“Parks” and VDay: Rethinking Romance With Knope and Mukhopadhyay
Note: This post contains spoilers for the fourth season of Parks and Recreation. Treat Yo’ Self to those before treating yourself to this. Kthxbai.
Last week, Prospect columnist Amanda Marcotte drew lines in the feminist cyber-sand with her article — “Stop The Damsel in Distress Act.” The cheers and jeers were a response to Marcotte’s claim that Leslie Knope — Amy Poehler’s character on the NBC sit-com Parks and Recreation — was losing her feminist edge. According to Marcotte, Leslie’s developing romance with (former) coworker, Ben Wyatt, signals that P&R’s writers are caving to mainstream viewing expectations. They are, essentially, devolving the competent badass we know and love into an all-too-familiar damsel in distress.
Now, I am far too infatuated with Leslie Knope to consider this matter objectively. Still, I feel like Marcotte’s article hits on a larger issue, which is especially relevant around Valentine’s Day. In essence, her claim that Leslie’s romance somehow undercuts her feminism plays into a seriously outmoded notion that feminists (or good feminists) do not want love. To be fair, romance — which I use here to encompass the capital-R, I-like-you-like-you Relationship — is not the full extent of what Marcotte takes issue with. She notes that Leslie has had relationships before, but believes her relationship with Ben represents a sea change. Marcotte notes with disapproval that Leslie — who, in the past, has quickly kicked to the curb any love interest who threatened her career — has put her position in peril, this season, out of commitment to her prince.
Marcotte’s main issue with the developing Leslie-Ben pairing is what she sees as Ben’s tendency to “save” Leslie, a characterization much of the P&R fandom finds a stretch. Naysayers, myself included, argue that Ben does not “rescue” a damsel-in-distress Leslie, but rather supports her — consistently — in her own competent defense. When the couple is investigated for impropriety, for instance, Leslie masterfully represents herself, articulately arguing for her continued employment. Ben, being far less invested in his position at the Parks Department (and in love with her), resigns. His decision is a sacrifice of sorts — but not a rescue.
Marcotte’s clearest piece of supporting evidence is a punch Ben throws, in a recent episode, at a Pawnee citizen who dares call Leslie a bitch. Leslie’s adoring response is perhaps out of character for the woman who refused, on principle, to run an attack ad. Still, the moment comes on the heels of a joke about her opponent throwing “more strikes than Norma Rae.” Whether or not Leslie is veering away from her feminist roots in this moment, it is impossible to argue those roots have disappeared entirely. Of course, quips about feminist heroes do not negate the potential squickiness of “my boyfriend hit someone, so I made out with him.” But is that moment automatically a sign that Leslie’s feminism is deteriorating? Or might it be a realistic representation of the often complex intersections between politics and practice, feminism and everyday desire?
It is certainly within the scope of feminism to call out shows that portray women as damsels in distress. (Whether or not Parks and Rec qualifies). But it’s also important, when we call writers out on a plot like “Boyfriend Wins Liplock For Defending Lady’s Honor,” that we don’t play into the longstanding idea that the (only) feminist approach to dating is not to give a fuck. As Feministing editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay notes in Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life, there are many overlooked intricacies to the intersection of feminism and dating. And part of the challenge we face, as feminists, is to speak out about those intersections. Mukhopadhyay notes that “popular ideals of feminism have not provided us with enough tools to connect authentically in a world where love and romance have become increasingly commodified” and argues that we must work to “point out where feminism [has] been misappropriated and also where feminism [has] legitimately fallen short.”
In other words, rather than ceding our relationships to focus on other feminist projects, we need to recognize that relationships, too, are a space for activism. There’s no requirement that feminists — or feminist characters — show a greater commitment to work than to intimacy. There’s also no requirement that their intimacy look a certain way, although we certainly do enough desire-policing to give that impression. The feminist project — at the social level — is to expand our understanding of what constitutes romance, to dismantle screwed-up gender roles in favor of more expansive possibilities. This is something for which both the fictional Knope and the non-fictional Mukhopadhyay have shown a knack. For Leslie, it’s Galentine’s Day — the celebration of sisterhood she’s currently lobbying to have made into a national holiday.
For Mukhopadhyay, it’s a challenge to the traditional notions of romance centered around an “Occupy Valentine’s Day” Tumblr. This (non-fictional) Occupy V-Day campaign is an intriguing response to both sides of the the Valentine’s Day onslaught. Neither the “every Kiss begins with Kay” or the Singles Awareness sentiment go unchallenged by the project. The Tumblr features diverse submissions — ranging from a lesbian couple that reports buying lube instead of diamonds, to an ace person celebrating with her best friend in lieu of her partner, to a young Aquarius, lamenting the holiday’s annual destruction of her birthday. Unlike the vast majority of media around the holiday, Occupy V-Day refuses to settle comfortably into a pro-coupling or anti-coupling stance. It takes issue not with dating, intimacy, or romance — but with the very limited shapes we’re allowed for their expression.
Whichever re-appropriations and rebellions we choose, it’s that expansion of possibility that constitutes the feminist goal. The rejection of relationships is not, in and of itself, liberatory. Rather, it’s an acquiescence to the notion that relationships can only be what Hershey’s and Hallmark have suggested. Renegotiating that space — and supporting characters who work to do the same — ultimately brings us much closer to an inclusive end.
It’s not rejecting romance that frees us; it’s reinventing it. It’s making love and revolution, fucking our partners and our paradigms in one romantic swoop.