Thursday, May 30, 2024

Parks and Rec and Anxiety

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Unless you’re the mythical able-bodied cis straight white male, chances are you’ve found yourself wanting more representation of your specific struggles in popular culture. Maybe you’ve felt like your particular situation wasn’t depicted often enough, or you’ve wondered why you don’t see more people like you on TV, or, most likely, you’ve been upset to find out once again that so and so directed a movie with a straight white male lead. We’ve (almost) all been there.

To that, Parks and Recreation offers some sort of answer. Not much, mind you. While, yes, there are women filling key roles in all plotlines, starting with the lead of the show Leslie Knope, and there are several people of color in the main cast (same proportion as women, at four out of ten, almost half, which isn’t a lot and most likely isn’t enough, but is more than your average show − noteworthy, three out of the four main female characters are women of color), the show did a rather poor job of giving most marginalized minorities a voice, characters to relate to and identify with. In my last article, I talked about gay representation in Parks and Rec and how it is mostly derogatory and stereotyped. There isn’t much to say for trans or disabled representation, as there simply isn’t any. However, there is one type of struggle the show did represent, and in my opinion quite well, and that is mental illness.

Representation of mentally ill people can be quite tricky because it can be so intrinsically linked to personality. Is that character depressed, or are they sad a lot? Are they suffering from anxiety, or are they a shy person? Are they introverted and awkward or are they on the spectrum of autism? And all mentally ill people would probably agree that such questions are also relevant in real life: am I just easily distracted, or could this be a sign of ADHD? Am I shy or do I have social anxiety? The two are often one and the same in a person’s mind. Just like that line of thinking prevents people from getting diagnosed and maybe receive the appropriate treatment, in the same way, mental illnesses often remain in the realm of headcanons and are denied vehemently by other parts of fandom, claiming that the perceived symptoms are just part of the character’s personality.

(I’ll open a parenthesis here to underline that mental illness is not the only kind of headcanon built through more or less obvious subtext. The same can happen with a character’s sexuality, their gender identity, their religion, etc. I also acknowledge the existence of Chris Traeger who goes completely against such a trend. His depression was not made part of his personality, but rather an issue he was facing — he is generally a very positive, active and cheerful person, traits that aren’t usually associated with depressed individuals. His arc of fighting depression, covered in seasons 4 and 5, was a great showcase of how depression can happen to anyone, and how therapy is a healthy and normal way to navigate it. This is a story for another article, maybe.)

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But let’s talk about April Ludgate today. The ultimate ice queen, the deadpan snarker who claims loud and clear she doesn’t care about anything or anyone, except maybe her husband and dogs. What if I told you that April has social anxiety?

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Now, everyone who watches the show will have noticed April saying that she hates people. She does say that, on more than one occasion, but what people might forget to take into account is her even more frequent “I hate talking to people”. When you have social anxiety, the most basic interactions like talking, holding a simple conversation can be a source of stress and even fear. This is something we observe in April on multiple occasions: she is very uncomfortable talking to people. For example, and despite the fact that Tom has always been one of her favorite colleagues, it’s the only reason she gives for refusing to help Tom promote his new alcohol, the Snakejuice (“I hate talking to people about things, this is a nightmare,” season 3, episode 13). We also see her hiding against Ron when Chris forces her to interact with her, closing doors whenever people want to engage dialogue, refusing to have important talks if she has to look people in the eye, hanging up on the telephone abruptly, using Andy as a shield (staying with him all the time at social gatherings so he does the talking), etc. As many clues pointing to anxiety, as she seems to do pretty much everything in her power to avoid conversations.

Even more than talking to specific people, April hates talking to crowds. It’s been part of her character from the beginning: as early as season 2, she already escapes a presentation Leslie was asking her to do with Ron in Christmas scandal. The pattern is consistent enough throughout the show. From her squirming away from the mic when she has to give a speech at her wedding to her declaring Leslie’s job downright depressing because it involves talking to people all day long, not to mention her always staying in the background, not mingling with people every time there’s a party, or refusing a job offer just because there was a public hearing, there is no doubt that April isn’t exaggerating one bit when she says she hates talking to people. I’ll take one example in particular to showcase how April functions in a manner that is entirely relatable (and inspiring) for people who have social anxiety.

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In Ann’s Decision (season 5, episode 12), April is assigned to lead public forums with the Pawnee citizens. Because she feels deeply uncomfortable with that task, she decides to roleplay as Leslie to make it through. She goes as far as borrowing some of her clothes to get completely in character. This turns out to be a failure: the citizens keep pestering her and she can’t find the strength to stand up to them. Andy, seeing how overcome she is with all the negative attention, pretends to forget her “Leslie outfit”. April has no choice but to complete the meeting using her normal clothes − and her normal personality. Surprise, surprise: the meeting is a success. Her natural bite, her no-nonsense attitude when she’s committed to something, her snark: these all help her manage the crowd. Instead of letting her anxiety take the best of her, instead of getting submerged, she uses that discomfort to her advantage. And this is how Parks and Recreation treats April’s anxiety: as part of her, and as something she can turn into a strength sometimes.

In the same way, April’s anxiety and the way she deals with it is also a great source of creativity in her life. Looking a bit further into April’s ways of coping, many episodes feature April roleplaying to get through unwanted social interactions in a way that’s playful and non-stressful for her. When Tom asks her to promote his new alcohol to strangers in a bar, she chooses to dress up as a mysterious widow and make up the wildest backstory for her invented character, Janet Snakehole. In Prom (season 6, episode 18), she hates the idea of a party full of people and decides to dress up in a mourning black dress and mess with people talking to her. In Doppelgängers (season 6, episode 4), she pretends to be someone else entirely, with a whole new set of interests and a different personality, because she hated talking to her new colleague. When Ann insists April goes to initiation at the veterinary school she might go to, April pretends Ann is her grandmother to have a bit of fun in a social context she’s not comfortable with. These examples are but a sample of April’s overall method of dealing with social contexts: through her “weirdness”. She always finds a way to adapt.

In this, we really see how intrinsically mental illness and personality are linked and even indistinguishable sometimes. April is weird, but is that her personality, or is the way she’s dealing with anxiety making her weird? April hates talking to people, is it because her out of the box way of interacting makes conversations awkward and unpleasant, or is it her social anxiety? You can’t really separate one from the other. I’m sure many socially anxious people will understand the need to be someone else in social contexts. April takes that need to an extreme, literally playing the part of a whole different person when she needs to.

If you keep in mind that the character can be read as having that mental illness, many things about her can be shed in a different light. Of course April would choose to give people thoughtful presents (she gives Andy his all time favorite jersey, Chris movie tickets, Ann a baby-naming book, Tom watch-cologne, Donna family drama, etc.) when she wants to comfort them, rather than talk to them or spend time with them. Of course she would dislike hugs and public displays of affections from anyone other than her husband, because they would make her feel uncomfortable. Of course April would dislike being emotional in front of other people, because socially anxious people already feel like they’re the center of attention and don’t want to add to it in a way that makes them vulnerable. Of course she would sometimes lash out and be unnecessarily mean towards well-meaning people, because social anxiety makes one think they’re being rushed and on attack, and sometimes, they can be ruder than they should because they feel like inflicting it on other people only makes it fair.

All in all, what this kind of representation is doing is normalizing mental illness. It’s part of April’s character as much as any of her other defining traits such as her love for Halloween, her interest in animals, her successful marriage. April is not comfortable with social situations, she hates talking to people, she hates crowds, and it’s normal. It’s who she is and it’s something she can even take advantage of sometimes. And sometimes it’s something with which she needs some help from others, and they’ll be happy to give it to her. In any case, it’s fully accepted by the people around her and the narrative of the show.

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Even in April’s last season arc, dealing with her search for a fulfilling job, one of her criteria is to work one on one. In their last touch to the character, the last development she went through, she wasn’t “fixed”, she wasn’t changed, but rather her anxiety was acknowledged and worked with. This is great writing, giving the character a space to breathe and be herself. She did find a job that wouldn’t trigger her anxiety (or not too much anyways) in the end, she did find friends who respect that aspect of her, she did manage to have a successful and happy life while having social anxiety. This is the kind of character we need more of. Thanks, Parks.

Images Courtesy of NBC

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