Leslie: “Men are dogs.”
Ron: “Thank you, Leslie. That doesn’t apply to this situation at all.”
Even though I’ve been critical of some aspects of Parks and Recreation, it’s still my favorite show and there is one aspect I will constantly praise, because I believe Parks and Rec really nails it 99% of the time: consistent characterization and interpersonal relationships. The relationships feel so genuine, almost all of them get developed, the characters all grow and mature in their own ways and nothing in season 7 is as it was in earlier seasons. Everyone has changed and the show with it.
Today, I’ll talk about one part of this in particular: the menz. Now, in all fandoms, the focus is consistently put on the male characters, mostly white and straight and always cis. They’re generally made to be much more perfect than they are; they’re the topic of all the discussions, even (especially?) when they do horrible things and treat the female characters like garbage. It’s not that common or easy to find a show with a great cast of not just female but also male characters. Not all shows can be Steven Universe and give us sweethearts such as Steven himself or Greg. But even though Parks and Rec doesn’t reach that Graal level of male characters, I believe that all the major male characters of the show have great things going and are worth praising.
Goofy, not the smartest cookie of the batch, Andy is a would-be rockstar, everyone’s son and the husband of Deadpan Snarker April Ludgate. His interests include: music, playing with anything and everything, pets, food, April.
The aspect of him that the fandom doesn’t tend to underline is how nice he is. Not Nice Guy™ like, but genuinely, consistently nice. He offers for people to move in with him at the drop of a hat, just because he loves to have all his friends around him, he always tries his best to help everyone even though he’s honestly rarely the best person for the job, he was literally refused from the police academy because he was too gentle and generous, he is the most loving husband you could imagine, and he hugs everyone constantly. Andy is honestly a big teddy bear and that kindness is never undermined by the narrative. He’s just a sweetheart. Having a male character be so openly emotional without any drawback to it is always something that should be celebrated. Actually, expectations of masculinity don’t seem to affect him much. Andy has no shame at all with what he’s doing and that applies to any gender expectation as well. We see him gladly wear make-up and glittery scarves for little girls, pretend to have a tea party, and be happy about it because he’s just having fun. He also doesn’t hold any strict gender norms by which he judges the men around him.
The dynamics between Andy and April are vastly different from those between Ben and Leslie, but for both of these main pairings, there is the same impression that the woman is really respected as a woman and that her struggles are acknowledged. They find a balance. April manages to be a little more serious than him when she wants to, so she generally handles that side of the relationship and takes charges of thing such as finding him a career (we saw Andy trying to find her a job in season 7… not his best moments). Andy can be a little bit emotionally stronger than her and handles her emotional well-being and her anxieties. Because April is less in the spotlight of the political scene like Leslie is, she is not shown to experience direct sexism as much Leslie does, so it’s less a matter of how Andy supports her against sexists (see Ben and sexism just a bit down below) and more how Andy supports her against herself.
I’ve talked before about April’s anxiety, and it has to be said that Andy is systematically on her side. In a culture where the media and society so often brushes off women’s emotions as irrelevant and fickle, Andy stands as a block of complete and utter support of his wife’s emotional moods. He himself has more emotional openness than male characters tend to have and he has an instinctive understanding and respect for her emotions. I can’t think of a single time where Andy told April to calm down, that she was overreacting, that she was being silly. Every time, he reassures her, tells her he loves her and will always be there for her, which is something that mentally ill people need to hear often. We need more Andys.
His support of her includes him being completely okay with her being better paid, making career decisions that involve them moving away from their hometown, and her talking over him sometimes. That’s just not a narrative you’re used to seeing on comedy TV, with so many shows having episodes featuring such an event occurring and the male character being uncomfortable and trying to convince the female character she should give up on her dream job, etc.
Problematic fave? At this point, I don’t think he is. Maybe in early season 3, his attempts to win back April could be constructed as a Nice Guy narrative? But let’s not forget that he also gave her all the cards by asking her directly what he should do to get her back and followed her instructions, even though his chances were very slim.
Highly dynamic, generous and with impeccable morals, though very oblivious, Chris has more energy going through his body in ten minutes than most people in a whole day, and his goal is to have run the distance separating the Earth and the moon in his lifetime. His interests include: physical exercise, spirituality, helping people.
Chris is above all characterized as someone who wants to improve himself and that includes times when he’s being sexist. For example, he helps Leslie organize a meeting about sexism in the city government and when they find the room filled with men exclusively, he realizes he should have asked the Department directors that women were sent to discuss their own treatment.
“Oh my god, I am part of the problem” − Not something you hear all that often on TV
Chris has a desire to be a good person, which makes him want to be less sexist, less racist, etc., and to open himself to the right views. Chris is literally the opposite of mansplaining. He is very open to changing his mind when he gets convinced that things make sense under the right light, which makes him an excellent listener. In fact, this is a quality of him that is constantly emphasized, with him listening even to strangers’ life stories and offering them all the comfort he can. He is very attuned to other people’s feelings. A way this shows greatly is in his romance with Ann. They date briefly in season 3 and later on, in season 4, he realizes that he still has lingering feelings for her and asks her if she would like to resume their relationship. Not only does he ask very respectfully, but he also completely accepts her negative answer and never harbors any negative feeling towards her at all. It does make him sad but he never projects that onto Ann to blame her.
Which leads me to one of the greatest things about Chris’s character and why we need more characters like him: his depression arc. As someone who also suffers from that kind of mental illness (though my symptoms aren’t the same as his), I related to it so much I can’t even express how grateful I felt. Chris is shown to be down mentally, he openly calls it “depression” and receives help from a therapist, and talks about it frequently. It’s the kind of emotional openness that we rarely see at all, not to mention from a male character. He was given the space to have feelings without disparaging the female characters linked to his sadness and he recovered in a healthy way that did not involve sucking it up or anything of the sort.
The writers also gave Chris attributes that are often used for female characters: he pays great attention to his body and appearance, is afraid to get older and is constantly on a strict diet. These are only made fun of within the narrative because he takes them to an extreme, as he does everything. He is never mocked for doing these things as a man, not by other characters or by the narrative.
Problematic fave? Not really. I’m sure you could dig and find dirt on him because this show isn’t perfect, but nothing is jumping to mind for me. Chris is an overall good person who actively tries to better himself and his surroundings. He’s just a fave.
Clumsy, introverted, deeply devoted to his family, Garry is the scapegoat of the Parks Department but he will keep smiling and doing his job and pretending everything’s fine because he wouldn’t want to impose on other people. His interests include: piano, magic, the city of Muncie, pets.
Garry is less of a main characters than the others, he very rarely has plotlines of his own within an episode, which actually fits his personality perfectly as someone who is incredibly selfless and generous, happy to support others. He is always offering help, but that is most often turned down and people make fun of him unwarranted. Honestly, I have very big issues with the way Garry was treated by the show and the narrative, not just because of the fatshaming it implies, but also because the show never seemed to take workplace harassment as a serious issue that he was facing. They gave us a few episodes where people were mildly nice to him and pretended it was all fine and excused the constant bullying outside of these episodes. It’s not fine.
But Garry is more than the way he was treated by his own show and he really is a model for us all. Some could call it letting himself get stepped on, I call it strong resilience, I call it survival. He still manages to be so kindhearted, to smile day after day of never receiving anything in return, to offer so much when he gets so little. The show may well ignore the problems he goes through but that doesn’t mean we as viewers should. I feel deep empathy for Garry and the way his coworkers treated him, but also admiration because he remained a very good person who kept being kind even to these very people who mistreated him.
The main problem with the way Garry is written is not so much him as a character but rather the way people react about him, and in particular his family. He is married to a stereotypically attractive women and they have three beautiful daughters who look just like her, and everyone is constantly wondering why that is. Even in fandom, that point of view is overbearing, even though the answer is so obvious: Garry is an excellent husband, an excellent father, a good man.
Problematic fave? Literally the only thing I could find that is a bit problematic is back in early season 2 (back when the characters’ personalities weren’t fully developed by the writers and still mostly a draft of what they turned out to be later in the show), he says that he thinks his 16 year-old-daughter is too young to have sex, which could be interpreted as slutshaming. All the rest of him is just pure kindness and softness. He never deserved any of this.
Meat-lover, proud American, gun owner, Ron is the epitome of the Manly Man with a soft heart deep hidden inside. His interests include: hunting, sitting in silence and utter lack of noise, jazz music.
As I’ve explored in a previous article, Ron is the very definition of toxic masculinity. He prides himself in being over-masculine and disdains everything that isn’t. He has very clear notions of what men should or shouldn’t do.
The thing about his ideals of toxic masculinity is that the show often makes clear that there’s limitations to this. Quite often, Leslie calls him back to reason when he’s caught into his opinions to an extreme. They can be self damaging and against his best interest in many cases, but one thing that is not really called out on the show is how sexist they are towards the women in his life and insulting towards the men.
“I’m surrounded by a bunch of women in this department. And that includes the men.” − Ron Swanson, who is never called out for it
However, and that’s actually always surprising because it doesn’t seem to fit with his narrow ideas of what it means to be a man, Ron loves women in charge. In reality, he perceives qualities such as leadership, assertiveness, dominance, etc., as masculine and desirable, and tries to apply them to his own life, but also likes them in a partner. From his ex-wives to the girlfriends we see him have to his endgame wife, he likes women who know what they want and take it. And this is not just a thing in his romances, but also in his friendships. He admires Leslie’s endless motivation and work ethics, even though he disagrees with her on a fundamental level.
Some of his traits, such as his obsession with guns and his close-mindedness, aren’t condoned by the narrative. In particular his habit to shut off the world when he is either stressed out or hurt is not presented as a healthy way to deal with conflict. In season 7, during his arc of regaining Leslie’s friendship, we see how damaging his ideas of being manly and keeping your emotions and thoughts to yourself really are.
“Keep your tears in your eyes where they belong.” − Ron Swanson
Because he couldn’t talk to Leslie and be open emotionally with her, their friendship was lost for three years. Thankfully, that’s something the narrative treats as dreadful, as it should.
All in all, Ron is really constantly portrayed as Leslie’s opposite in every way. His character is meant to show that you can be very different from someone and still be their friend, but at some point, you have to ask yourself how strong Leslie’s values really are if she’s willing to constantly hang around someone who is actively supporting everything she is supposed to be against. I think that in this, the show took into account their conflicting personalities but didn’t often acknowledge their conflicting political opinions. Leslie’s are usually so strong and it seems to me a little unrealistic that she would choose to remain lifelong friends with someone with drastically different views.
Problematic fave? Yeah, especially in Tumblr circles, where he represents every value we tend to despise. His opinions are really ignorant and even though the show usually portrays Leslie as being right, Ron is never really called into question for his bigoted worldviews.
Smart, nerdy, meticulous, Ben is the numbers guy, the reliable guy who is a human disaster in public but will do all the work behind. His interests include: tabletop role-playing games, calzones, numbers, nerdy cinema/literature.
Ben is the fandom’s little favorite boy on Tumblr (as Ron is on Reddit). I don’t think the PFWB label is warranted here, as he is really not all that problematic. What’s not to love about his awkward interactions and his geekiness that is oh so relatable? The fandom isn’t completely out of it, because Ben is a great male character.
I think that the highlight of Ben’s characterization and storyline is how it normalizes women on top. He is constantly letting Leslie lead the way, both in their every day life and in their respective careers. Sure, he may have been her boss originally, but their work dynamics switch around a few times and it becomes a non-issue: she’s obviously the political candidate and he’s the campaign manager promoting her, not just during her actual campaign in season 4 but throughout the rest of the series. He is proud of her achievements, pushes her to reach for her biggest dreams, even at his own disadvantage sometimes, because he believes in her more than he cares about his own ambitions. He is not shown to be jealous of her being his superior in terms of career, to the point that he’s genuinely surprised when Jen Barkley offers him to campaign for Congress in season 7, because both him and Leslie expected her to be the candidate. His narrative conclusion is that he and Leslie don’t know who will get to run for governor and he decides to announce she will run because it’s what makes perfect sense to him.
Because he accepts the idea of women in charge so easily, he is also very receptive to Leslie’s complaints about the sexism she goes through and doesn’t try to talk over her on these issues. Actually, the episode “Pie-Mary” is focused on Ben and Leslie dealing with the sexist way political candidates and their wives are handled. In this episode, he decides to take Leslie’s place in a cooking contest between the wives of politicians and his decision is met with the criticism of a group of MRAs who claim that he was thrown back to the kitchen by his wife.
The whole episode shows how people listen to him much more readily than to Leslie, are constantly downplaying her achievements and ignoring her until Ben repeats exactly what she said. In the end, even though they’d decided to give into the social pressure and let Leslie take the back seat, Ben refuses and uses his male privilege to let people hear how fucked up their way of thinking is, because they’ll listen to him, and then gives Leslie the mic to point out all the hypocrisy and injustice in the way they’ve treated her compared to him. Another good point of that episode: the narrative very clearly embraces the point of view that anyone of any gender should be able to enjoy what the fuck their hobby is, with no expectations and shame of any sort.
There is a slight tendency of Ben explaining things to women, which could be perceived as mansplaining because the narrative tends to reward him for being “rational” as opposed to Leslie’s passion. But more often than not, the ending is more of an in-between solution, where Leslie has to acknowledge that her emotions got the best of her, but Ben also has to admit that he was being too distant and did not see her point of view. And as I’ve said, he never tries to explain to her what prejudice is, so it is not mansplaining in its stricter sense. There are worse things, but it’s not really a progressive pattern of storytelling. However, the same happens with Ben and other male characters who are more inclined to process things emotionally than him. It can be brushed off as Ben being a nerd very hung up on details, but there are still some Implications there.
Sidenote: Ben is also the kind of character who is really non-physical. He’s non-violent and not particularly invested in any sports (he did play baseball in high school but let’s be real, he wouldn’t be an athlete in any universe, just look at him trying to teach Tom basketball, he’s wearing goggles, for God’s sake), he’s all brain and almost no brawn. And the narrative never makes fun of that (there is maybe one or two jokes about it by Ron throughout the show, but we’ll get to Ron later), just lets him be a guy who is not into physical activities and isn’t forced into it, and isn’t a loser for it. That’s kinda refreshing. There is one notable exception with this, which I think isn’t at all Parks and Rec’s top moment, and that’s when Ben punches a guy and Leslie makes out with him hardcore as a consequence. Still note that Ben had no idea what he was doing, that it hurt his hand and that he never did it again.
Problematic fave? No more than any other well written male character. I don’t see any glaring flaw to him and I think his writing is mostly non sexist. He hasn’t been shown to have prejudice against marginalized people and he hasn’t done anything particularly bad, aside from Ice Town.
Highly fashionable, ambitious to the point of being cunning, but also terribly lazy, Tom has big dreams and aims for the stars every day. His interests include: fashion, any sort of luxury at all, business, cosmetics.
Tom is often depicted as the opposite of Ron in that Tom more than embraces his so-called feminine side and Ron… doesn’t. In this way, we see Tom being absolutely weak physically, disinterested in anything that Ron deems manly, and most of the time the show stays very neutral on who has it right. What we do see is that Tom has some issues with this dichotomy of manly vs non-manly. Several times, he expresses discomfort with it and wishes he was more manly. Over time, he is made to embrace this side of him more and more and to focus on loving himself as he is rather than wishing he had Ron’s attributes. It’s not often explored but some episodes do show that conflict in him. He does manage to find the right balance and in later seasons, when Ron tries to shame him about his less than traditionally masculine manners, he mostly ignores him and lives his life using expensive creams and whining and putting sparkles into his laundry.
The way he treats women in general in his dating life may have been sexist, but Tom doesn’t seem to have any qualms about strong women getting stuff done or about ideals of feminism. That doesn’t mean he puts everything into practice in his own life, but he fully supports Leslie’s dreams and ideas and helps her with it when he wants to.
Sidenote: Tom is the only main male character of color (with Donna, Ann and April being women of color). To my knowledge, Tom is the only character who calls out racism not just towards him but towards people of color in general throughout the series, on several occasions. My personal theory is that Aziz Ansari, who is very adamant about the racism faced by South Asian men, inserted these lines in the show, because racism is almost never broached as an issue on Parks and Recreation (except for the treatment of the Wamapokes, but that is a topic for another article). I could be wrong about it, though, because he hasn’t confirmed it.
Problematic fave? Kinda, yeah. He is mostly selfish and a little brat to everyone around him. But as far as really offensive things go? He grew out of most of his sexist ways and his manners have become more quirks than really hurtful attitudes.
The Parks and Rec men are rad, y’all. They’re not absolutely perfect, no character is, but they’re realistic and most of them are written in a more progressive way than many pieces of media. There is active effort to make them more tolerant than most male characters are. A point that deserves to be underlined: there is a grand total of one “no homo” moment between men in the show, and it comes from Ron (“What’s a non gay way to ask him to go camping with me?”), who is the one with the more obstructive views about what male relationships should look like. Their friendships are meaningful and well developed, the characters evolve through time and learn and mature. Hopefully this trend keeps going in other comedy shows and we see more characters like them.