Parks and Recreation Takes Brown v. Board Of Education Into The Wilderness

By Guest Contributor Caroline Karanja

A fairly amusing episode of Parks and Recreation left me wondering about the effects of de-racializing the civil rights movement into a simple fight for equality. Since when does hetero-normative white society become the victim?

The show centers around quirky and optimistic Leslie Knop, who is devoted to her job at a local government office in Pawnee, Ind. Alongside her is department head Ron Swanson, a sarcastic-yet-lovable nature lover played as a hipster Alpha male. His
Libertarian political philosophy is the foundation of the show’s sarcasm towards big government.

In the episode “Pawnee Rangers,” Leslie is troop leader of the Pawnee Goddesses. They host fun activities; they eat candy and have puppy parties. Ron’s Pawnee Rangers is an outdoors club that’s really out there “roughing it.” They are the kind of boy scouts that dig their own trenches, live in boxes and eat food from a can. In this episode, everyone learns a lesson about equality during wilderness weekend.

It all begins when out of pure lack of fun one of Ron’s rangers goes to the Goddesses, asking to join their club. Leslie turns him down. The irony is that Leslie started the Pawnee Goddesses because Pawnee Rangers didn’t accept girls. The Younger Goddesses protest, referencing the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision in hopes of getting Leslie to change her mind.

During the group forum, a young white girl Abigail says to Leslie, “Isn’t it like Brown v Board of Education? Separate but equal is never really equal. We should let the boys in” Casey, a young black girl responds, “I disagree. I think there is a benefit to educating the genders separately.” Casey, of course, is a very conscious decision on the part of the writers. Her words constitute the only non-white voice in the whole debate.

Leslie, in a “talking-head” interview segment, playfully dismisses the two well-articulated points made by the girls, essentially avoiding the issues of gender and race presented, a signature move for the show. Although the show rarely devotes a whole episode to social inequality or “isms,” there are always hints of these issues. The show’s eccentric humor helps mask the politically aware and socially conscious undertones found though out the show.

As I was watching this episode, I couldn’t help but think about how the social movements today evoke the civil rights movements in their agenda. An extreme case is the debate surrounding the Slutwalk movement, when some demonstrators tried to call upon black oppression to stress their point. These connections have also been made in the gay community, as some have compared racial prejudice with anti-gay sentiment. In this particular context, Parks and Recreation represents the growing trend of mainstream media commercializing and claiming a stake in the civil rights movement.

In Pawnee, equality is brought by the Brown decision and exhibited through the female Pawnee Godesses. The main goal is to bring equality to the male Rangers, which eventually emasculates the hyper-masculine Ron. Once he loses his Rangers, he can no longer “Be a Man” – a statement, which as we learn in the beginning, is the only rule in the Pawnee Ranger guidebook.

Considering how Ron’s “plight” was portrayed, it begs the question: how can mainstream movements that call for social and political equality such as the recent feminist and anti-capitalist demonstrations relate to the fights, struggles and victories of non-white communities without offending, devaluing or co-opting them?

Pawnee’s wilderness weekend slightly complicates and humors the idea of equality. It commodifies the movement, creating a platform through which, the audience must laugh at the issues of “inequality.” This episode demonstrates the complexities of these issues that require, if nothing else, a passing thought.

  • dersk

    I think you’ve misread a few bits of this episode – first, in no way is Ron Swanson a hipster. You’re probably thinking of Aziz Ansari’s character. Second, I didn’t read it as Leslie ‘playfully dismissing’ the attitudes – she was clearly revelling in the fact that she was creating new mini-Knope policy wonks. And the bit where Ron finally admits to her that her club was better was, I think, meant to be him being a man.

  • Drhiphop85

    Glad this article was written even-handed (as these things can be written) and wasn’t just some blind condemnation. It was insightful while still keeping in mind the relativistic shade that comedy sits in. 

  • http://twitter.com/radicalhw Shannon Drury

    I’m a huge fan of the show and its cast, so I’m thrilled to see analysis of it here.  Keep it up!

  • http://twitter.com/radicalhw Shannon Drury

    I’m a huge fan of the show and its cast, so I’m thrilled to see analysis of it here.  Keep it up!

  • rchap

    I don’t what this show, but I feel like the whole “Be a Man” could also be satirical in terms of how our society (and all societies, really) have this ambiguous ideal of masculinity that we all must follow, but which no one can really define.  Does that make sense?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cocojams-Jambalayah/100000590546331 Cocojams Jambalayah

    Thanks for that interesting read.  I rarely watch tv and haven’t ever watched “Parks & Recreation” . But I find your statement that that show “commodifies the movement, creating a platform through which, the audience must laugh at the issues of “inequalit” to be insightful. And I  look forward to comments about that point as it relates to that show and more broadly.

    If I might digress from that subject, I wondered why the producers of that show chose the city name “Pawnee”. Are Native Amerians part of the cast or plots of that show?

    I was curious about that name and found out that Pawnee, Indiana is a fictitious name. However, 

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pawnee list these American cities named “Pawnee”:

    Pawnee, IllinoisPawnee, KansasPawnee, OklahomaPawnee, TexasPawnee City, Nebraska

    -snip-Also, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pawnee_people provides information about Pawnee Indians, including the fact that they historically lived in present-day
    Nebraska and in northern Kansas and-according to Wikipedia anyway- most Pawnee Indians live on their reservation in Okalahoma.Have there been any comment from Pawnees about the use of this name for that fictitious town?

    • JJ

      The show has made a number of references to the Native American heritage of the town.  It’s a comedy, so usually the references are jokes about the white settlers’ terrible treatment of Native Americans and/or the town’s present-day problems dealing with that history.  For example, there are a series of absurdly offensive murals depicting the town’s history that decorate the walls of City Hall, including one titled “The Trial of Chief Wamapo” in which the trial is depicted as taking place while the Native American chief is tied to a tree with a cannon pointing at him from about one foot away and two white men hovering behind it with matches, ready to light it.  

      There was also an episode that revolved around an event being held on a piece of land that was the site of an atrocity against Native Americans, and the chief of the local tribe (played by Jonathan Joss) threatens to “curse” the event, telling the camera in a talking-head segment that curses aren’t real but ”there are two things I know about white people: they love Matchbox 20, and they’re terrified of curses.”  Eventually they reach a compromise, but because the town is now panicked about the “curse” the chief performs a fake ceremony to lift it in which he pretends to be speaking a sacred chant while subtitles reveal he is actually saying “I am not saying anything. No one can understand me anyway. Doobee doobee doo.”

      I enjoy the show and think that the way the show has incorporated the town’s Native American roots has been well done, but I do wish that they had a recurring character who was Native American (and I would love for it to be Jonathan Joss, who was phenomenal in the curse episode).  I’m not Native American, though, and I’d be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts about how the show has dealt with the issue.

    • JJ

      The show has made a number of references to the Native American heritage of the town.  It’s a comedy, so usually the references are jokes about the white settlers’ terrible treatment of Native Americans and/or the town’s present-day problems dealing with that history.  For example, there are a series of absurdly offensive murals depicting the town’s history that decorate the walls of City Hall, including one titled “The Trial of Chief Wamapo” in which the trial is depicted as taking place while the Native American chief is tied to a tree with a cannon pointing at him from about one foot away and two white men hovering behind it with matches, ready to light it.  

      There was also an episode that revolved around an event being held on a piece of land that was the site of an atrocity against Native Americans, and the chief of the local tribe (played by Jonathan Joss) threatens to “curse” the event, telling the camera in a talking-head segment that curses aren’t real but ”there are two things I know about white people: they love Matchbox 20, and they’re terrified of curses.”  Eventually they reach a compromise, but because the town is now panicked about the “curse” the chief performs a fake ceremony to lift it in which he pretends to be speaking a sacred chant while subtitles reveal he is actually saying “I am not saying anything. No one can understand me anyway. Doobee doobee doo.”

      I enjoy the show and think that the way the show has incorporated the town’s Native American roots has been well done, but I do wish that they had a recurring character who was Native American (and I would love for it to be Jonathan Joss, who was phenomenal in the curse episode).  I’m not Native American, though, and I’d be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts about how the show has dealt with the issue.

      • Anonymous

        Sadly, the horrifying painting in Pawnee’s city hall has a real-life analog in a  WPA painting that depicted the lynching of a Native American man, which hung in a temporary Idaho statehouse for quite a while (I think).  I live in Idaho, and followed the controversy, but this was a couple of years ago, so I don’t remember a lot of the details.  There was argument over whether it should be taken down or not.  I tended toward leaving it up, so as not to ignore that part of our history.  You can see it here

        http://northwesthistory.blogspot.com/2008/12/idahos-controversial-lynching-mural.html

  • http://ergodicity.net/ Anand Sarwate

    This reminds me of a book I recently read : The Lost Promise of Civil Rights, by Risa Goluboff.  It’s a legal history of the litigation tactics used by the Civil Rights Service and the NAACP to challenge Jim Crow and racial disparities before Brown.  She argues that one of the outcomes of Brown is that “civil rights” came to be defined in terms of “state-sponsored discrimination” and did not address the socioeconomic aspects of Jim Crow.  In the years since, further litigation, legislation, and education has more or less rewritten history to ignore important cases of segregation in black unions, vagrancy laws, and other aspects, representing Brown as the quintessential civil rights case.  In some sense, in the “popular” (white) imagination, civil rights is about equal treatment by the state, and has nothing to do with historical context etc etc.