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Knope, We Totally Can!

I should never, ever be allowed to title things.

As an almost pathologically non-confrontational person, my first instinct is to preface this post with apologies and "No, I'm not a hater!" while waving my fandom cred card (which, sadly, is still in the mail).

But going through that spiel would distract from the real points that I’m trying to make and possibly take the conversation in a direction I have no interest in. It also assumes that the Parks & Recreation fandom is full of mean people, which has not been my experience so far. (Y'all are full of love, and I love you for it.)

So instead, I am going to direct those who are unfamiliar (or simply curious) about social justice issues to this article and this video.

I’ll just chill out here while you read/watch and, when you’re ready, I’ll tell you where I think Parks & Recreation is seriously dropping the ball on being progressive tv.

Let's start with something that's been really bugging me recently.

Donna Meagle

The way Donna is written makes me deeply uncomfortable. She embodies a lot of stereotypes about African-American women: she is loud, sarcastic, overweight, very gaudy in her personal style, materialistic, and promiscuous.

This in and of itself is not necessarily problematic. There is nothing wrong with being loud, sarcastic, sexually active or overweight, and nothing inherently dehumanizing about portraying someone as in love with their possessions and with a passion for fake fur and rhinestones. And it is kind of empowering to see an overweight woman whose sexual desires are not the butt of a joke. (I'm still not comfortable with the portrayal of her sexuality, as she seems to buy into the transactional model of sex, but it is interesting to see that model reversed, so that women are the buyers and men are the sellers.) Retta is also a fabulous comedian and kills it with her lines.

But you can only get away with having a character live up to their stereotypes if you treat them like a character, and Donna is not a character. Donna is a convenient tool for the writers. If things are getting a little schmaltzy, her zingers set things right. If someone needs a reality check, her take-no-crap attitude puts them in their place. And if somebody needs a mentor, she's there. She helps Ben out of his rut when he and Leslie are broken up. She helps Ann navigate the dating scene after Chris. Her role in Parks & Recreation is to help out the white people and be funny while doing it.

Donna is not treated like a character. Not only is she the only character to not be shown in some kind of romantic relationship (which would be fine if she was asexual or aromantic), but she is the only character to not have a story that's about her. Even Jerry had the fake mugging storyline, a plot that was triggered by a decision that he made, that forced other characters to re-evaluate their relationship with him, and that ended with a choice of his own. In the Jean-Ralphio/Snakehole storyline, she was the punchline to Tom's story. And the fabulous "Treat Yo' Self" storyline wasn't about her and Tom and their friendship - it was all about Ben and making him feel better. Her plots get appropriated, and there isn't even the joking acknowledgment that Jerry got in the Leslie's painting plot.

Jerry: Should I come in? It's my painting.
Leslie: Shut up, Jerry, it's not your fight.

Neither Donna nor Jerry are contracted as cast regulars, so of course she wouldn't get the plot attention that Leslie or even April gets. But she ought to at least get the plot attention that is given Jerry. And when your show features only two characters of color to begin with, making one of them such a non-character troubles me. P&R has taken some jabs at racism, with Ken Hotate and especially with Tom's greencard marriage and "I'm from South Carolina". But those jabs are undermined when you have an underlying structure that is racist.

Speaking of which…

The Great White Feminism

One of Parks & Recreation's selling points is its unabashed feminism. People point to Leslie Knope, who is a proud feminist and whose feminism isn't made a joke, and to episodes like the hunting trip, where Leslie undermines sexist assumptions about women by trying to use them to get out of trouble. This is all true and I love the show for it.

But its feminism is very Second Wave, aka white, middle-class, heterosexual, and cisgendered. It focuses on workplace issues and "women can be just as good as men!" It's sad that these issues are still relevant, 50 years after the Second Wave first tackled them, but it is extremely disconnected from the issues that are or ought to be at the heart of today's movement: Rape culture. Reproductive health. Poverty and single-parent families. The fact that women of color make even less on the white man's dollar than white women do. The discrimination that trans women face because the bulk of society cannot comprehend why a man would "choose" to be feminine because masculinity is clearly superior.

Yes, these are dark issues. No, except for a few possible ideas, I don't know how a show like Parks & Recreation would address them or even if it should. But I feel like there needs to be some kind of acknowledgement that its feminism, while sadly audacious for a sitcom, is extremely limited in its scope.

One other thing that really, seriously bothers me about Parks & Recreation's feminism is the "Chris' stupid rule" plot. The concern that is brought up over and over again, and the given justification for "Chris' rule", is that it would look like Leslie was using sex to get benefits from her department.


Yes, it is entirely possible that women will, outside of literal prostitution, use sex just to get things. But you know what else is not only possible, and far more common? Bosses using their power to coerce sex. See Bill Clinton. See Herman Cain. Whether it's "Oh, you want something? Have sex with me and you'll get it" or "If you want to keep your job, you'll have sex with me", employer/employee affairs are problematic because of that disparity in power. And not once does the show address it. I can understand why Leslie and Ben think it's a stupid rule, because they are only nominally boss/employee and their feelings are true, but at every possible juncture, the very structure of the show makes it seem like that rule is in place to protect Ben when, really, it's to protect Leslie.

What especially aggravates me about this is that they could have put in that acknowledgement, and taken another jab at sexism, without changing the structure of the show that much. They could still have put Leslie on trial, and she could have brought up the fact that it is INCREDIBLY unfair of them to assume that she, the subordinate, is the predator and not Ben, the superior. It would not have been that hard.

I've also noticed a lot of people saying that Ben would have been in more trouble, because he was the superior. But no, not really. Many, many people who abuse their power for sex get away with it. Bill Clinton got away with it for years, and he was forced to face the consequences not because his actions were wrong, but because a Republican Congress wanted to take down the Democratic president and Monica Lewinski's so-called friend wanted to sell a book. Herman Cain's actions were hushed up with settlement money and he continued on without any consequences until he made a bid for the presidency. It is very, very hard to hold people with power accountable for their actions. Even within the context of the show, just look at Councilman Dexhart. Despite his continuous and unapologetic sexual misconduct, the only consequence he has ever faced is a week or so of gossip. In a fair world, yes, Ben would be held to greater accountability because of his greater power, but that's not how the real world works and it's not how Pawnee works either.

Gary Gergich

Gary. Gary Gary Gary. The only reason that the show's treatment of Gary doesn't make me physically ill is because he's said to the camera: "Fuck them. I'm retiring in a year." (Yes, I'm paraphrasing). Bullying is not funny. Yes, even bullying against middle-class white men.

And yes, it is bullying. Gary has done nothing to deserve being blamed for everything, having his every little mistake and fumble mocked. He is consistently treated like the office's punching bag, and while sometimes it's witty, after the laughing is over I feel dirty.

It would be one thing if it was just Tom, and Ron was playing parent like he did in the Harvest Festival. But it is every single person in that office picking on him. EVEN LESLIE, which really makes me sad because in all other respects she's shown to be so open-hearted and caring and forgiving and loving (except of librarians, but, honestly, Pawnee librarians had it coming). It doesn't make sense to me that she could be so damn mean.

It also ties into the Second Wave Feminist issue, because the Second Wave of feminism never talked about how how sexism affects men, particularly men who do not perform masculinity to society's satisfaction. Gary is one of those guys. Every other man in the show performs masculinity in a socially acceptable way - Ron is macho; Tom is a player; Andy is a manchild; Ben is a nerd; Chris is a smooth talker. But Gary doesn't. He is neither queer nor trans, but he presents certain characteristics that are traditionally considered feminine. He is passive and mostly non-confrontational (see: letting people call him "Jerry" for years because it didn't seem worth rocking the boat). He doesn't want to take charge. He is emotional, creative, and artistic, and these qualities of his are consistently devalued (see: his brilliant mural. see: his painting that Leslie chucked into the lake when the government opened for business again). He is not explicitly mocked for being feminine, but the structure of the show implicitly mocks his failure to adequately perform masculinity.

News flash: Misogyny hurts men too. So long as being feminine is treated as an undesirable thing, men who seem even remotely feminine will be thrown under the bus. This is one of the many reasons why the very concept of a patriarchy is flawed. The privileges and disadvantages of being male and female are not clean-cut, unilateral. (Nor, indeed, is the concept of gender itself, but that's a whole different discussion.)

I'm going to link Jay Smooth again because I don't say this to tear the show down or make people feel bad. I think the writers are brilliant and that the cast & crew could tackle these issues with wit and heart. That's why I say this - because I believe in them so strongly, and I would really, really love to see what they could do with this.