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.

Where have I been? South by Southwest, Beyond the Panel, Hell Yes Happy Dogs

Hello readers! It has been a while since I rapped at ya - specifically, since January! This does not mean that I'm abandoning Deeply Problematic or any such stuff. It means I've been busy preparing lots of different things!

Most exciting of these things is my upcoming speech at South By Southwest! Longtime readers may remember pleas that y'all vote for my proposal, titled Dealing with Internet Drama in Feminist Discourse, back in August of 2010. In late January, I got the news that my panel had been accepted! And I was like, "WOOO!"

I've asked the funny, fabulous, insightful Garland Grey of Tiger Beatdown to join me for this Core Conversation, and he accepted. And so, we've been chatting up a storm, getting ready to do this thing in.... less than two weeks!

If you are attending SXSW, please shoot me an e-mail - we may be arranging a meetup for various feminist readers across the Internets. If you would like to help me out with the various expenses of the trip - SXSW isn't covering expenses beyond a badge - it would be much appreciated. I also need a new computer - I have been on a netbook for two years and I am starting to get some chronic headaches from the eyestrain of a tiny screen. Click here to donate, but, you know, no pressure.

Other news! I've published several more interviews for my Bitch series Beyond the Panel since last we spoke:
More to come from that series very soon!

If you've been missing my daily writing, you might want to check out my tumblr. I post original and pretty raw (i.e. not heavily edited) writing there just about every day. I've also started a very silly stress-relief blog, Hell Yes Happy Dogs, which is all pictures of happy dogs. Here's a sample:

[A happy white brown-spotted pitbull running in the grass! By maplegirlie]

Expect a whirlwind of posts about Parks and Rec, more on Harry Potter (if you missed it, check out my previous post on the topic), and various other things in the next two weeks!

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.
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