Ah, Pawnee… The lovely little Indiana town where America is so beautiful, the good politicians are so devoted, the citizens are so quirky, the friendships are so strong… and everyone is so straight. Ouch. Keeping in mind that you can still enjoy a piece of media while acknowledging the problematic aspects of it, I’m going to go through the good, the bad and the ugly of the way same-sex attraction was portrayed throughout Parks and Recreation. Get ready for a bumpy and disheartening ride. Starting with the worse to work my way up to the kind of acceptable.
The “gay episode”
To start off a post about LGBT+ representation in Parks and Recreation, why not talk about the single episode about gay rights? I use the word “gay” because apparently, queer women are barely a thing in Parks and Rec, and this episode (Pawnee Zoo, season 2 episode 1) certainly features none. But before opening that can of worms, let us talk about the obvious: what’s with all these shows having one episode on LGBT+ rights and basically no representation beside it? It’s not just Parks and Rec, why is that a thing at all? Queer people don’t get to focus on our rights for just twenty minutes and then forget about all our troubles and the prejudice we’re facing, because somehow that’s dealt with and there’s no need to talk about it further.
It’s something many of us are confronted with every day, all the time, not just one small part of life that can be skipped easily. The show’s decision to have only one episode focusing on these issues (and covering a tiny part of them, at that) is questionable at best, especially when you consider that other social issues such as sexism are treated in almost every episode. I wouldn’t be so completely against that kind of episode (in fact, I’d be really interested in more medias giving more visibility to issues LGBT+ people are facing) if they weren’t always accompanied by two big oh-no-no’s: extreme stereotyping and a sore lack of representation outside of the episode. Simply put, it is merely an adventure to gay land for the straight protagonist. Now onto the actual episode:
Pawnee Zoo starts with an adorable wedding ceremony between two penguins organized by Leslie at the local zoo. When it turns out that both penguins were males, she immediately starts saying that she actually has no opinion on gay marriage and that it wasn’t a message she was trying to convey because public servants “cannot take a political stance”. Despite that, Marcia Langman, a spokesperson from the Society for Family Stability Foundation threatens to ask for Leslie’s designation. That night, Leslie gets invited by April’s gay boyfriend and his boyfriend at a party at a gay bar. As all the gay men rally for her, tremendously happy to see their struggles acknowledged and their rights supported, Leslie tries to refuse to take a real stance, but when she sees how much they love her, she indulges in the attention she’s getting and parties with them. The next day, as her job is openly threatened, she refuses to take any stance on marriage equality but still defends the wedding she organized, claiming it was cute. Her final decision is to take the penguins to a state where marriage equality is present in the law.
Why is that bad?
Let’s start with the absolute obvious: it’s not okay to have an entire episode talking about the rights of LGBT+ people centered around a straight character. Don’t do that. You’re taking away the voices of the actually marginalized people and handing over the mic to the majority. Not only that, but the whole conflict had to do with Leslie’s job rather than, you know, actually gay rights. This is a problem because it sends the message that the rights of the minorities are only of relevance when a member of the majority is being hurt.
Now that that’s taken care of, let’s talk about… how every single person involved in this plotline is homophobic? Obviously, Marcia Langman and her organization are. That is no news: Parks and Recreation relies a lot on heavily stereotyped antagonists, but what is bothering about that is that, instead of presenting a clear cut message against their prejudice and be completely in favor of gay rights in a respectful and meaningful way (which would make for a cartoonish episode, maybe, but one where the LBGT+ viewer feels at least somewhat respected), the protagonist is actually also displaying homophobic views.
Indeed, in addition to the above quote, Leslie is acting quite the homophobe in this episode. She calls Tom an “effeminate” for wearing a pink shirt (someone needs to watch a certain cartoon about space rocks and learn from it…) and compares him to the gay men of The Bulge (the name of the gay bar… Yep.) who wear shirts of the same shade. She calls polyamory and bisexuality “youth culture” (as if queer people hadn’t existed since the dawn of times). She literally refuses to take a stance on marriage equality, claiming that she is not allowed to make political stances. Isn’t that against basically everything in this show? Leslie constantly makes political stances on everything, she is openly feminist and never keeps those opinions to herself when it comes to defend women’s rights. Are LGBT+ rights not enough for her to defend?
Now onto Tom and April, who each have a blatantly homophobic remark at some point at the episode. While at the gay bar, Tom makes fun of the fact that he has seen many men from City Hall here, but then remembers that they’ve seen him too. Get it? The punchline is that he would have made fun of them, but now they think he’s gay! Such fine humor. In the same spirit of grossness, while presenting Leslie to the crowd of the gay bar, April shouts “She’s Leslie Knope and she wants to recruit you!”, paying right into the stereotype that gay people recruit the youth instead of simply existing and living their sexuality in their own way.
Now onto the actual gay characters. Now, as I’ve mentioned earlier, all of them are men, because somehow in a show that claims to be centered around women and their relationships, women can’t be gay. Not to mention that these gay men are more of a passive object in the narrative than actors of the story. The patrons of The Bulge aren’t given much of a personality, but just enough that the audience doesn’t forget that gay people like pink, don’t like sports, and that all of them can dance. Derek and Ben, though, are actually not that stereotyped in their appearance and attitude if it weren’t for one line by Leslie: “Ben and Derek are taking me shopping on Saturday and we are gonna find out my actual bra size.” Oops, clichés, you did it again!
Speaking about these two, April describes their situation as “Derek is gay, but he’s straight for me, but he’s gay for Ben, and Ben’s really gay for Derek”, and it’s almost like there is a word to describe Derek’s sexuality… A word that even the show doesn’t shy away from using just a little bit later when Leslie mentions two bisexual guys giving her their number (which, credit where credit is due, kudos to them, that’s a word you don’t hear every day on TV). Still not sure why April would shy away from using it, but throughout the rest of the season, she never once describes her boyfriend as polyamorous or bisexual. He’s always called her gay boyfriend, which pays into the stereotype that bisexual men are actually gay. And while we’re on bisexuals…
Bisexuality = Hypersexuality
Everyone knows the Sapersteins. Jean-Ralphio, everyone’s problematic fave, and his sister Mona-Lisa, somehow even crazier and more problematic. Did you know that they’re likely bisexuals? On several occasions, they express attraction towards people of the same gender. Remember Jean-Ralphio singing about how he is “open-minded as hell!” as he hits on Chris and Ann at the same time? Or when he accepted to go “horseback riding” with Craig? Or when Mona-Lisa went to hit on a woman, asking her for a threesome with her and Tom? These aren’t definitive proof that they are not straight, but it’s as many clues hinting at it.
In the same category is Tammy Swanson, Ron’s second wife. Now there is only one example of this but as she’s brawling with Leslie in a garbage container, she says that she is “so turned on by this.”
Why is that bad?
There would be nothing wrong with characters expressing attraction to the people of the opposite gender as well as their own… if it weren’t for the fact that all of these characters have a sexual history that is highly problematic. Jean-Ralphio is hitting on pretty much every single woman he comes across, no matter if they’ve rejected him before. He has stayed outside of women’s homes to stalk them. His bisexuality is presented as him being extremely into sex − just after hitting on Chris, he mentions how much he watches tons of porn constantly. Mona-Lisa is sexually abusive with Tom and ignores him saying “no” on more than one occasion (which is another issue in and of itself). Tammy is sexually manipulative and her same-sex attraction is literally fueled by violence. In a show where LGBT+ characters have so little representation, having the very few bisexual-coded characters also be hypersexual as well as problematic individuals paints an openly negative picture of bisexuality. Part of biphobia is the conflation of bisexuality with hypersexuality: bisexuals are stereotyped as being into everyone, and Parks and Rec does nothing to fight that stereotype.
Homophobia/Transphobia is quirky
Fans of April Ludgate such as myself, be ready to be disappointed in her and shake your head in disbelief, wondering why she turned out this way because you certainly didn’t raise her to be like that…
April’s way of telling her boyfriend and his boyfriend that she doesn’t like their sense of humor: “For a gay couple, you guys are being really gay.”
April when Andy asks her out in front of her boyfriend, who doesn’t speak very good English and asks what Andy just said, and she comes up with a make-up story on the spot: “He’s thinking about becoming a woman and wants my advice.”
Ben: “I can’t, I have a date.”
April: “Ooooh, what’s his name?”
April about Ann, someone she’s disliked for a long time: “The lesbian nurse is right, Chris.”
April, as Ann bars her from entering a party and says that April is physically weak: “It’s because of your man strength, Man Perkins.”
April helps Tom set up his new business: “We’re not even close to being ready, they’re not even done painting that sign. It says “Tom’s Bi”. Actually, no, that’s good.”
Why is that bad?
We all know April is “weird” and that she can be a bully, but did they really have to use homophobia and transphobia to convey that? I don’t think I need to really go into the details of why these lines are a problem but just to make sure: it’s not okay to use “gay” as a derogatory word, it’s not okay to cheapen trans people’s experiences by using them as a prank, it’s not okay to treat same-sex attraction as a joke and something to mock and it’s not okay to tie physical strength to a particular gender. That’s already bad in and of itself.
What is worse is that the narrative doesn’t seem to acknowledge the prejudice inherent in these comments. They’re not treated as anything different than her usual taunting. She is never called out on them, at all, whether by the people around her or by the actual gay people she’s openly insulting, one of them being her boyfriend. That is not okay. There’s being weird and teasing others, and there is being repeatedly homophobic and transphobic. These remarks are not just another snappy reply, they are directly contributing to the systematic oppression of queer people and, if they have to exist at all (which they honestly don’t), their nature should be acknowledged and called out within the narrative.
Typhoon is a minor character introduced in the episode Gin It Up (season 6, episode 5) as Donna’s hairdresser. He is also Councilman Jamm’s hairdresser and during the episode, focused on Donna tweeting on the Parks and Rec twitter account instead of her private one by mistake, he gives Jamm the access to her private account, compromising her position and her friendship with Leslie because her personal account is filled with her complaining about Leslie. The next time we see him is at Donna’s wedding where he expresses attraction for Craig. In a later episode, Donna asks him to do Ron’s hair when Ron’s barber dies and he is upset to have to do such a boring hairstyle, but Ron and him bond over hating Europe and bicycles. He ends up marrying Craig and they stay married well into old age.
Why is that bad?
I know that Typhoon is a minor character and there is little time to give him much in terms of characterization, but does that excuse him being a stereotype in every way?!
From the job to the appearance, not to mention the lisp, the interests, Typhoon is entirely coded as gay. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having such attributes, of course. The problem is when a character is nothing outside of that. Typhoon isn’t shown to be anything else, to have any sort of complex personality. In fact, his actual personality includes being petty and vindicative for superficial reasons (he sells out Donna’s twitter account because she didn’t come to a brunch he organized), complaining about Europe and bicycles (?) and being into Craig. I don’t think I can’t say much more about Typhoon because there is nothing more. No effort was made to make him into a multi-faceted character whose sexuality is only a part of him and not the only prism through which he’s presented.
Same-sex attraction is funny
I’m distinguishing this from April’s homophobic and transphobic jabs. What I mean here is not a character using homosexuality or trans identity as a punchline but rather the show’s narrative doing so. I’m rating this as less ugly than the former because it only has one layer of harm to it since it’s not a “joke” that’s being made by an actual character. It’s made by the writers for the viewers. There are several examples of this throughout the show, here are some of them:
Andy (about a painting featuring a female centaur’s breasts): “Leslie, I don’t want to be inappropriate because you’re my friend and my boss, but I would totally hit that.”
April: “So would I.”
Ben: “Who hasn’t had gay thoughts? Who?!”
Andy: “Don’t play stupid and handsome with me! You’re as guilty as you are sexy.”
Why is that bad?
These characters express attraction towards people of the same gender as them, and the show presents it as a joke. April expressing attraction toward the female centaur in the painting and there is a pause, marking a punchline in every way. Ben is a complete mess on TV and keeps saying just about any type of nonsense, and one of these weird things is that he’s had “gay thoughts”. Andy is being silly with Chris, pretending to be in a cop intrigue, and in the same breath he is expressing attraction for him.
What these examples have in common is that the attraction is never taken seriously. Either it’s a punchline, or it’s expressed in a context that is ridiculous and not meant to be treated seriously. What it certainly isn’t is something to talk about openly and earnestly. What a great debate this could have been, talking about bisexuality and what it means to you when you’re in a straight relationship, exploring that theme. What we got is “Haha it’s funny they’re not straight”.
Okay, here is a selection of quotes:
“You’re cool and you’re sexy and you’re smart and you’re funny.”
“I am Leslie’s trophy wife.”
“Oh Ann, you perfect sunflower…”
“You were my vaguely ethnic and stunning girlfriend who I took to red-carpet events.”
“You’re so sweet and innocent and pretty.”
“This is Ann Perkins.” “Oh, right. Leslie’s new ‘friend’.”
Why is that bad?
Queerbaiting is generally defined as inserting homo-erotic tension between two characters, without giving them any chance to ever end up together. This cheapens the importance of same-sex attraction, sending the message that those romances are not as valuable as straight ones, that they are a phase (considering the character systematically ends up with a straight partner), that they are not worthy of real representation.
In Ann and Leslie’s case, Leslie is constantly praising Ann’s beauty, to the point that even Ann’s boyfriend asks her for advice. She is taking her to formal events as one would a date: they even get mistaken for a couple by several other guests in The Banquet (season 1, episode 5). The press and the radio regularly mistake them for lesbians. They fight like an old married couple, they share meaningful glances. Yet we hear their canon version of the facts: they’re just friends. They’re both heterosexual. Anything else is over-interpreting.
I don’t know if it’s accurate to call that erasing the queer narrative, since there wasn’t one in the first place, but I think it’s perfectly fair for viewers to feel cheated of what could have been. The attraction between them was never treated as something real or worthy of exploring openly. Because they’re two women and any attraction for another woman has to stay within the realm of friendship.
THE GOOD… kinda
The narrative (sometimes) rewards tolerance
I think that we’ve established so far that the LGBT+ representation is abysmal in the show so you’ll forgive me if this good aspect would be more accurately described by the word “okay” and is quite frankly the bare minimum. In the episode Go Big or Go Home (season 3, episode 1), Chris and Ann are on their first date. Ann had been a bit hesitant to accept his invitation, but the episode shows a series of moments where Chris shines by his kindness, intelligence and genuine care and interest for the people around him. Part of this is him getting hit on by gay men (they went to The Bulge).
Guy: “Can I buy you a drink?”
Chris: “Oh, I’m very flattered, but this is my stunning and gorgeous date Ann Perkins.”
Guy: “Oh. Hi.”
Chris: “Oh, no problem, in fact, let me buy all of you a drink for being so welcoming today.”
Why is that good?
Ideally, everyone should react in a respectful way when someone is offering them a drink politely, whether they’re interested or not. In our world of toxic masculinity where gay men (and LBGT+ people in general) are at a risk of violent assault at all times, Chris’s reaction is a nice contrast from the aggressive “no homo” that could have been. Not only is his reaction adequate, but the narrative presented it as a good thing: it’s part of why Chris is a good date. It’s not much, but it’s a moment where homophobia is presented as a bad thing. Noteworthy: this kind of reaction to compliments from other men is part of Chris’s characterization all throughout the show.
Derek and Ben
Derek is first introduced in season 1 as April’s friend who is, as she puts it, “the gayest person she’s ever met”. In season 2, that relationship seems to have changed, as she introduces him to Leslie as her boyfriend (who also has a boyfriend named Ben). Derek and April stay together for a big part of season 2, before she breaks up with him (and by extension, Ben) for incompatibility issues, mainly the fact that she has a big crush on Andy. Still, they seem to remain friends, as they are present and even part of the ceremony at her wedding the next year.
Why is that good?
Aside from the line by Leslie mentioned earlier, Derek and Ben are very rarely stereotyped and reduced to their sexuality by the narrative. They are minor characters, sure, but their personalities are portrayed as those of hipsters rather than typical “fabulous” gay guys. In fact, that is openly acknowledged in Christmas Scandal (season 2, episode 12), when April asks for Andy’s help to find Derek a present. He learns that Derek is gay (I will never understand the show’s decision to never use the word bisexual to describe him…) and starts suggesting heavily stereotyped presents, and April scoffs at him because those are in fact the opposite of what Derek would like. What he is interested in is making fun of people or dressing up as other people to make fun of them. Which leads me to the next good thing about these guys: Derek dressing up as a straight person for Halloween.
This is a joke, the punchline being straight people, made by a non stereotyped queer man and the narrative acknowledges it as funny and makes us side with him. That’s not something you see every day.
Craig is introduced in Doppelgängers (season 6, episode 4) as an employee from Parks Department of the former Eagleton and becomes part of the main cast until the end of the show. He even gets a special spot in the finale that tells us he eventually marries Typhoon.
Why is that good?
Now, I’ll admit, initially Craig seems to fit some stereotypes about gay men. He is overdramatic and has a very outgoing personality, and some of his interests are rather stereotyped. However, he is not limited to that and has more going for him than just that. As time goes, his personality is shown to be multi-faceted and he demonstrates character growth.
His main character trait is in fact that he is driven. He is extremely invested in his work life and his passions (which include enology, organizing events and singing). The downside of that is that he can be perceived as too intense: he can have random bursts of anger. In season 7, we learn that he has started working on that problem. He is seeing a therapist and has taken up yoga. He is taking a second job, he is expanding his first job. He is a full-rounded character. Overall, Craig has some traits that are stereotypical of gay men, but these traits are only a part of who he is and do not define him as a person.
As much as we can all love and enjoy Parks and Rec, I believe it’s fair to make the assessment that the majority of instances or mentions of LGBT+ people are in fact derogatory and stereotypical. However, the show showed some effort to include a gay character in the main cast and make him a real multi-faceted person. While that can be perceived as too late and too little (where are all the queer women? the queer people of color? the trans people?), that shows some sort of good intention, and maybe enough to keep this show as our problematic fave.