Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ron Swanson, The Tammys, and Pawnee Goddesses

Tonight, my most favorite line up of shows are all repeats. Depressing as that is, the episode of Parks and Recreation they are replaying inspired me to write. It's no secret that I have a deep love of this show, but this particular episode, Ron & Tammys, is possibly my least favorite since season 1.

The problem I have with it is that Ron describes his first major relationship with Tammy 1, played by Patricia Clarkson. Apparently, Tammy 1 was not only his first wife, but also the nurse at his birth and his math, Sunday school, and divers' ed teachers...aaaaaand they started their relationship when he was 15. For fairly obvious reasons, this piece of Ron's past was disturbing to me. And unfortunately unfeminist in an otherwise feminist show.

It kind of baffles me why they felt the need to write this story line for his life. Extreme age differences trouble me. Ron is fictional. We vaguely know he has a toxic past with Tammy 1 before this episode, but they could have made it anything.

Ok, I get that she's the villain of the episode so they're not necessarily condoning her behavior, but they have April continuously sing her praises as a bad ass woman. While I can appreciate the humor that Ron's a hard core manly-man who is intimidated by not 1 but 3 Tammys (2 ex-wives and his mom) I still don't see why his story needed a pedophiliac back drop that is supposed to mean that Tammy 1 is kind of cool, in a tough broad way.

BUT, contrast this with last week's episode which is by far my absolute favorite so far, Pawnee Rangers. In this episode Ron leads a group of Boy Scout-esque Pawnee Rangers who have one rule: Be a man. Because the Pawnee Rangers are boy exclusive, Leslie starts the Pawnee Goddesses. With this group, she has created a girl friendly, fun, culturally inclusive, and intellectual environment. It's basically a highly exaggerated depiction of the differences between the national Girl and Boy Scout organizations. And it's hilarious-especially if you're familiar with girl services.

At the risk of spoiling it all, I'll keep it sort of vage. Basically, as the episode progresses, Leslie realizes that she has created a group of mini-Leslie Knopes, who stand up for what they believe in. And the biggest lesson is that Ron's group wasn't perfect for ALL boys; it was perfect for any kid who liked to learn extreme survival tactics. And Leslie's group wasn't perfect for ALL girls; it was perfect for any kid who liked crafts, learning, and the indoors. (Personally I'd choose to be a Pawnee Goddess any day-which is why I'll be one for Halloween!)

Simply put, the message that kids are individuals, not gender stereotypes is a pretty great one. And, I think, a secondary message is that Leslie and Ron make a really great team, and that positive teams draw upon different individuals' strengths. Again, a damn great message.

Just please no more dark stories from Ron's past.


  1. This is going to sound really nerdy, but here we go: I see what you're saying about the creepiness of Ron's backstory, definitely. But I ended up reading Tammy 1 as this sort of uber-woman: she's being put in the position of teacher, moral instructor, surrogate mom, power lawyer, and lover. She's not an individual--she's "all things to all men." So the creepiness for me came more from the literalizing of a modern societal fantasy--that of course the ideal woman isn't just in the kitchen anymore; NOW she can be wherever and whatever you need her to be! I read Tammy 1 as a total rejection of that idea, and a subtle attempt to point out the problems that have emerged with the high-powered, 100% in charge, yet still motherly and nurturing stereotype for women. When does she get time to be human if she's busy fulfilling all these roles for other people?

    But I'm always inclined to read Parks and Rec as a feminist show, because, I like it a lot. :) And I think they portray pretty equal partnerships between genders, generally--like you mention with Ron and Leslie. Ron's stereotype would seem to suggest he's gung-ho about dominating women, and Leslie's stereotype would seem to suggest she's all about dominating men...but they care about each other and respect each other enough that those stereotypes erode, and make them into, I think, really complete and complex characters.

    You're right that April's reaction to Tammy 1 is off, though, and others. I don't quite know how to read it, really.

  2. Nerdiness thoroughly welcome here! Very interesting analysis. I don't think P&R makes it too hard to read the feminism in it, which IS nice for those of us who both like it and are feminists ;)

    As for Tammy 1: I guess the part that really gets me is the fact that they first had sex at 15 and he was "scared." I believe that is the exact word he used. I can get on board with your "women who must be everything to everyone=no time to stay human" view until I think about that part and I just come back to, "man I wish they wouldn't have written that detail!"

    I think that the show really does portray nice partnerships too--although I would argue that Leslie isn't a male dominator at all. I see it more like Leslie represents modern feminine leadership and Ron more old school stereotypically male leadership, but they often accomplish the most good by working together and utilizing both styles. Furthermore, they could also represent the opposites ends of the political spectrum. Ron believes in 0 government, while Leslie couldn't love it more, and again, it takes a balance for things to work.

  3. Just discovered your blog, so apologies for this not-at-all timely response.

    My take on Tammy 1 is that Ron comes from almost literally another world, where different cultural rules apply. Wouldn't he have to? It's like of like Dwight from "The Office": the Schrute clan is still so close to their earthy origins that Cousin Mose carves Venus of Willendorf figurines, not because he's a fan of anthropology but out of some primal instinct.

    I wonder if the genesis of the episode was someone thinking how creepy things get when you switch the genders. If they hadn't, they should have. If we discovered that, say, Ann Perkins had been married to a father figure whom she married while still a teenager ... okay, now I need to scrub my brain out with a nylon brush.

    The age of 15 is the age of consent in some places, if that helps clean some of the "eww" off the episode. It goes as low as 14 in some states. ... Okay, that only makes me feel worse.


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