I believe that if you do believe men and women have equal rights if someone asks if you’re a feminist, you have to say yes because that is how words work.
Aziz Ansari, 2015
The four sweetest words in the English language —
“You wore me down.”
Aziz Ansari’s definition of “feminist” (mentioned on the Late Show with David Letterman) makes clear how “words work” in many contemporary performances of masculinity—feminism is ”no action and all talk.” His definition of feminism, “believ[ing] men and women have equal rights” is a sound bite—feminism lite—that actually paraphrases Merriam-Webster’s “definition for students” but misses an important element, one the Oxford Dictionary does capture: “the advocacy of women's rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes” (“Feminism”). Ansari’s definition, focused on words, lacks any reference to advocacy or to enacting authentically feminist practices and behaviors that demonstrate beliefs.
Ansari’s IRL (In Real Life) sound-bite-feminism, while commendable and supportive of the feminist movement, is reflective of the often-overlooked feminist issue regarding practice. For us, there is an important connection to the ubiquity of such sound-bite-feminism and his character in Parks and Recreation, a show widely praised for its feminist storylines and characters (e.g., Bernstein’s “Parks and Recreation: A Feminist Utopia” and Engstrom’s Feminism, Gender, and Politics in NBC’s Parks and Recreation). Ansari’s character, Tom Haverford, embodies a “lovable sexism” where authenticity is used as an excuse for sexist behavior and unsettles the positive feminist messages occurring in the show.
Parks and Recreation is filmed in a mockumentary style similar to The Office.The show centers around a group of governmental employees/friends in the Parks and Recreation Department in fictional Pawnee, Indiana. While the show’s arc encompasses the main cohort of characters, Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler) is often the focus of the storylines. Knope, a self-proclaimed feminist, is regularly written into situations where women are battling for equality against white patriarchy, as represented by other government departments and the Pawnee City Council. For instance, in “Women in Garbage,” (a pun for having to deal with patriarchy), Knope challenges the Sanitation Department’s assumptions about “women’s work” and strength (i.e., women are exclusively hired as “secretaries”). Leslie and her coworker challenge assumptions by being garbage collectors for a day to prove their worth, though the Sanitation Department sets them up to fail. There is a refrigerator at the final collection stop, which “even” the men couldn’t move. Leslie and her coworker use their strength and wits to succeed. They find volunteers to help them move the refrigerator to a shelter rather than the dump. In this episode, the patriarchal ideology about women’s lack of physical strength is refuted, and Leslie’s intelligence and ethic of care for others is highlighted. The joke is clearly on patriarchy. Parks and Recreation takes feminism seriously and pokes fun at patriarchal assumptions about women with wit and humor.
Parks and Recreation has been rightly described as heuristic because of how it teaches viewers about feminism, puts feminism in action, and advocates for it (e.g., Ryan’s “What ‘Parks And Recreation’ Taught My Son about Feminism (And So Much Else)” and Froio’s “Five Feminist Teachings in Parks and Recreation”). Such instructions are not exclusive to women and their behaviors. Acting City Manager Chris Traeger, for instance, invites department heads to a meeting in “Women in Garbage” to address issues of gender inequity, helping viewers learn how to put into practice a feminist ethic. Only men show up. Traeger is dismayed and even notes he is himself part of the problem. In “Lucky,” naive Andy Dwyer, wanting to try something new, randomly checks out a Women’s Studies class at the local community college. After sitting in on the class, Andy is so inspired he ends up taking and passing the class, where he is introduced to feminist ideas. Though the context is comedic and Andy himself learns about feminism, the point for viewers is very important: Women’s Studies should be normalized as a worthy pursuit, rather than, as the show points out, considered a “last choice” for a man.
While the show certainly deserves such praise for its feminist rhetoric—in how feminism is enacted through characters, storylines, and positive feminist references (e.g., Laura Mulvey and Naomi Wolf)—Tom Haverford and his relationship with Leslie Knope is an important exception to the show’s feminist norm. While there are certainly other characters with complicated relationships to feminist practices and with the feminist protagonist, Leslie Knope, Tom is unique in what he “gets away with” in terms of amount, explicitness, and awareness of his sexist practices. Tom might be said to be a type of metamodern anti-feminist—a character who oscillates between non-traditional masculinity and stereotypically sexist masculinity. Our webtext focuses on the relationship between these two metamodern characters, illustrating how Tom embodies rhetorical maneuvers that “wore me [us, the authors] down,” enable an unhealthy masculinity, and encourage “lovable sexism”—a sexism cloaked in personal authenticity that invites men to “believe” in feminism without practicing and/or advocating for it, rendering feminism inert—as rhetorical inaction.
Metamodernity, Feminism, and Parks and Recreation
Metamodernity—that is, the ability to hold postmodern cynicism with modern sincerity at once—is highly rhetorical. Michial Farmer explains metamodernism as sincerely striving for a utopian ideal (the modern view) while simultaneously remaining cynical (the postmodern view), acknowledging the utopia is doomed to fail. These competing worldviews, existing in concert, imbue texts with a peculiar rhetorical framework. If the metamodernist seeks to persuade—to strive toward the ideal knowing it is likely to fail—tropes and rhetorical appeals take on unique purpose, one of persuasion with acknowledgement of an argument’s flaws. The metamodernist engages in the art of persuasion (arguing for the ideal), while simultaneously undercutting zemself with the admission that the ideal is impossible to achieve. It is not the outcome that the metamodern rhetorician argues for but the process—a process, at least, of moving toward an action.
The editorial board of the web magazine (which includes leading metamodern scholars Robin van den Akker and Luke Turner), Notes on Metamodernism, describe this metamodern process as a “structure of feeling,” “the different ways of thinking vying to emerge at any one time in history” (“Structures of Feeling”):
The metamodern structure of feeling evokes an oscillation between a modern desire for sense and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all, between a modern sincerity and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy and empathy and apathy and unity and plurality and purity and corruption and naïveté and knowingness...Indeed, metamodernism is an oscillation. It is the dynamic by which it expresses itself. One should be careful not to think of this oscillation as a balance however; rather it is a pendulum swinging between numerous, innumerable poles. Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings towards fanaticism, gravity pulls it back towards irony; the moment its irony sways towards apathy, gravity pulls it back towards enthusiasm. (“What is Metamodernism?”)
Luke Turner further points out how the “metamodern generation understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other.” 1
Tawfiq Yousef underscores the importance and relevance of metamodernism, describing its emergence as a scholarly pivot from postmodernism:
When postmodernism began to falter as an intellectual and cultural system, a strong call for a new critical and cultural sensibility began to emerge. Since the 1990s, several conferences and many critical studies have dealt with the transition from the postmodern to the metamodern era expecting or announcing the end of postmodernism. (34)
Yousef observes a trend in the field of literary theory toward metamodernism—one that is particularly beneficial to analyzing the intersections of sexism, masculinity, feminism, and media. He explains that metamodernism does not discount modernism or postmodernism, but is instead the result of necessary adaptation that allows for a more complete analysis of texts:
Metamodernism is an inclusive discourse articulating the ongoing intellectual and cultural developments for which neither the postmodern nor the modern critique is adequate. Metamodernism synthesi[z]es the best qualities of modernism and postmodernism. Despite the apparent demise of postmodernism and modernism, their strategies and ideological critiques continue to live on in metamodernism. (41)
Expanding on Yousef’s observation, Freinacht notes that while “Postmodernism... was concerned with being an antithesis, with questioning what we take for granted… Metamodernism instead sees itself as a...protosynthesis, (a ‘proto’-synthesis because it acknowledges that whatever story we tell ourselves, it must be inconsistent and temporary)” (Freinacht). In other words, metamodernism is self-aware, creating a means of analysis that acknowledges the necessity of adaptation in order to maintain relevance, while still utilizing established practices as they remain applicable to criticism.
Metamodernism is, thus, a useful lens for understanding our current rhetorical moment. It embraces not just the artificiality of construction in a postmodern sense but also the lived authenticity of construction in a modern sense. A metamodernist perspective is useful for examining what it means to be authentically artificial and artificially authentic simultaneously. It is a structure of feeling very connected to intersectionality and equality, acknowledging how different positions (e.g., social classes) oscillate in importance for different audiences, yet are both/and aspects of identity, which have more than theoretical consequences for equality.
As a whole, Parks and Recreation expresses what Michial Farmer calls a “metamodernist sensibility” (103). The show, as Farmer points out, balances postmodern cynicism with modern sincerity, oscillating between them, holding both positions at once. April and Andy’s—who are Tom’s coworkers—relationship is allegorical of such a sensibility. April might be said to represent postmodernism with her cynicism and sarcasm, seemingly always aware of subtext and irony. Andy, meanwhile, seems more modern, perhaps even Victorian, in his sincerity—believing fully in the metanarrative of marriage. Farmer writes,
The two [April and Andy] balance each other out—or, to put it in metamodernist terms, their marriage is an oscillation between the poles of sincerity and irony. “I guess I kind of hate most things” says April during her wedding vows, “but I never really seem to hate you.” (116)
Andy’s vows, on the other hand, are less meta-level and, though not exactly traditional, reflect a more modern perspective:
Andy responds to April by nodding his head like an excited toddler and reading his own vows: “April, you are the most awesome person I have ever known in my entire life. I vow to protect you from danger; and I don't care if I have to fight an ultimate fighter, or a bear…” (116)
While April and Andy may separately embody the metamodern tension between idealism and cynicism, Gry Rustad connects Leslie Knope, the show’s lead character, to an oscillating feminism that illustrates metamodernity on an individual level. Leslie’s character is portrayed as holding multiple feminist positions at once:
[Leslie] oscillates between nuclear notions of femininity (nurturing, hysterical irrationality, love object) and feminist ideals (empowerment, female bonding and independence). Leslie Knope is as such a perfect imperfect character, well rounded and complex, and a truly metamodern feminist.
For Rustad, Knope embraces a plurality of feminist perspectives. Rustad argues convincingly with an impressive knowledge of the show that Leslie is overall a metamodern character who embraces both second wave ideals (i.e., empowerment, female bonding, and independence) and ideals more aligned with third wave feminism (i.e., nurturing, hysterical irrationality, and love object).
While Rustad’s overall assessment is astute, Leslie’s embrace of multiple feminist perspectives isn’t always consistent. Erika Engstrom discusses Leslie’s oscillation between feminist positions, analyzing her rhetorical and metamodern processing of feminism as an ideal. In “Tom’s Divorce,” for instance, where three of the show’s characters visit a strip club, Engstrom notes the tension between third and second wave sensibilities. In the episode, Leslie takes Tom—at his request—to the club to cheer him up. As Engstrom observes, while at the strip club, Leslie adopts a more third wave perspective, noting that for some feminists stripping is an empowering profession. At the same time, her behavior suggests she is struggling to accept that fact. At one point, she recruits a stripper to perform a lap dance on Tom to cheer him up, then offers the stripper the following advice: “and then afterwards maybe reconsider your profession.” Here Leslie projects a metamodern oscillation as she seeks to accept the potential empowerment of stripping, but ultimately, as Engstrom puts it, “she [Leslie] becomes a representation of the radical feminist perspective that holds stripping’s con’s [sic] outweigh any pro’s [sic]” (79). In this rhetorical situation, Leslie lists to one side, but she is authentically oscillating between perspectives, “trying” them out, and feeling both at once. In other words, Leslie is practicing metamodern rhetoric.
Leslie’s ability to embrace and “try out” multiple forms of femininity connects to another aspect of a metamodern sensibility: informed naivete. Metamodern critic and poet Seth Abramson comments on the optimistic aspect of metamodernism:
It’s an optimistic philosophy, but it’s a hard-won optimism that’s often called, by metamodernists, ‘informed naivete.’ Informed naivete is knowing your optimism is naive — but plowing on anyway.
Leslie “plows on anyway” in the face of patriarchy and the adversity it creates. Engstrom praises Leslie Knope for her optimism, noting that Leslie is aware of the flaws of government and the overwhelming challenges she faces in the patriarchal bureaucracy of Pawnee. She nevertheless pushes ahead in an effort to make her city better. Engstrom also argues that Pawnee itself can be seen as a representation of patriarchal culture’s inhibiting of women’s progress. Leslie Knope’s experiences with feminism and the consistent anti-feminist rhetoric from many others in the town support this notion. Unlike Leslie, the town’s patriarchs are never interested in a metamodern process. Rather, they remain modernist in their patriarchal views and actions.
A Type of Metamodern Masculinity
Parks and Recreation as a heuristic, as a persuasive manifestation of metamodern feminism, is complicated by Tom Haverford’s character. The informed naivete a metamodern structure of feeling enacts can also be said to foster an irresponsible naivete when it manifests in Tom’s portrayal of masculinity. Tom, like Leslie, can be considered a metamodern character. Tom’s metrosexual persona coupled with his sexist behavior reflects an oscillation between “non-traditional” masculinity (i.e., embracing femininity) and maintaining “traditional” or sexist views of women (i.e., a “straight-man” perspective focusing on women’s bodies as objects for sexual gratification).
As the “Sexist Tom Haverford” supercut shows, Tom’s sexist behavior is ubiquitous. Whether it is Sweetum’s CEO Jessica Wix, Pawnee Today host Joan Callamezo, or any of the numerous “beautiful” women in Pawnee, all can expect sexist comments about their appearance from Tom. The episode titled “Beauty Pageant,” unsurprisingly, is one where Tom’s typical behavior is on full display, exemplifying his views towards women. After finagling his way into becoming a judge for Pawnee’s annual beauty pageant, he states, “If you don’t call in favors to look at women in bikinis and assign them numerical grades, what the hell do you call in favors for?” Tom even refers to Trish Ianetta, the winner of the pageant, simply as “the hot one.” Here, he clearly ignores all of Trish’s other qualities and focuses solely on her physical beauty.
In contrast to his overt sexism, Tom’s metrosexuality and embrace of more traditionally feminine character traits is also ubiquitous. Tom is frequently portrayed with a highly refined taste for fashion and the “finer” things in life. He decorates and stocks his apartment with fine lotions, blankets, and coconut water (“Live Ammo”). His “Treat yo’ self” sprees (“Pawnee Rangers”), in which he and Donna—Tom’s coworker— take a day off to get pampered at a spa, display his “soft” sensibility. His business venture, “Rent-A-Swag,” where his shopping habits and taste in clothes become a means to supplement his income, emphasizes his fashion trendiness. Much to Tom’s dismay, in “Pawnee Zoo,” Leslie even articulates his “dandiness” by making a stereotypical—and unLeslie-like —observation: “I know that you are not gay, but you’re effeminate.”
In “Managing Masculinities: The Metrosexual Moment,” Helene Shugart situates metrosexualism historically, linking it to a growing sexualization of men’s bodies and conspicuous consumption through commercial masculinity, or the capitalizing of men as consumers (282). As Shugart explains, metrosexualism and other movements validating men’s participation in activities popularly seen as effeminate could result in “a leveling of the playing field” and alleviate some pressures of sexism on women (282). However, this “‘reconstruction of masculinity ... demonstrate[s] very few signs of postfeminist consciousness and many more indications of intensely sexuali[z]ed and phallocentric muscularity’’’ (Edwards qtd. in Shugart 283). Though metrosexual men take on traditionally feminine traits and are sexualized in media, masculinity continues to be centered in media and culture, and the myriad of oppressive structures imposed on women cannot be erased.
In their preface to Communicating Marginalized Masculinities: Identity Politics in TV, Film, and New Media, Ronald L. Jackson II and Jamie E. Moshin comment on what we feel is metrosexuality’s connection to metamodernity. In their brief history of metrosexuality as a concept, they note the following:
The rise of the metrosexual could be said to demark [sic] either the rewriting of concepts of masculinity, or the providing of an equally-valued alternative or the proliferating of the post-identity movement. It is this last aspect, the post-genderness of the metrosexual, that most attracts our attention here; it is this very post-ness, the willingness to transgress and to straddle barriers, that simultaneously reifies and strengthens those same barriers. (6−7)
And for us, this is what is most problematic: As a metrosexual, Tom stands in marked contrast to “manly” men and, thus, serves as a comic foil on the show. To be “funny,” the show counts on a value-system based on an authentic non-metrosexual masculinity. Tom’s character may be “post-gender” and metamodern in his dandiness but not in his behavior towards women, which is also used for comic effect.
Tom Haverford’s oscillation between two seemingly contradictory forms of masculinity is counterbalanced by Leslie’s “knowledge” of his authenticity. We view Tom through a double oscillation—between toxic masculinities and the “real” Tom, who isn’t really a jerk. Tom’s “real” self, in fact, assists him in being a humorous character, one audiences cheer for rather than revile.
Though not explicitly named, this kind of irresponsible naivete is an issue rhetorical theorists are discussing in relation to feminism. In 2011, rhetoric scholars Jennifer Sano-Franchini, Donnie Sackey, and Stacey Pigg interviewed colleagues Nan Johnson and Stacey Perryman-Clark on the concept of feminism. Johnson and Perryman-Clark explain:
Many feminists of her [Johnson’s] generation associate the term [feminism] with equality, valuing the voices of all, and making sure that everyone has a space in the conversation. However, as Perryman-Clark suggests, when “feminism” is perceived as a disciplinary or academic stance that includes only the interests of women—and perhaps a narrowly defined understanding of what it means to be a woman—this inclusivity is undermined. In turn, feminism as a term in everyday use is associated for some with valuing all voices equally and for others with the fight for equality of a particular group that might exclude others. (Sano-Franchini et al.)
“Feminism” as it exists today might be said to oscillate similarly between informed naivetes and irresponsible naivetes. Informed naivetes are inclusive and place a value on action, with the understanding that even having a space at the table for a conversation doesn’t mean one will be heard or listened to. “Plowing ahead” and being equitable are part of the optimistic process of trying to create equal spaces in the face of patriarchy. Feminism, at the same time, can be irresponsible when it is words without action, belief without process, or when its actions are diminishing—for instance, focusing on white women’s interests without looking at larger intersectional issues. Leslie Knope oscillates between the two. She’s informed in her process to overthrow the patriarchy but irresponsible in accepting Tom’s sexism as not the “real” Tom: the “real” Tom, for Leslie, is feminist.
Irresponsible Naivete and Excusing “Lovable” Sexsim
In her study, From Boys to Men: Rhetorics of Emergent American Masculinity, Leigh Ann Jones adroitly explains how masculinity is rhetorically hegemonized: “The hegemony of any form of masculinity exists because it is continually remade through rhetorical acts with the project of the developing male a key part of this remaking” (21). Jones analyzes boys’ youth organizations’ (e.g., Boy Scouts of America) rhetorical moves—how they construct narratives about boys’ transition into manhood. Importantly, Jones concludes that “the organizations assume boys must be groomed through a connection to a larger national community that guides them through language into fully becoming men” (120). The organizations groom boys to become key subjects of the nation: they are groomed to be part of hegemonic masculinity (120).
Though not the kind of organization Jones analyzes, Parks and Recreation offers similar instructions in hegemonic masculinity and illustrates how feminism fits within the masculine hegemonic framework. Maureen Ryan’s article “What ‘Parks And Recreation’ Taught My Son about Feminism” describes the show’s heuristic elements and what it teaches her son about women, not necessarily about taking action. It also instructs in hegemonic masculinity’s relationship to women—deconstructing the culturally idealized form of a masculine character (in a given historical setting) as a toxic reification of hegemonic masculinity (Connell 69). On the positive side, Ryan notes how the show taught her son that “there are all kinds of women in the world who have all kinds of goals and values; there isn’t one ‘right’ way to be female,” and that “women face not only straight-up sexism but also more subtle forms of bias, and they can talk about it and challenge it and the world won’t end.” While these lessons may be feminist and challenge hegemony, Maureen Ryan is also forgiving of Tom’s sexism, commenting that “underneath the swagger was a smart, caring person willing to follow through on good ideas.” Through the actions and words of characters throughout the series, viewers are encouraged to see Tom as an ally of women, despite his continual negative actions toward women characters.
Furthermore, masculinity, as R.W. Connell explains, is not monolithic:
Different masculinities do not sit side-by-side like dishes on a smorgasbord. There are definite social relations between them. Especially, there are relations of hierarchy, for some masculinities are dominant while others are subordinated or marginalized. (Connell 10)
In Parks and Recreation, though Tom represents a subordinate type of masculinity, he nevertheless strives to be the masculine hegemon in one particular way: “The main axis of power in the contemporary European/US gender order is the overall subordination of women and dominance of men—the structure that women’s liberation named ‘patriarchy’” (Connell 24). Tom, in other words, is expert in subordinating women, devaluing them into object-status—sexualized bodies.
Tom, unlike many men rhetorically constructed into subjects of hegemonic masculinity, is often aware of his anti-feminist practices. Besides being called out on his behavior by Ann (Tom’s coworker and later girlfriend) and Lucy (Tom’s girlfriend), Tom admits to objectifying women as experiences to be sampled by creating 26 profiles on a dating site, “each designed to attract a different type of girl.” In “Soulmates,” Leslie is matched with one of Tom’s personas, “Tom N. Haverford.” The “N” is short for “nerd.” The episode suggests Tom knows how to say all the right things and understands people’s various value systems.
By excusing Tom’s actions toward women throughout the series, Parks and Recreation suggests that it’s acceptable for men to engage in misogynistic behavior as long as they are repentant and supportive of feminist ideals at some later date. Ultimately, it becomes important to look beyond what the show instructs boys with regards to feminism. It is important to look more deeply at men’s behaviors and their interactions with women and how women, themselves, take part in such interactions—a more informed understanding of feminism and hegemonic masculinity. Otherwise, the valuable lessons are more “belief” or “ideal” than instructions in masculinity and/or feminist practices. Jones asks an important question: “In what ways are women and girls invested in narratives of masculine becoming?” (124). In other words, if men are being instructed in how to fit feminism into the hegemonic framework through “belief” and not “action,” then how are women instructed in such a framework?
One answer to this question has to do with a kind of metamodern rhetorical problem: a belief in men’s feminist authenticity in spite of behaviors which may indicate otherwise. In other words, women and girls are instructed to look beyond the sexist action and to the “authentic” self of the man. As such, part of the remaking of hegemonic masculinity is located in metamodern rhetorical ambivalences: in how one can feel (pathos) the “good” of another’s character (ethos) even though logically (logos) it doesn’t follow. Leslie Knope’s belief in Tom Haverford’s character as being authentically good despite his actions belies this metamodern rhetorical issue.
This view of Tom is metamodern and highly rhetorical. Viewers are encouraged to believe that, “deep down,” Tom values women and believes in equity (a modern ideal grounded in authenticity). However, the bulk of Tom’s interactions with women essentialize or otherwise demean them—actions that are wrong but upheld by the hegemonic culture as the way powerful men are supposed to act. See the supercut and/or transcript for compelling evidence of Tom’s behavior.
Leslie’s character sees this contradiction in Tom’s behavior and determines that Tom would like to engage in equitable practices instead of sexist ones. In other words, Leslie believes in the modern ideal of equity. However, in observing Tom’s behavior, she also doubts the possibility of an equitable society and accepts Tom’s behavior as a by-product of the culture instead of a core value held by Tom. Leslie’s postmodern cynicism is balanced by her modernist desire for the ideal.
Leslie’s character encourages the view that Tom is both really good and really sexist, so let’s just forgive him. Tom Haverford is not a character to be taken seriously. His failures with women can often be considered what not to do. After all, his sexist ploys usually fail. In contrast, when he is “authentic” (i.e. drops the bravado and machismo) as he is at the end of “The Master Plan” episode, he is successful (i.e., his honesty and lack of bravado helps him successfully court Lucy). The main problem is how Tom’s metamodern masculinity is embraced by feminist characters who excuse the behavior as “Tom being Tom” (ironically, even Lucy seems to embrace his sexist behavior once they start dating, though at first she couldn’t seem to stand his bravado). In “Freddy Spaghetti” when Tom awkwardly brags about their doing “sex stuff” the night before to his coworkers, Lucy responds, “So, I don’t have to apologize for his behavior, right?” Though not dealing with sexism, “The Stakeout” illustrates the underlying forgiveness of Leslie towards Tom’s obnoxious behavior. Leslie tries to convince Dave (Pawnee Police Officer) to release Tom from jail after Tom was arrested for being a “smartass” with the officer: “No, Look. That’s what people think when they first meet him [Tom] but he’s all talk.”
Leslie and Lucy aren’t the only women characters to adopt an irresponsible naivete around Tom’s behaviors. April, in “Operation Ann,” convinces Ann to date Tom and ignore his chauvinist grandstanding because “he’s sweet.” She advocates for Tom’s authenticity in spite of his words, insisting that, underneath it all, he is a “good” guy. Similarly, in “Gin It Up!,” April “tells a prospective love interest [Nadia] of Tom’s that he’s ‘sweet’ and ‘cool,’” arguing for Nadia to look past the swagger (Engstrom 52). Even Ron, in “The Fight,” suggests Tom is genuinely honest. When Chris Traeger makes Tom sell his Snakehole Lounge shares because of a conflict of interest, Ron argues: “Tom’s not scamming anyone. He’s not savvy enough to manipulate the system like that. He’s just a kid chasing a goofy dream.” In acknowledging some sort of underlying “authentic” Tom, these characters are expressing the appeal to nature fallacy—because Tom’s nature is authentically good, his behavior should be excused. In spite of outward appearances, Tom is really a “good guy.” He’s someone who may seem like a reprobate but is an “authentically” good person.
Additionally, Tom’s character can be read as falling into a common trope of Indian masculinity in the United States. Murali Balaji describes such limited representations in his work comparing Bollywood and Hollywood representations of Indian men: Hollywood’s “[d]ominant constructions of Indian masculinity in film consisted of store owners, sidekicks, buffoons or immigrants seeking (awkwardly) to win the affections of women” (58). Balaji2 also describes how representation practices of Indians in global media is changing, fitting more into U.S. masculine norms and idealized hegemonic masculinity—tending to be “increasingly sexualized and physically imposing” (Balaji). Tom is never depicted as physically imposing or powerful. He is not, in other words, threatening to white audiences in the United States. In failing to represent these new tropes of Indian masculinity, Tom is a rhetorically “safe” representation of the “Other.”
In “Leslie’s House,” Tom even denies his connection to his Indian heritage. In recounting a childhood visit to India, he explains, “Last time I was in India, I was eight years old, and I stayed inside the whole time playing video games.” As well, when another character probed him on details regarding the region his parents grew up, Tom had to find the information covertly on the internet (“Leslie’s House”). Tom explicitly says that he feels no connection with India. His behavior suggests he does not want to be an Indian-American. Instead, his behavior suggests a desire to be the powerful, influential masculine hegemon and part of the white norm. Thus, Tom can be easily understood, implicitly and explicitly, as a rhetorical construct designed to maintain white hegemony over masculinity.
Though Tom does initially inhabit the trope of Indian masculinity often seen in Hollywood, he also challenges it in being a more developed character and, at times, in being a “good” person doing the “right” thing. For instance, Tom provides a stark contrast to the other one-dimensional characters he associates with, characters who inhabit their own familiar and demeaning tropes: the “greedy Jew” (Jean-Ralphio Saperstein) and the “Jewish princess” (Mona-Lisa Saperstein). These characters are more socially awkward than Tom, and unlike these characters, Tom is not so narcissistic and is, at times, at least reflective about his subject position.
In “How a Bill Becomes a Law,” Tom is heroic, more than a “nerdy” one-dimensional character. He works with Leslie to extend the public pool hours for children in the Pawnee community. Tom saves Leslie’s credibility by pushing Jeremy Jamm into the pool before he can embarrass Leslie by informing the media and the children present about the ridiculous quid pro quo ensuring extended hours. Leslie gave Jeremy Jamm her office, which has a coveted private bathroom. Tom did the “right” thing in supporting Leslie and maintaining the children’s political naivete.
In “The Stakeout,” when Leslie makes racist assumptions about Tom’s birthplace and his name (i.e., that he was “conceived in Libya”), Tom “gets real,” and his usual bravado is replaced with a serious tone. He responds, “I was conceived in America. My parents are Indian ... My birth name is Darwish Zubair Ismail Gani. Then I changed it to Tom Haverford because, you know, brown guys with funny-sounding Muslim names don’t make it far in politics.” To which Leslie responds, “What about Barack Obama?” Tom shows he is more than simply a buffoon or awkward character. He is critically aware about implicit racism and his position in the larger white, masculine hegemonic culture. However, Leslie negates Tom’s observation in her “exception to the rule” argument, letting audience members “off the hook,” so to speak, in understanding how hegemonic culture is connected to systemic racism.
Such critical awareness from Tom makes it easy to view him and his intentions as authentic and well-meaning. Engstrom agrees, saying “The people who know him well also know of Tom’s true character” (51). These hints at authenticity make it easy to accept his humor, which relies on “ironic” or “hipster” sexism: humor that winks at casual sexism, making it an inside joke among those who acknowledge sexism is outdated.
However, we disagree with Engstrom. Ironic sexism is still sexism, and in hiding behind the mask of self-awareness, it is particularly microaggressive. In her critique of ironic advertising, Anita Sarkeesian explains how ironic sexism simply masquerades as a “woke” understanding of oppression while in fact contributing to its ubiquity in culture and media:
While we think we are in on the joke, the reality is they aren’t making fun of or pointing out sexism, they’re [marketers] doing it...Marketers love the uber ironic sexist style of advertising because they [marketers] can use all the racist, sexist misogynist imagery they want and simultaneously distance themselves from it with a little wink and a nod.
Bitch Media’s Kelsey Wallace connects the practice of hipster sexism to everyday practices. Just as Sarkeesian notes how this type of sexism opens the door for all manner of offensive and oppressive actions, Wallace describes the way hipster sexism provides a readymade excuse for those seeking to diminish the impact of sexist acts or comments:
It creates an environment where it’s okay to dismiss someone as a slut and to blow her off if she challenges you. Where you can joke that a woman should make you a sandwich knowing that she’ll ‘get’ the joke, but really, underneath it all you kind of do think women should have to make your sandwiches. Where women, regardless of the cut of their jeans, don’t feel safe because they probably aren’t.
Through Tom’s seemingly ironic sexism, Parks and Recreation creates an uncertainty in the viewer and becomes a confusing heuristic about masculinity. Viewers can believe Tom is “authentically” a good person and brush off his sexism as “fake” or “not real.” When he refers to Trish as the “hot one,” the audience is in on the “wink,” in on the irony that Tom isn’t “authentically” sleazy, right?
In “The Master Plan” viewers witness Tom’s dating practice of “casting a wide net” (i.e., inviting a lot of women to a club, buying them drinks, and giving them his house key). Women are literally objectified as fish, with drinks and keys acting as hooks. Though Tom fails with the fish, he does, as mentioned, “hook” Lucy (the bartender) with a bit of “authentic” Tom. He acknowledges his failure to Lucy, and that’s authentic. But, again, is “authentic” Tom really “authentic”? Once he starts dating Lucy, he might be said to regress to his old ways, which Lucy accepts. His relationships with Nadia and Ann undergo similar struggles with “authenticity.” Ann is the only one who tires of Tom’s behavior, and, of course, it has no effect on Tom’s behavior after she dumps him. Furthermore, as blogger Ian Irwin observes in his rewatching of the show, Tom is “relentless in his pursuit of Ann”—never taking no for an answer. As a heuristic for masculinity, Tom seems to communicate that sexism and relentless harassment can be easily excused if you have a good heart, a good personality. Tom’s sexism becomes “lovable”—it’s somehow cute and excusable rather than patriarchal.
Tom’s everyday sexism, without major consequences or interrogation, is reflective of larger issues with practicing “feminism.” Leslie, so credulous and responsible in other ways, fails in this very interpersonal and close form of anti-feminism. In “believing” in authenticity, Leslie’s credulity becomes irresponsible.
Tom Haverford’s “pass” by a number of characters becomes more uncomfortable when his character is compared to Jeremy Jamm, the hyperbolic sexist villain who represents white patriarchy and the archetype of toxic masculinity. Throughout Leslie’s career as a councilwoman, Jamm thwarts her efforts to govern, impedes progress at every opportunity, and makes sexist comments along the way. Jamm and Haverford, as the supercuts illustrate, share sexist sensibilities, yet Jamm has no “authentic” goodness. As such, he is reviled by characters and viewers alike.
Racial politics play a role in how these rhetorical manifestations are viewed. Jamm, unlike Tom, has coercive, governmental power. He represents a “real” and dangerous power being critiqued by the show. Jamm might be said to be “authentically” bad. He never demonstrates growth or remorse, even when he is shown sympathetically to be lonely and living what viewers are to believe is a “sad” life. Leslie offers Jamm sympathy in “The Cones of Dunshire,” and just as it looks like he might be considerate, he fails, saying: “You know, in some weird, perverted, sexual way, I'm gonna miss you when you're gone.”
Tom is the “lovable sexist.” After all, he’s got the “Haverford charm ray” and balances two positions of masculinity that seem at odds, shifting between them as vehicles for humor. Haverford may be frustrating to other characters, but he’s often seen as funny, goofy, and lovable (playing into the stereotype): “Tom being Tom.” There is never a “Jamm being Jamm” moment where viewers are led to believe he is genuinely “good.” Unlike Tom, Jamm never displays a metamodern masculinity, which might endear him more to other characters or to viewers.
Tom’s sexism, however, becomes more troubling when additional racial contexts are considered. In the show, Tom is a token. Out of six major men characters who appear in most of the series (Tom, Ron, Gerry, Andy, Chris, and Ben), Tom is the only one who isn’t white. Out of these characters, Tom has the most difficult time with women and the least “woke” perspective. Whiteness—“a racialized understanding of domination over others”—doesn’t really oscillate positions as much as control all positions in the show (Santamaría Graff 1). We see the same phenomenon Engstrom observes regarding men characters in Parks and Recreation, that “[a[s a composite, these unique, individualistic portrayals offer a set of personality traits indicative of a ‘New Man’ persona, one that promotes Parks and Recreation’s underlying themes of friendship, prosocial behavior, and an explicated code of conduct reflective of both” (49). However, we see inequity in the show’s portrayal of men. In Parks and Recreation whiteness “gets” to be an attractive composite of white men characters, a composite showing more respect for women, while the lone person of color is consistently depicted engaging in inappropriate behavior toward women.
For example, Chris, Ron, and Andy—all Tom’s friends and coworkers—in “Lucky” demonstrate a respect for women; Gerry is a character even more naive than Andy and is respectful to everyone; Ben repeatedly demonstrates a reflective feminist ethic questioning how he can best support Leslie in her political campaign and respond to the “Male Men,” a men’s rights protest group complaining that Ben, because he is taking part in the Indiana Organization for Women’s pie making contest, has had no choice in becoming “too” feminized. Allan Johnson in Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy describes what seems to be going on: “Dominant groups avoid scrutiny because their position enables them to define their own interests as those of society as a whole” (157). It furthermore reflects Hughey’s observations about hegemonic whiteness and how whiteness is constructed as “inter-racial difference and superiority: positioning whites as essentially different and superior from those marked as nonwhite” (204). Parks and Recreation reserves feminist practices for white men, not brown men.
At the same time, however, Hughey’s observation about “intra-racial distinction and marginalization” is also occurring where there are marginalizing practices of being white that fail to exemplify dominant white racial ideals and expectations (204). White masculinity gets it all: white characters’ sexism is demonized and white characters are lionized in their relationships with women. Whiteness avoids scrutiny in scrutinizing itself, having a number of heroes. Meanwhile, the non-white masculine representation is defined as harmless, powerless—and so Tom’s sexism is rendered impotent. The relationship between whiteness and Tom’s marginalized masculinity is described well by Phillips: “Marginalized masculinities or ‘outcasts’ from the norm are constructed in the productive wake of the ideal, and as the conditions necessary for the ideal’s production and ‘natural’ appearance” (qtd. in Haywood and Johansson 7).
The contrasts between Jamm, the “good” white men, and Tom is a racially significant dichotomy. Intersectionality plays a central role in how “character” and character (ethos) are viewed; by balancing overt sexist acts with a backtracking, humorous charm, societal norms of propriety and white privilege are maintained. There is no disruption of white norms with, say, Tom’s being feminist and lovable rather than sexist and lovable. “Lovable sexism,” then, operates the same way as ironic or hipster sexism: it oppresses women and men (in the sense of valuing some expressions of masculinity over others) more effectively than overt acts of sexism because it gets excused and treated as “inconsequential” by an “inconsequential” Other.
Parks and Recreation illustrates a broad inequality in how sexism can be excused through affability, charm, race, and through two oscillating beliefs: that one can’t really be like that and that that’s just the way the Other is. Sexist behaviors are excused because “when push comes to shove,” he’ll “do the right thing.”
“Believing” in Feminism and Authenticity
Parks and Recreation is an important television show with metamodern and feminist sensibilities. The show often does more than “believe” in feminism, with characters not only referencing feminist theory but taking on patriarchal structures and challenging the patriarchal status quo. The show even presents a number of more or less feminist men role models: Chris worries about objectifying Linda in “Lucky,” and he attempts to be more inclusive of women in government in “Women in Garbage.” Ben in “Pie-Mary” helps Leslie negotiate “the impossible tightrope women in high-visibility positions are asked to walk” (Ward) when two hyperbolic interest groups (a men’s rights group and Indiana’s Organization of Women) simultaneously criticize Leslie for being both too feminine and not feminine enough.
Engstrom points out the heuristic importance of these rhetorical turns in the narrative and how such turns are counter-hegemonic:
The tying of male characters to notable feminists and to the study of feminism itself serves to normalize the idea that men not only (1) know about feminists and feminism but (2) actually support feminists and feminism. (65)
The issue with the show comes in the form of interpersonal relationships and “believing” in authenticity—in embracing Tom’s microaggressive humor as “natural” and excusable. Such a belief is a heuristic for what’s “okay” to tolerate (i.e., everyday, “lovable” sexism). His behavior is troubling because of how it is excused in a manner similar to the ways ironic advertising is excused because of its “wink”—because it’s not “real”—though it is, though it’s not. With Tom’s metamodern masculinity taken in the context of the show and his “true” self, it is difficult to find the credulity, the sincerity.
Though arguing about the rhetoric of consumerism, anti-consumerism, and how authenticity is rhetorically constructed as masculine, Robinson makes an important point about hegemonic masculinity: “The power of masculinity is secured, in part, by the fantasy that it is not constructed but natural, timeless, essential, and authentic” (46). She describes convincingly the existence of
a master narrative about [how] large social systems function to feminize men, and by extension the nation, by destroying authenticity [that] has long served to justify and legitimate a symbolic gender order in which all things masculine ‘trump’ all things feminine. (201)
Leslie takes part in this master narrative and fantasy but in an unexpected way. Tom, in the context and value system presented in the show, is both feminized and masculinized. Leslie’s belief in Tom’s authentic self, in his not “really” being sexist at heart, validates the master narrative in action. Tom isn’t really stereotypically masculine. He doesn’t really believe his actions. Leslie becomes complicit in maintaining the status quo because she doesn’t think his behavior is authentic. Sexist behavior continues to “trump” all things feminine because the “feminine” and, for our purposes, “feminist” self is hidden in authentic belief.
Certainly, the concentration of Tom’s sexist statements is diluted as the series progresses and as our supercut shows. Nevertheless, “believing” in feminism without acting in accordance to those beliefs is counterproductive to gender equity. In fact, it might be said to be a “Goldilocks move” to care just enough or “just right” to suppress advocacy. Throughout Parks and Recreation, Tom Haverford’s character creates feminist and racial tensions: there are times he does the “right” thing and is helpful. However, his fundamental pattern of behavior, including the regular objectification of women and treating women as sex objects, is made “loveable.” And since white characters are overwhelmingly “more” feminist, non-white Tom is safely “peeping” sexism as an Other, who may or may not “truly” be sexist. Non-whites get away with sexism and are deemed harmless or ineffectual at the same time.
While paying lip service to a belief is easy, taking difficult rhetorical actions that matter and are more likely to make an actual difference—like those sharing their experiences in #MeToo and #TimesUp—is not. Many of the stars of Parks and Recreation (Chris Pratt, Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, and Aubrey Plaza) are supportive of a reboot or reunion (McDonald). Hopefully, should a reboot occur, Tom Haverford’s character can change. No person and no character is stagnant. Just as people learn and evolve over time so too can characters. The difference is that characters such as those in Parks and Recreation are carefully crafted and are granted influence to communicate messages about appropriate behavior, thus shaping behaviors of others through their privileged place in prime time media. This privilege, then, means producers and actors must take seriously their responsibilities as influencers and accept scrutiny. In summary, we see Tom’s character, as well as other characters’ responses to his behavior, as problematic because he is given a free pass to mistreat women. Such behaviors onscreen suggest it is acceptable offscreen to engage in behaviors that allow people to pass as feminist while still upholding oppressive sexist structures.
For Parks and Recreation, putting belief into action would mean developing the character away from a metamodern masculinity that oscillates between non-traditional masculinity (i.e., embracing femininity) and traditional masculinity with regards to sexism. Instead, Tom’s character might become one who is more powerful, that parallels Leslie’s metamodernity. We’d like to see a new Tom who offers a masculinity that is both “traditionally” masculine and non-traditionally masculine. We’d like to see a Tom who expresses femininity (nurturing, hysterical irrationality, love object) and more “traditional” masculine/feminist ideals (empowerment, bonding between women, and independence). This is a type of masculinity one can “believe” in and advocate for, and it would be a rhetorical process worth seeing.
1 To put it another way, if there was a trope that represented metamodernity, it would be adianoeta: it is “a kind of irony, since it uses terms that imply a different meaning than they denote; however, adianoeta counts on carrying both its meanings, playing off how different audiences will understand the same locution (one, literally; the other, ironically)” (“Adianoeta”). Both meanings are privileged and exist at once. A metamodernist approach accepts both meanings.
2 Tom also doesn’t fit into the current Hollywood trend Balaji observes as the “geeky” tech expert.