It goes without saying that Parks and Recreation is a feminist show. Moreso, I’d argue, than 30 Rock, which always gave equal screen time to Liz’s career goals and romantic pursuits. Parks has always been about Leslie’s career. Relationships have been used as storylines, sure, and yes, she is happily married. But Leslie and Ben didn’t appear in a single scene together this week. No Ben consoling her when things got tough. No Ben congratulating her when she succeeded. Leslie needed to accomplish something this week, and she did it without her man’s help.
This isn’t to say marriage is anti-feminist (though it is rooted in anti-feminism, more on that later). This episode demanded independence, not in a separatist sense, but in a “capable of getting shit done” sense. And the shit that needs to get done? Actual shit. Yep, Leslie gets to prove her feminist mettle by going on a garbage collection route.
Leslie forms a Gender Equality Commission for the City Council in an effort to encourage the hiring of more women in city government (a wink-nod is given to the binders joke, but not when you expect it). Obviously, the only two women involved in the commission are Leslie and April. Fending off requests for her to fetch more snacks, Leslie points out that the Sanitation Department employs only one woman—as a secretary. The head of the department counters that garbage collection requires a lot of heavy lifting and questions a woman’s ability to handle the job. Leslie takes the challenge.
Leslie and April finish their route at a quicker pace than other collectors, but an unscheduled pickup is called in: a giant industrial refrigerator impossible for two people to lift. It is, as Leslie calls it, a literal “feminist obstacle.” After struggling afternoon and into the night, the restaurant owner informs Leslie and April that the two garbagemen couldn’t lift it, and they had promised to “send more guys.” He reveals that the refrigerator still works, so Leslie calls the women from the soup kitchen. The eight of them lift it onto a dolly and into the truck. Shauna publishes an article on Leslie’s efforts, and the Sanitation Department hires three women garbage collectors.
It’s a wonderful effort on Leslie’s part, and the end result is about as positive as can be. One would presume the topicality of the episode was unintentional—news broke earlier this week that the Pentagon would lift a ban on women in combat. It’s great to break down feminist barriers, but it’s not like we’re talking about equal pay here. Congrats, ladies: you have every right to pick up trash and get shot at for a living.
This is not to disparage Leslie’s victory or the Pentagon’s idea of equality. What I want to address is a notion brought up by Andrew Ti and Christian Lander on the Yo, Is This Racist? Podcast recently: there’s malicious racism/sexism and there’s subtle racism/sexism. The Rodney King beating was bad. Slavery was bad. Hitting a woman is bad. Expecting a woman to be a housewife is bad. All of that stuff is obvious. It’s the subtler things that are hard to explain. So let me try, using Chris and Shauna’s developing relationship.
Chris is confused by his status with Shauna. They have been spending a lot of time together, but they’re not necessarily dating in the traditional sense. They frequently hang out in groups of people, and the most Shauna will say is that they have a “personal relationship.” Chris, as we know from last week, is rather desperate for a girlfriend/wife. Leslie advises him to relax and let things happen as they happen, but relaxing isn’t really Chris’s style. Nothing is resolved yet, but I’m sure we can expect more next week.
The issue is this: Chris is desperate for ownership of Shauna. He wants her to be his girlfriend, and eventually, his wife. I don’t think there is anything malicious in Chris’s desire, but that desire to slap a label on everything is ingrained in society. Marriage for marriage’s sake is rarely good, but Chris feels the need to be married because he’s getting older and all of his friends are/have been married. Is that a reason to get married? No, but that’s what he’s feeling, and it’s not healthy.
There is more about gender stereotypes to parse from the subplots—Ann isn’t great with kids; Tom isn’t a great athlete; Andy, Ben, and Tom act like children and play basketball with children; the parallels between Ron’s relationship and Chris’s—but I’m running long. Parks is on a nice streak of beautifully subtle episodes that attack every angle of their themes. They’ve earned it by developing such a rich cast. I always say that season fives suck, but you need to be paying attention to Parks right now.