchallenged. Fatness is depicted as unhealthy and gross. Cissexism and essentialism are often present as punchlines. Knope frequently trumpets her feminism through slut-shaming whorephobia shaming of sex workers (edited for a more specific and non-ableist term), and the show presents this uncritically. These are just the major threads that I've been able to articulate; there are also issues with racism, sexism, and other branches of the kyriarchy.

Upholding social injustice shouldn't be surprising from a show that revolves around the functioning of a branch of government. Government is generally about upholding existing systems of power; while the Pawnee parks department involves some deviation from norms, they uphold them just as frequently. But I trust Parks and Rec. I trust Leslie Knope. I engage critically with things I love - that's how I express my appreciation for it as a story and as a piece of comedy. And so, I will speak my truth of the flaws of this show even as I continue to be a huge freaking fan. I expect more and hold them to a higher standard.

But I wanted to take a moment to explain my deep love of the show the show. Because if there's one thing I've learned about writing about television on the internet, if you say one thing or another's not funny, people will take that to mean you hate everything about the show and erase all the awesome things you've said about it. And I want to be able to point out how much I really love it, because, as I've already said like five times already, it's basically my favorite show ever.


  1. I love this show too! And I see what you mean, although I thought that April's poly relationship with a boy who was in a relationship with another boy--even though it was supposed to be humorous and could be seen as problematic in it's handling-- was also kind of awesome and LGBT (and poly!) accepting. I know you said heterosexuality goes MOSTLY unchallenged, and it does. April's hetero/mono relationship now is less awesome. But that was kind of a shining moment for me in television history.

    On the other hand...
    I do sort of get upset at their blatantly anti-librarian agenda though.

  2. I had a different view on that relationship, but I can definitely see where you're coming from! If you're looking for kinda-poly relationships, there is a kind of poly arrangement on the first six seasons of King of the Hill - secondary character Nancy Hicks-Gribble has a long term relationship with another man (even has a child with him) that her husband may or may not know about. Not perfect, not even particularly positive, but it's there in more dimensions than just "nasty slut/cheater".

    And yes about the libraries. At least Ann is pro-library?


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