Guys on TV are kind of dicks a lot of the time.
It just kind of happens. It’s funny on some level to people to watch the sexually reckless idiot that constantly objectifies women, just to catch those brief moments when they are put in their place. Or, the opposite side, the awkward geek finally lands the girl and treats her like a blow-up doll because gosh, shucks, he just doesn’t know any better.
But there’s a shifting dynamic in television. We’re becoming a smarter culture, a more developed culture, and men and women both want to see characters that actually have healthy relationships with women, that don’t view everything as a portal to sex, and that don’t take ownership over their thoughts, beliefs, actions, and success.
Parks and Recreation has done some of the best work in this area. They’re not alone. “Louie” most substantially, has broken down archetypes of the male mind while remaining at its core viscerally honest about the experience. But “Louie” is a show about realism. Parks and Rec is very much a television show with television characters. And the fact that the men on that show are not beastly idiots constantly searching for how to treat women with respect is something that draws me to the show more than anything.
It’s funny considering the show’s male lead is Ron Swanson, who is, in the words of Thorny from “Supertroopers,” “all that is man.” Nick Offerman’s Swanson hides his gold, carves everything he sits in, eats only meat from “Food and Stuff,” tolerates no level of emotional sensitivity of personal vulnerability, and keeps a claymore on his desk. He’s not young, suave, bucking Sam Malone testosterone. He’s thick, gristled, old, sure-of-himself-to-the-point-he-doesn’t-feel-the-need-to-ask-if-he’-sure-of-himself testosterone, and he’s one of the best parts of the show.
But as opposed to how the character would have been drawn in previous decades, even as early as 2000, or really, how they’re still drawn to this day on many modern comedy sitcoms, Swanson is neither overtly misogynist or super-macho by design or by ignorance. I’m not going to make the outright claim that he’s not misogynist in any capacity, because that would defeat the entire purpose of trying not to speak for women. But it’s not a longshot to say that Swanson respects women. The show could have carved a niche of him only respecting the show’s main character, Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, but Swanson has never belittled a woman that wasn’t his ex-wife, Tammy, or his ex-wife… Tammy.
But the relationship with Knope deserves a look here. It’s a platonic, respectful relationship between two coworkers and friends that has never, not once, not for a second, steered into the romantic. So many shows when they hit lulls in a season or when faced with “holy crap we got picked up for another year” go the easy out of putting people together. Parks and Rec has never done that. Even the brief whirlwind of hilarity that was Rashida Jones’ Anne getting together with Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford didn’t feel forced, it felt like what happens when two people are around each other and single for a long enough amount of time. They do things that even they are aware are monumentally stupid.
But Swanson and Knope have never flirted. They’ve never shared a confusing moment of sexual tension. Knope vanished to Swanson’s cabin hideout to avoid breaking up with Ben Wyatt (more on him in a second) and even then, nothing. Consider this quote from Season 2’s “Hunting Trip”:
“Please. I don’t care that you’re a girl, I just don’t like change.”
It’s really refreshing to see a show that can illustrate one can be as strong, positive, masculine figure without being a domineering, sexist pig. Swanson’s not chugging Bud Light and yelling at his woman to get in the kitchen. He consistently dates strong women, albeit often psychotic ones, and eventually commits to a healthy, long-term relationship with a single mother of two. The man can grill a steak, change his oil, hunt and kill dinner, and doesn’t feel the need to step on women to make himself feel good, nor is he a womanizer.
And beyond this, the show’s other male characters are all shades of the modern man. Aziz’s brilliant portrayal of the hyper-wannabe-ladies-man Tom Haverford never comes off as malicious. His sexual pursuits seem more expressive of a style than any genuine pursuit of conquest. Tom’s not only endearing for those moments when his more genuine side shines through, but he’s a harmless version of the archetype that does so much damage not only in other shows but in real life. Haverford’s pestering comes of not as harassment but more like the guy who leaves the microwave messy.
(I’m open to discussion on whether or not there’s still harm in Haverford’s attitude towards women, but it should be noted that whenever he takes an aggressive approach the rebuke is emasculating and swift. Dude has struck out EVERY TIME.)
And the show actually progressed more towards this standpoint. Chris Pratt’s Andy character was insufferable in the show’s hit-or-miss first season, playing very much that archetype that drives you crazy. But look at the evolution since then. He’s a ridiculous, Phoebe-from-Friends-ditzy teddy bear, but he’s never once seemed insulting to women.
The hyper-macho, women-degrading characters in Parks and Rec aren’t lovable heroes who have to learn to throw a woman a bone every once in a while… they’re villains. Councilman Jam, the bowler in the focus group post.
And then there’s Ben Wyatt, played by Adam Scott, that ties this whole concept together, the other end of the spectrum to Offerman’s Swanson. Scott came into the show as the prototypical straight man to the town’s hijinx, and since has evolved into the lovable geek counterpart to Knope. Their chemistry is tremendous but so is the fact that while he’s often dragged along for the ride, he’s never tried to control Leslie. He’s supportive of her ambition. He’s put her first.
You know, like a relationship should be.
“Parks and Rec” announced next season would be its last this week, a mutual decision between Poehler and creator Mike Schur (SHOUTOUT KEN TREMENDOUS) and NBC. They’re taking a bold approach with the final season, because they can afford to. This show was never supposed to live this long, but it’s here. When it’s gone, Schur’s other show Brooklyn Nine-Nine seems set to replace it as the best comedy in these terms. Andy Samberg’s Peralta reflects confidence, not ownership, and the sensitivity of Terry Crews is one of my favorite plots on television.
Maybe the best thing about all this, though, is that while I’m overanalyzing it to death, the show doesn’t construct these things purposefully. Unlike, say Aaron Sorkin’s once-ever-seven-episodes experience of a woman taking control of her life and looking competent, this isn’t purposeful construction to balance out gender relations. The show just wants to be funny. And the way it does it doesn’t lecture the audience on gender relations or talk down to them.
The show acts like an adult, the men aren’t dicks, and the laughs are rewarding.
And seriously, Ron Swanson is awesome.