Problems With Consent In a Show I Love Dearly: Parks and Recreation

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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.

Chris Traeger
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 haverford
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 Knope
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.

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Problems With Consent In a Show I Love Dearly: Parks and Recreation
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18 thoughts on “Problems With Consent In a Show I Love Dearly: Parks and Recreation

  1. 1

    The hugging issue was a big one for me. I am a highly affectionate person, but boundaries are important, respecting them even moreso, and casually violating them is just awful; it tells people that their fundamental comfort is irrelevant.

    Thanks for dropping this fantastic article. 🙂

  2. 2

    I don’t really know this show well, but I think it’s really important that we critique media we love – and that we make it clear what we do like and what could be better and what is really sucky about it. I think you’ve done a wonderful job of that here and modeled exactly the way I want to be able to critique media that I love too.

  3. 3

    In the same vein as the “wearing down” stuff from Tom or Chris, Andy does kinda go after April pretty hard when she refuses to speak to him after she hears about Ann kissing Andy (first ep of season 3). And his bull-headed ignoring of all the signs that she doesn’t want to speak to him does come off as…less cute, in light of real world stalking.

    “How funny, he doesn’t realize she’s intentionally ignoring and avoiding him and won’t drop the issue!” becomes “oh god, this would be a horror show in real life.” Leslie and Ron helping Andy’s externally one-sided pursuit over April’s apparent attempts to reject him seems…less romantic in light of real life, too.

    He’s much more of a scamp at this point than when he was creepily stalking Ann in early season 2 after all his assholery in season 1, but still…not great.

  4. 4

    Couldn’t agree more. We need to call out media that normalizes, and sometimes even sexualizes violating a woman’s consent, because if we don’t this is what men will see as normal. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a guy tell me the girl was just being “flirty” or “coy”. No. Just no.

  5. 5

    Agree. It is important to not give a pass to shows/people/media we love when they are problematic. It is easy to see blatant problems but normalizing cute problematic behavior is more dangerous. It is akin to providing false health information/half-truths with truth/helpful advice.

  6. 6

    “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. ”
    Mostly true, except that everybody, even Leslie, shits on Gary pretty much all the time. And Gary is one of the nicest and most inoffensive people I’ve ever seen on a show. Why he gets to be the office whipping-boy is beyond my understanding.

  7. 7

    Thanks Greta! Thank you for beautifully articulating so many things that had bugged me but I hadn’t examined. And thank you so much for introducing me to the show!! I’m in my third time through and loving it again, and I really appreciate the critical thought.

  8. 8

    So true. As a teen I took a lot of cues about how relationships were supposed to work from the media I watched, which was unfortunately a lot of anime which portrayed the male romantic lead as charmingly dense and the female romantic lead as violently protesting. This definitely led to a lot of issues where relationships would blow up in my face and I’d be confused because I’d done everything the protagonist was supposed to do. It wasn’t until my mid-20s, when I settled enough to have relationships that lasted longer than a year or so, that I figured out how people should relate to one another. It would have been way more helpful if I’d had good relationship modeling in the media I consumed as a kid, though.

  9. 9

    I understand that much of the behavior that you are describing by these characters is very problematic. But there is something about your criticism that doesn’t make sense to me. These are fictional characters in Parks and Recreation. You write erotica for a living( and are awesome at it). Some of the fictional characters in your works such as Bending take part in actual nonconsensual sex acrs, which is a lot more problematic than unwanted hugs. Why are nonconsensual acts a problem in the fictional works of other writers, but acceptable in your own stories? Please explain and clarify the distinction. Have I missed something? Have you denounced the problematic nature of your own previous work?

  10. 10

    Why are nonconsensual acts a problem in the fictional works of other writers, but acceptable in your own stories?

    Davoin Shower-Handel @ #9: Because I’m not presenting those non-consensual acts as the ordinary, healthy dating and sexual behavior of warm, affectionate, caring, likeable, and generally awesome people. I’m presenting it as fucked-up shit that some people like to fantasize about or consensually act out. I spell this out in the introduction to Bending..

  11. 11

    @ Greta #10

    Parks and Recreation Is a sitcom, the actions of the characters are meant to be absurd and laughed at. I really like your writing and I think there is nothing wrong with fantasy. It’s just that your complaints about characters giving unwanted hugs in a sitcom don’t make sense at all in light of the fact that you write fiction featuring actual nonconsensual sex. Your position is rather inconsistent incoherent. Normally your blog posts are very well thought out, I guess this one just isn’t up to the usual high standards.

  12. 12

    I’m a bit torn on this one.

    I want to be able to tell people ‘don’t persist after a rebuff’…and I have, but I’ve always felt a bit hypocritical on this point.

    You see, my slightly dirty little secret is my own spouse wore me down over several months, until I relented to go on a date, and even after that first date there was probably fully another six months of me pushing back and their persisting. Looking back over 15 years of marriage and three kids, of course I’m glad they did…and they remind me that they absolutely ‘knew’ it was worth persisting and persisting.

    This actually boils down to an issue of behavior which I find myself increasing identifying in myself – much as I hate to admit it – which is ‘it’s OK when I do it’, or ‘it’s OK when it happens to me’. I think one of the main reasons I have this (potentially) hypocritical side to me because I am strong and confident and can look after myself, but I worry about other people not having the same robustness.

    So, with this topic as an example, I find myself thinking it was fine and I was in control and OK – when it was happening to me – but I want to protect others from the same situation I benefited from – if that makes sense!

    Anyway, thanks for bringing this up, and I hope my two cents hasn’t been too scatter-brained. Complicated topic. People are complicated.

  13. 13

    @Davoin #11

    There is a DRAMATIC difference between sitcoms and erotica. Sitcoms and other mass media reinforce societal norms without questioning them when they do this kind of thing. They make this kind of stalkerish behavior seem normal.

    Erotica like Greta writes is different, because she (and many other great writers) acknowledges that the problematic stuff is exactly what is arousing. The conflict of erotically and consensually playing with fucked-up stuff is exactly what is hot about it. I really don’t think Greta’s fiction normalizes problematic behavior – it explores erotic conflict.

    Also, Parks and Rec doesn’t start it’s episodes with discussions of consent, or contain any recognition of the fucked up stuff these guys are doing here. Bending does, very clearly, address this. This difference is fundamental.

    Finally, you said “Parks and Recreation Is a sitcom, the actions of the characters are meant to be absurd and laughed at.” Yeah, that’s exactly the problem. This shit isn’t supposed to be funny, or cute, or laughed at.

  14. 14

    kimleder @ #12: I think we can acknowledge that certain social structures worked okay for us, while also acknowledging that they’re fucked up. That’s part of what I meant when I said, “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.”

  15. 15

    Davoin Shower-Handel @ #11: Asked and answered. I specifically addressed your objection in comment #10, and you haven’t responded — you’ve just repeated your original objection.

    And if you’re going to pull put the idea that we can ignore the cultural messages in comedy because it’s meant to be funny and not serious: Don’t. That was worn out decades ago.

    See also Benny Vimes @ #13: he says most of the rest of what I’d want to say.

  16. 16

    Parks and Rec also has a bad track record of ft shaming, and i don’t find the continued bullying of Gary funny, which really colors my view of these characters.

    It’s still a very funny and mostly sweet comedy series, though.

  17. 17

    I think Davoin is a troll from you-know-where. It’s 2016. If it has to be explained to someone why flirting without consent in sitcoms reinforces rape culture in a way that depictions of rape in erotica does not, I just don’t think they’re asking honest questions.

  18. 18

    I think Davoin is a troll from you-know-where.

    BrideOfEisenstein @ #17: That certainly seems plausible. The idea that writing kinky erotica about non-consent fantasies — even when you explicitly spell out that these are fantasies — means you abdicate your right to ever criticize lousy consent in pop-culture? That would be right up their alley.

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