Sunday, February 27, 2011

Stalking is Hilarious on Parks and Recreation


One of many qualities I love about Parks and Recreation is its complete lack of rape jokes. It's a safe space from the kinds of quips about sexual assault that pepper other favorites of mine, 30 Rock and The Office. Though Aziz Ansari has been known to tell a rape joke or two in his solo act, Tom Haverford's sleaziness is mostly benign. Sex is not made into a big production, and consensuality is an assumed responsibility of all the characters.

But not all of performances of romance on Parks and Rec are consensual; a major second-season plotline showed Andy Dwyer intruding on Ann Perkins in deeply personal and problematic ways. Andy's stalking, harassment, and unwelcome attention directed at an ex are not taken seriously, as a thing that hurts people, particularly women. After Ann dumped him and kicked him out of her house for taking advantage of her, he did not find another place to live and respect her distance. No, he persisted in bugging and (by some definitions) stalking her: living outside her house in a pit, showing up naked at her house, and harassing her and her new boyfriend.

I hate to write this, because I love Andy. I think that Chris Pratt may actually be the funniest person on the show; his line readings and facial expressions never fail to crack me up. He is generally a very sweet and well-meaning character, and I like that someone who is explicitly not traditionally smart is shown to be of great value. I love the growth of consideration in his character. I love him and April. I just love him.*
*I did not love the cissexist gag with him in the first episode of this season, but I will talk about that a little later.
But I do not love the way that he treats Ann and her new boyfriend Mark after she dumps him, nor do I love the way that the show frames his actions as cute, affectionate, and distinctly nonthreatening. Andy's continued harassment and monitoring of Ann is not violent, but a big man following someone around and refusing to leave a former partner in peace carries the baggage of domestic violence; just because Andy is a "nice guy" does not mean that he cannot be violent. This refusal to take Andy's creepy and unwanted attention as a seriously flawed pattern of entitled behavior that goes beyond his goofy, ditzy personality reflects a cultural desire to re-frame a scary and dangerous pattern of behavior disproportionately targeted at women as an affectionate and romantic way of showing concern.

Stalking and other harassment through unwanted contact is not a joke only in Parks and Rec; indeed, stalking is rarely taken as seriously as it actually is. Stalking is actually a criminal offense that describes a campaign of fear, of forced unwanted contact or constant watching of someone's activities. It is a very real violation of a person's sense of safety and privacy, and it happens to at least eight percent of all women in the US - but it's vastly underreported. It is not a cute thing to do, and it is not something that everyone participates in, but you wouldn't know that from stalking behavior's defanging in online culture and romanticizing in popular media from Say Anything to Twilight. This form of abuse is, like many other, framed as either anonymous online attention or uptight bitches rejecting the honest appreciation of men.

Ann's concerns about Andy are frequently delegitimized. In the episode "Beauty Pageant", where Ann discovers Andy's home in the pit right outside her house* with her new boyfriend Mark Brandanowitz, he not only laughs it off, he informs her that he invaded her privacy by peeking in her medicine cabinet, and then pressures her to invite Andy into her home to share dinner. This is framed as Mark showing compassion for Andy rather than completely disregarding Ann's feelings, and it's typical of the tone of that arc; another episode, Kaboom, features Andy misunderstanding a text from Ann and showing up naked at her house - because flashing unfriendly ex-girlfriends is totally charming and harmless.
*This storyline also has some classism issues, given that homelessness is treated as a joke.
Andy's harassment of Ann continues after he moves out of the pit and gets a job at City Hall, and coincides with Tom Haverford's ongoing and frequently rejected advances. Andy begins to pester not just Ann but her new boyfriend Mark in an obnoxious fashion; trying to "trick" her into dating him by winning a game of pool against Mark or to humiliate him by mentioning STI medication that he pretends Mark requested from the shoeshine stand (absurd but also ableist). Eventually, after a few talking-tos from Mark, he desists and refocuses his attention on April, whom he has treated with a great deal of respect and deference. Only when a man becomes involved in and begins protesting this unwanted attention does Andy stop; he sees no reason to desist in harassing Ann before Mark steps in. Ann, the target of this unwanted attention, goes completely unheard by her friends unless she is backed up by a man. She even responds to his advances belatedly, kissing him at the end of the season. In this way, Parks and Rec validates his unwanted attention and makes it seem like it was actually wanted after all.

The show is not exactly endorsing Andy's actions; by my standards of critical humor, some instances of this pass. Mark occasionally recognizes his actions as bad, but they are only bad insofar as they are an annoyance to him. Ann's reactions to Andy, though, are never validated; they are framed as unreasonable or ignored by characters who are not Andy. Occasionally Leslie expresses shock or mild concern, but being a rather self-centered character, Ms. Knope usually then turns the conversation back to herself - she doesn't really hear Ann's concerns when she hires Andy for a dinner party. Other jokes make it clear that Andy is being a doofus, thought they do not meet my critical standards linked above; in "Beauty Pageant", he says that "there's all kind of creepy people in this neighborhood"; though his action is not reinforced by others as uncool, it's still a tacit recognition of his unsavory behavior.

However, I don't find mild and barely-expressed disapproval to be quite enough in this case. This joke runs throughout most of the (stellar) second season, and it is almost never taken seriously. When Leslie Knope engages in her own creepy and intrusive behavior by photographing and surveilling Mark and Ann on a date, she comes close to facing criminal charges, and she never does it again. But unlike Leslie, Andy never faces any kind of real critique or danger because of his actions. No one calls him out other than Ann, and no one backs her up when she calls him out.

No, Andy's entitled attitude towards Ann is worse than Parks and Rec wants it to be. His pattern of behavior reaffirms the often-romanticized image of a nice guy as one who doesn't respect clearly set boundaries; Andy's stalking is seen as affection rather than menace, as stupidity rather than disrespect. It's shown as annoying and silly and goofy, and that does not reflect Andy's serious violations against a woman he professes to care about. It's not rape, but it's part of the conditioning that creates rape culture - it suggests that women should see continued harassment and monitoring from ex-lovers as romantic rather than threatening, and that these actions are nothing to get really concerned about.

One or two of these jokes would not have phased me much, particularly given my liking for Andy. I would take it as more reflective of his benign and adolescent inconsideration than a reflection of how society frames unwanted contact from former romantic partners. As individual jokes, they suggest the growth of a stunted man stumbling on his way to some form of maturity. But taken as a pattern of unwelcome behavior that strongly resembles stalking, it looks like a man threatening his ex-lover to achieve that growth. Andy's behavior is not precisely evil, but the show's affectionate attitude towards the unwanted contact he forces on Ann and its framing of his behavior as endearing seems entirely too light an approach to a subject as fearsome, cruel and misogynist in practice as stalking.

I am thankful that Parks and Recreation has left this story behind in its third season, and I hope that this framing does not return. But this will always be a stain on Andy's character for me: a reminder that the nicest of guys can turn menacing on a dime, and a sign that even my favorite shows will trivialize serious issues and participate in a culture that denies women agency and privacy.

4 comments:

  1. I was a "Nice Guy" as a teenager-- as warped as it is, I really believed that my feelings entitled me to affection from a specific person, regardless of how he felt. I thought I was the victim, that I was the noble unrequited lover and the object of my affection was just being cruel and heartless. It didn't help that my fucked-up viewpoint was reinforced by everything from modern pop culture to 400-year-old songs (seriously, read the lyrics to some English madrigals). The idea of "I want you; therefore you owe me love" is so ridiculous yet so commonplace. I know several young people (including my teenage self, if I had a time-travelling fax machine) who could benefit from reading this article as well as the geekfeminism article you linked to.

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  2. Thanks for sending me back to watch these episodes again.

    I'm not sure what I think. The show clearly doesn't approve. Nor do I think they play it up very much as cute (we're not really rooting for them to get back together at any point). But maybe you're right that they don't take it seriously enough. It is interesting that they drop that plotline when they start to make Andy likeable (for his TRULY adorable romance with April).

    I felt more uncomfortable with the way Louis CK's character found Leslie Knope's stalking endearing.

    One aspect you didn't touch on was her stalking of Pikitis. What do you think of that? bothersome? or perhaps a number of factors make it less troubling (the law-and-order element as opposed to romance, the way the show frames it as absurd and inappropriate)

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  3. Where you at? Please post, I miss your wisdom! :)

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  4. Thank-you for writing this. When I was in high-school, my female classmates and I were scorned and ridiculed by our peers for appearing even slightly annoyed at unwanted attention and remarks that crossed the line. We were encouraged to see this attention as sweet/funny, whether or not it embarrassed us or made us uncomfortable. Our own subjective feelings were never taken into account. "Crossing the line" was defined by objective criteria that had nothing to do with our voiced discomfort, unease, and fear.

    The behaviours listed in this article play into the same myths I was fed in school. I'm also disappointed that Ann's objections to andy's advances were depicted as comical frustration and overreaction.

    That being said, Parks and Rec is my favourite television show. I cannot stress how truly refreshing it is to to see a series pass the Bechdel test, episode after episode. The things I love about Parks and Recreation far outweigh the things I hate, and make transgressions a little easier to forgive (but not ignore/forget/).

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