Content note: consent violations, passing mentions of sexual assault, Parks and Recreation spoilers
I love the show. I want no mistake about that. Parks and Recreation is one of my favorite TV shows of all time. It’s smart and funny, entertaining and original, with that slightly-exaggerated realism that lets it touch on truth about human experience while giving it room to be ridiculous. It has lots of amazing female characters. Its core relationships include a friendship between two women and a friendship between a man and a woman, neither of them sexual or romantic. It’s better than average on diversity (although I’d be interested to see some writing about the show by people of color). It aces the Bechdel test with gold stars and extra credits. And it’s an all-too-rare example of a comedy show where most of the main characters treat each other decently most of the time. It’s proof positive that affectionate and supportive human relationships have plenty of fodder for both conflict and comedy. It’s hilarious and comforting at the same time, and that’s very, very rare. I’ve watched it all the way through about five times now, and I’m getting ready to do another round. (If you’re going to start, I suggest you begin with Season 3; if you want to test the waters with just one or two episodes, I’d recommend S4 E6, “End of the World,” or S5 E10, “Two Parties.”)
Please bear all that in mind.
Parks and Recreation kind of sucks when it comes to consent.
A few examples. Chris asks Ann out multiple times, even though she keeps saying no — and Ann says to Leslie, “He is nothing if not persistent.” No, no, no, no, no. This idea that persistence is flattering and that refusing to take No for an answer promotes jolly good fun or is an admirable romantic trait — this isn’t just annoying. It’s dangerous. It’s a pop culture trope that needs to be taken out into the street and shot. (S3 E1, “Go Big or Go Home”)
Tom pesters Ann to date him a second time, even though she says No vehemently and several times. She finally gives in and says Yes, saying, “Dude, you wore me down.” Immediately after, in a one-on-one with the camera, Tom says, “The four sweetest words in the English language — ‘You wore me down.'” See above. No, no, no, no, no. Again, this isn’t just annoying. It’s dangerous. It’s an attitude that can make the world an uninhabitable misery for women just trying to live our lives, and it’s an attitude that can lead to sexual assault. (S4 E15: “Dave Returns”)
Tom flat-out deceives Nadia and wastes hours of her time so he can hit on her — in his government office, in his capacity as a government official, providing a service she had paid for as a taxpayer. And when he finally comes clean (or rather, when April comes clean for him), Nadia actually considers the question of whether this was romantic or totally scary — and concludes that it was romantic. She also dismisses his deceptions, chalking them up to “weird panicky dude behavior.” (S6 E4, “Gin It Up”)
Leslie refuses to accept Ben’s unwillingness to stay friends after their break-up — and interferes with his love life with other women. This is classic creepy, stalkerish ex-lover behavior. The fact that it’s done by a woman doesn’t make it okay. Yes, she eventually realizes that this isn’t okay and she needs to back off. But her behavior isn’t presented as stalkerish. It’s presented as overzealous, but understandable and cute and funny. Ann even tells Leslie that her tendency to steamroll over what other people want is a sign of her passion, and that while she needs to dial it back, it’s not a sign that she’s a bad person. (S4 E6-8, “End of the World,” “The Treaty,” “Smallest Park.”)
There’s also a trope, repeated so many times in the show I can’t even count them or document them, where people hug someone who’s explicitly said they don’t want to be hugged — and this gets presented as a sign of overflowing affection. It’s presented as a sign that when you love someone, sometimes you just have to hug them, even if they don’t want to be hugged, have said they don’t want to be hugged, and are visibly uncomfortable with being hugged.
And I have to add this to the list, even though it puts a knife through my heart — the entire early romance of Leslie and Ben.
I love Leslie and Ben. I love their romance and their friendship, their political relationship and their marriage. I love how in their marriage vows, they say, “I love you and I like you.” (Okay, tearing up a bit now.) But when Chris disciplines Leslie and Ben for their workplace romance, he’s not wrong. There are good reasons for having a policy that prohibits sexual relationships between bosses and their subordinates. And it’s not just because of the reasons Chris gives, that these relationships can lead to fraud, corruption, and misuse of public funds. It’s because these relationships can constitute abuse of power, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. It works out well with Leslie and Ben, but that’s not a good enough reason to suspend these rules or discard them. That just means they got lucky. (S4 E9, “The Trial of Leslie Knope”)
All of these characters are depicted as delightful. Tom is something of an annoying would-be player, but he’s never seen as predatory, and everyone is shown to be warm, affectionate, caring, likeable, and generally awesome. And none of this behavior is presented as troubling flaws in otherwise good people. It’s presented as just normal — annoying at worst, charming at best.
I love Parks and Recreation. Among the many, many things I love about the show, I love how (usually) feminist it is. But I’m not going to limit my pop-culture political critiques to blatantly sexist stuff I can’t stand. Lousy consent in pop culture helps normalize lousy consent. And when that happens in an otherwise-feminist show, it normalizes it in a whole different way. If feminist icon Leslie Knope winks at troubling consent and even perpetrates it herself, it makes it seem even more okay, even more like the ordinary quirks of healthy dating and romance.
We can critique the politics of pop culture and still enjoy it. I’m not going to give my favorite show a pass just because it’s a feminist favorite — or just because it’s my favorite show.