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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: PARKS AND RECREATION, A Feminist Utopia

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: PARKS AND RECREATION, A Feminist Utopia

At the end of the penultimate season of Parks and Recreation, our heroine Leslie Knope gets everything—the
man, the kids, the high profile job. She even manages to move her new position right smack into the middle of her beloved hometown Pawnee.
Though the finale of the most recent season was wrapped up in a very pretty bow, it still felt genuinely satisfying, as well as genuinely
subversive. In a world where the T.V. show Girls
portrays sex and romance as empty and unsatisfying for its female leads, and
heroines in shows from Game of Thrones
to American Horror Story navigate a
landscape where sexism is rampant and men are often depicted as deeply
misogynistic, Leslie Knope’s triumphant success felt like a kind of joyful
respite and relief from a terrifying and cruel world.

One of the reasons Parks
and Recreation
has succeeded as a feminist T.V. show is not simply because
the female characters have remained funny, dynamic, ambitious, unique and
interesting, but also because the show succeeds at presenting male characters
that are equal parts strong, vulnerable, silly and staunch advocates for the
rights and successes of female characters throughout the series. Male and
female characters in Parks and Recreation
actively root for one another, rather than tearing each other down. Ben and
Lesley’s marriage is a model of egalitarianism; April and Andy’s young, silly
love is presented as a string of silly, ridiculous games and make out parties,
with each character deeply invested in helping the other grow. Even Ron
Swanson, staunch individualist and rugged he-man, is distinguished throughout
the series by his commitment to women’s rights. By the end of the series he is
a proud dad and loving husband, all without having to give up his signature “strong
silent type” brand of masculinity. Ron’s appreciation of feminism doesn’t
diminish his hatred of vegans, or devotion to woodworking—it simply makes him a
much more interesting and funny character.

Many of the current debates about female representation
onscreen are about granting female protagonists access to male spaces. We saw
this in the 80s and 90s when there was a proliferation of women as warrior
motifs from Xena the Warrior Princess
to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Recently, a slew of articles have called for women to have access to the joys
and pitfalls of the antihero world as well, as we praise the glorious brutality
of Orange is the New Black’s character
Vee and go to theaters in droves to see the icy villainy of Gone Girl. 

Heroines today are more diverse and complex than ever
before, yet few serious dramas that feature a cast of strong female characters
showcase romantic relationships that are genuinely egalitarian, the way we see
romance unfold in Parks and Recreation.
Often, female protagonists who are strong and willful are presented as
rejecting male romantic interest. In modern Disney Princess films like Brave, the heroine often makes a big
deal about not needing a man or romantic partner. In some films, like The Hunger Games, the romantic scripts
are flipped and male romantic interests are portrayed as doting, helpful and encouraging
mates. In truth, while many
cluck their tongues
at the unhealthy dynamics presented in teen romances
like Twilight, and their adult
equivalents Fifty Shades of Grey, one
of the pleasures of both these series is the positioning of boys and men as
being the objects of desire, even if the female protagonists within these
worlds aren’t particularly interesting in and of themselves.

The suggestion that strong female characters are the sole
hallmarks of feminist media may simply not be setting the bar high enough. In
order to really dismantle the patriarchy we need to see more varied
presentations of men. This is not to say that we should do away with the
douchey bros, bullies and alpha assholes that have become a mainstay in popular
media. Complex villains are fascinating, but excellent dramas like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, American Horror
Story
and The Walking Dead too
often pit men and women against each other, as if one gender’s success is
another’s loss.

The great T.V. dramas of today are about creating immersive
fantasies where we are transported to different times, places and worlds. The
adherence, then, to the narrative that men and women are consistently at odds
with one another is not about portraying a kind of gritty realism; it’s about
perpetuating the status quo and limiting our imagination about the
possibilities for a feminist future. I’d like to see a media landscape that
acknowledges the changing roles of men and women with greater nuance and
compassion, and also recognizes that there are many men today who are
incredibly happy to be living in a world where they aren’t shackled to one
particular model of male strength. Parks
and Recreation’s
greatest feminist success is not simply that the heroine
is allowed to “have it all” but in creating a world where male and female
characters are equally one another’s allies.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
contests
. She is currently writing her first book.

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