You guys, I totally love Parks and Recreation. Like, to a ridiculous degree. Please indulge me while I tell you why.
Warning: There may be some spoilers. But spoilers can enhance the story-telling process, so get over it.
I know I’m not the first enamored by the charms of Leslie Knope and her Pawnee Parks Department cohorts. I mean, come on, there’s a lot to love. Leslie is a doofy, bum-kicking government employee who just wants to do what’s best for her town. I want to be her when I grow up. And it’s always good to see ladies on television who can be silly, principled and successful, and not always the butt of the joke or the screeching harpy.
But the episode “Pawnee Rangers” in particular left me smiling like a goofy feminist (or like the anti-feminist if you believe the stereotypes). In that episode, we follow the Pawnee Rangers and the Pawnee Goddesses on a camping trip. Leslie tells us that the Pawnee Goddesses only exist because girls were not allowed to join the Pawnee Rangers.
Leslie, in her typical fashion, has created the most awesome camping retreat ever, with lots of candy, arts and crafts, and pillow fights. Ron, who is in charge of the Pawnee Rangers, planned a typical Swanson campout: lukewarm beans, a campfire, and a competition to see who can make a shelter out of a cardboard box and a plastic tarp.
Needless to say, the boys were having no fun while at the same time watching the girls have all the fun in the world. One brave boy wanders over to the Goddesses’ cabin and asks if he can join. Leslie says no, boys aren’t allowed.
Sound familiar? It did to the Pawnee Goddesses, who called out Leslie on her behavior. What is the difference, they ask, between the Pawnee Rangers refusing to admit girls and the Pawnee Goddesses refusing to admit boys? They propose to answer the question by having a public forum. (Damn, Leslie is good.)
Long story short, all the boys join the Pawnee Goddesses, and Ron is left wondering when boys started being interested in “fun.” We’re left with scenes of the kids fishing and racing boats. Things kids – not boys or girls, but kids – like to do.
But Ron is not the loser in this, because when they return from the camping trip, Ron finds a group of kids in his office. Leslie had advertised a club for kids who wanted to learn how to survive in the wild and who think “video games are pointless and shopping malls are stupid.” This attracts and equal number of boys and girls. Because everyone has their own interests that gender doesn’t define.
Meanwhile, back at the Parks Department, Tom and Donna are having their annual “Treat Yo’ Self” day, where they go to the spa and buy very expensive things for themselves. Donna notices that Ben is a bit…cranky, so she and Tom decide that Ben needs to learn to relax with them. Tom buys a cashmere outfit; Ben buys socks. Ben isn’t very good at treating himself. But Tom and Donna push Ben to think of one thing he would buy himself if money and good sense were no objects.
Cut to Ben in a terrifying Batman costume. Also? Ben starts to cry, which freaks everyone out. Ben then tells Donna and Tom that he just had to break up with someone (Leslie, for those out of the loop), and that’s why he’s been acting so weird. Tom suggests that, on Treat Yo’ Self day, Ben should treat himself to a good cry.
This episode is amazing, because it takes on – both explicitly and implicitly – gender essentialism. The Pawnee Rangers and Goddesses made that almost explicit. When faced with the choice of eating lukewarm beans by a small fire or eat candy and play games…well, what would you pick? The boys in the Pawnee Rangers didn’t want to build a shelter out of a cardboard box or dig a trench. They are kids. They wanted to play. Many of the Pawnee Goddesses recognized this. If the boys were interested in what they were doing, they should be allowed to join. This was ultimately the lesson Ron learned, as well. Some girls like to dig trenches, and that’s OK, too.
What is less explicit is the Tom-Donna-Ben side story. It’s still not very socially acceptable for men to cry in public. It just isn’t, especially in middle America where the show is set. Sure, Ben is a huge nerd, which in our culture is a bit emasculating. (Although, as Girl Who Loves Nerds, it pains me to say it.) But – and this may just be me – the terrifying Batman costume sort of re-masculated Ben. The juxtaposition of Ben in a Batman costume while he cries was striking to me. Up to this point he had been strong. Leslie had to follow her dream of running for office. She couldn’t been seen to have gotten to where she is by sleeping with her boss. There was no other option. Usually, it’s the man’s “job” to just get on with things and not let their emotions weigh them down. But here, the roles reversed. Leslie is hurting, but is getting on with her life. Ben is the one who has let his emotions get the better of him in his professional life. But Ben isn’t the weak, feminized male that right-wingers are always warning against. He’s just going through some stuff, and everyone needs an outlet.
This was an episode for the men, and how feminism can make their lives more full and meaningful. Women have made great strides in proving that it is acceptable to be doctors and lawyers and get Ph.D.s and be police officers. Men, in many ways, are still very much prisoners of traditional masculinity. Be the protector, be the breadwinner, don’t show weakness, don’t express your feelings. Just look at the spate of suicides in the youth LGBT community. Lots of boys and young men are being bullied, not because they are gay, but because they seem to be gay. In other words, they don’t fit in the traditional masculine mold.
The world doesn’t end every time someone forges his or her own path. Last night’s episode of Parks and Rec demonstrated that perfectly. What does happen? Kids have fun, and grown men can mourn the loss of someone important to them. (Although I swear to gawd if Leslie and Ben don’t get back together by the end of this season I will freak out. Freak. Out.)
Or maybe I watch way too much TV and am way over-thinking it. That’s possible, too.
A version of this post is cross posted on Citizen of the World.