Friday, June 21, 2024

Parks and Reproduction

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(The author deeply apologizes for the title. She couldn’t resist it.)

Over a year ago, “One Last Ride,” still the highest rated episode of the series on Imdb, gave Parks and Recreation its perfect conclusion by fast-forwarding into our beloved characters’ future to tell us where they’re headed and let us rejoice in the amazing things to come for them all.

Wait…all? Well, not really. Of the endings, one in particular was the target of massive flak, and that is April and Andy’s. Many fans decried it as a betrayal of everything April stood for, an attack on her character, even an act of pure misogyny that made no sense. Now, how much validity and truth is there to this outcry? In this article, I will try to find balance between the Watsonian and the Doylist sides of the issue and to present the dichotomy with as much objectivity as possible based on the show and its cultural context.

I’ll start with the purely Watsonian aspect, specifically the leading argument of the criticism: this decision disregarded April’s personality. Readers of my blog may know that it’s something I feel quite strongly about, but I will stick to the facts and clear things out by giving evidence that, narratively speaking, the last episode delivered a fitting conclusion to April’s character development throughout the series.

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The big question in fandom is of course: does April even like kids? The question is pertinent. We know that April isn’t too fond of social interactions in general and that she dislikes most people she meets. The way she’s coded as a mentally ill character with social anxiety explains it in some ways, but whether that sentiment extends to little ones as well is left to some interpretation. The show never states openly that April likes or dislikes children. However, there is the magic concept that is characterization that tells us April’s opinions without her claiming them openly; to get to the truth of the matter, we can observe her interactions with children. In a show with the setting of Parks and Rec (i.e. a professional setting), interactions with children aren’t plethora, yet there is a definite pattern throughout the show. Here’s what we see:

  • In “Pawnee Rangers,” April is involved in Ann’s C-plot as the cool girl that the Pawnee Goddesses love and want to hang out with, as opposed to Ann, who is awkward and the girls don’t care for all that much. The little girls love April’s creativity, involve her in their pillow fight, run alongside her when they’re fishing and having fun.
  • In the Grand Canyon webisode “Building a Home,” April and Andy are imagining building a house next to the Grand Canyon and April wonders if there is a good school district.
  • In “Live Ammo,” April is feeling down because her pet adoption project was a failure, but Tom successfully cheers her up by showing her how happy a little girl was after she adopted a puppy from her.
  • In “Pawnee Commons,” April helps a lost child through City Hall and is the one who intuitively knows how to talk to him, as opposed to Andy who initially scares him before she calls him out.
  • In “Farmers Market,”April accompanies Andy to a concert he’s giving at a kid’s birthday party, enjoys herself very much, claims that Andy has never looked sexier than when he was singing to the kids and convinces him to start a career as a kids performer.
  • In “One in 8,000,” April is openly happy for Ben and Leslie when they announce they are having triplets, and immediately offers to babysit for them.
  • In “Moving Up,” we see that she’s actually followed through with her offer to babysit, and so regularly that they have become close friends with the triplets’ grandma.
  • In “Gryzzlbox,” April tries to help several youth interning in the Parks Department by getting them out of City Hall (because she’s feeling regrets about her own internship there and doesn’t want them to have these regrets later in life) and jokes about adopting one of them who she has formed a bond with.
  • In “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show,” we see that April has her own section in Andy’s children TV program and seems to enjoy it and be good at it.
  • And of course, in “One Last Ride,” she gets pregnant, twice.

In a show that does not take place at home and does not focus on family life, this kind of pattern is deliberate characterization. Would it be possible to find reasons why all these things happen and make it all fit with April not liking children? Of course, but Parks and Rec is not a show built around mysteries and theories that way. It has, in fact, a very straightforward narrative and in this case, the narrative is that April is fond of children. I haven’t found examples of April showing dislike for children. I’ll argue that April has had more openly positive interaction with children than most characters on the show (with the exception of Ron, Leslie and Andy), and certainly more than Ann, who is the first character to decide she wants children of her own.

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Another aspect of April’s evolution throughout the show that aligns with her becoming a parent is her personal growth on an emotional and social level. April becomes more mature, more turned towards others, more open with herself and with others, more self-assured. Obviously, these are qualities that people caring for children should ideally possess and we know for a fact that April knows how to care for children: Ben says it. When Andy is asking him a silly question about babysitting, Ben defers all authority to April.

“Just let April do everything.” − Ben Wyatt, “2017”

Coming from the man who is constantly stressing and fussing over minor details, this means a lot.

Narratively, the fact that April has become a mature young woman who can be trusted with children plays in favor of her becoming a mother. This doesn’t mean that all parents are mature or that all mature people have children, but we’re not talking about real life here. We’re talking about a character narrative, a character who grew up with the show and the coherence of her character arc.

Thematically, the decision to have her have children does not go against the general tendency she showed throughout the series. Couples generally wait until they’re ready to have children (that’s what we saw with Leslie, that’s what we saw with Ann and Chris − Ron had an oops baby but it’s no doubt that Diane and him were ready to take that step nonetheless, considering Diane already had children of her own that Ron adores to bits), wait to be financially and professionally stable (which is the focus of April’s season arc in season 7), wait to be emotionally ready (which is also a thematic of her season arc and especially broached in the episode “Ms. Ludgate-Dwyer Goes to Washington”), and it’s easy to see that this is how April’s way to motherhood was portrayed.

Then, there is the elephant in the room. Does April want kids? The leap from liking kids and wanting them is not automatic. Many child-free people enjoy spending time with children and being the “cool uncle/aunt”, but don’t want any of their own to take care of at the end of the day. The show mentions April’s opinion on actually having kids of her own a grand total of three times (noteworthy: that is more than Leslie, who has one discussion with Ben about wanting kids in season 5, but still, it’s not much).

I’ve already mentioned the webisode of Andy and April’s trip to the Grand Canyon, where April implies that she wants kids by wondering if the school district is good in their pretend scenario where they would live next to the Grand Canyon. It takes until the season 5 finale “Are You Better Off?” for her and Andy to discuss it again on screen. In that episode, Andy believes she is pregnant because he found a pregnancy test that doesn’t belong to any other woman around them and because she seems to be hiding something. It turns out that she was hiding the fact that she got accepted into a veterinary school in another city, but she does tell him that she couldn’t have been pregnant because they already have plans about children:

“We’ve talked about this, remember? I wanna wait until we’re fifty and then adopt a set of creepy adult twins from Romania.” April Ludgate, “Are You Better Off?”

(Yep, in case you didn’t remember, April is weird.)

There are several ways to interpret this statement. An interpretation would be that April is just being weird (it wouldn’t be a first for her to just say stuff like that for no particular reason). This could also be her way of telling Andy she does not, in fact, want kids. The interpretation to which I’m partial is that this is the April Ludgate way of telling him that kids are a maybe, later, let’s just be married just the two of us for now and we’ll see how it goes. The reason I’m favoring this explanation is that April got married very young (she was 21) and that she still has a lot of time ahead of her before the question of having kids or not becomes more urging. It’s in her nature to procrastinate and it seems fitting for her to just relegate the decision of having kids or not to Future April, and conveying that to Andy in her weird way of stating things.

Then there is the finale. “One Last Ride” is tightly written to fit all the flash-forwards, so for time reasons, the storyline of Andy and April is contained in only five short minutes. Initially, April is less than on board with the whole kids business:

“You know where I stand on this. Yes, I would love all the awesome stuff my body would go through. I mean, if all it meant was puking and getting weird stretch marks and veins everywhere, then sign me up, but at the end, we’ve brought a child into the world. That’s disgusting.”

“I just can’t wrap my head around it.”

It’s easy to read this as April not wanting kids, if it weren’t for her discussion with Leslie. To understand the short conversation better, you need to take it in its context. Leslie and April’s relationship has always had a motherly aspect to it, even in its earlier days, and at the very least it’s a mentor/student kind of relationship. Add to that their deep affection for one another and you have the perfect opportunity for emotional closeness. In fact, already before she gets with Andy, the only person we’ve seen April being emotionally open with was Leslie and throughout the years, April has often asked her for advice and guidance. So when she asks Leslie for her opinion, it has a deeper meaning and dimension that allows her to be fully honest in a way she couldn’t be with Andy.

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With Leslie, April opens up about the reason why she’s not sure if she wants kids. It should come as no surprise that it boils down to anxiety. She admits that she’s afraid their lives would change, that her children would be weird, and seems overall very unsure of herself. This fits in perfectly with the interpretation of what April said in “Are You Better Off?”: an April putting off having kids or not to later in her life because she still hasn’t made up her mind, despite having talked about it with her husband on multiple occasions. Leslie, being the loving parental figure she is, tells her that having children is not about making your life perfect, but is rather a decision you make for yourself. And April eventually makes that decision for herself, as we see her having a child in the next scene.

“I don’t know if you should have kids. I really don’t. But I do like your team.” Leslie Knope, “One Last Ride”

The narrative makes sense. It’s the story of a woman who likes children, isn’t entirely sure if she wants to have her own, and eventually decides that she does, with the loving advice of her mother figure and after talking about it with her husband (“You know where I stand on this.” April Ludgate, One Last Ride). And we have every reason to believe that she was happy with her choice, because she announces she is pregnant again a couple years later. So this was the Watsonian aspect.

The Doylist aspect begs the question: why did they choose this particular narrative over other options? This is where the criticism is founded and understandable.

One argument that comes up over and over is that this means the show has had every woman have children. On the one hand, that is factually false: Donna and Lucy aren’t shown to have any children. But on the other hand, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Donna, despite having been on 120 episodes out of the 125 that comprise the show, was a more minor character than April by far, and only gained main cast status in later seasons with plotlines of her own and character development. Lucy, who has only been on 12 episodes, is only supporting Tom’s narrative arc and is not in the same category. Having Leslie and Ann and April end up in a monogamous straight relationship with children has more narrative weight than Donna and Lucy ending up in (monogamous straight) relationships with no children. It’s easy to perceive this as a moralistic pattern: women should end up with a man and have children.

There is nothing wrong with marrying a man you love and eventually having children, obviously. And there’s something to be said about women who aren’t typically depicted as being mothers still be able to find their own way to do it. There is no doubt that April will be a vastly different mother than Leslie or Ann…she frickin’ gave birth wearing zombie make-up on purpose. Not to mention, she was given the full agency over her situation: Andy was being understanding (Andy is a cinnamon roll and I’ll fight you for it), not pushing the issue when she expressed discomfort, and Leslie openly told her that the choice was hers. However, is there such an urgent need for more “woman embraces motherhood” stories? They chose a narrative that made sense with their characterization and thematic evolution of April, but at the cost of it also being an overused cliché narrative.

We can also wonder why they chose to only use the very last episode to explore that story instead of having it span over a whole season. Obviously, they wanted season 7 to cover April’s arc of self-discovery, show us how she’d gained enough self-knowledge to know that she didn’t want to end up in government forever and had to find out what she wanted to do instead.

It’s a beautiful arc with its ups and downs and it is absolutely a story worth telling and the perfect final arc for April, but it was at the cost of April’s motherhood arc, which was cut short. I personally think that the episode would have benefited from a discussion between Andy and April: for all she says that Andy and her have talked about it, maybe it would have driven the point home better to see them actually discuss it openly. Some fans don’t understand April’s point of view or believe she was rushed into it (there are several months between her discussion with Leslie and her getting pregnant, but since the scenes of the talk and Burt Snakehole Ludgate Karate Dracula Macklin Demon Jack-o-Lantern Dwyer’s birth followed each other directly, it did feel a bit cramped), and an extra scene where April is given more time to fully explore the decision would have been perfect.

Finally, there are the Unfortunate Implications we all know, don’t we? We live in a world where women are strongly pressured to marry and have children, by their husbands, by their mothers. The choice of having April initially be hesitant about having kids, then change her mind, knowing that her husband really wants children and that her mother figure would also love for her to have children, is questionable. Of course, when you actually look into it, April made the choice willingly, but as Andy asked Ben, “What if she doesn’t?” This is not to take away April’s agency, but in our cultural context, the decision to have her go with what her husband and mother figure wanted is neither revolutionary nor bold and reminded many young women of their own family situations where they felt pressured themselves.

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Overall, April’s narrative arc came to an end, but was it thematically satisfying? Some fans will say they felt that her arc was completed in a way that made sense and that complied with her character growth. Others will say that her arc left to be desired because it was rushed, cliché and had uncomfortable implications. Both sides have their merits and it really comes down to what matters the most to the viewer, thematic completion or cultural implications. What is certain is that Parks and Rec delivered an ending that was coherent with the rest of the show.

Images Courtesy of NBC

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