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.