thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

How to Be Awesome Like April Ludgate

In Uncategorized on March 12, 2012 at 6:51 am

Sarah T.

Since my post on Friday played defense (with a few reservations) for Zooey Deschanel’s Jess on New Girl, it seemed appropriate to kick off the week with an appreciation of a character who’s pretty much Jess’s opposite: April Ludgate of Parks and Recreation.

Curb your enthusiasm, please.

What I love about April, as played with quicksilver wit and subtlety by Aubrey Plaza, is how layered she’s become over the course of the series. In early episodes, she’s a sulky intern with a semi-permanent sneer. Frustrated with her small-town Midwestern life, she’s the first to roll her eyes at anyone who displays the slightest sign of sincerity or enthusiasm.

But the warm humanism of Parks and Rec won’t let that kind of blanket negativity stand for long. Part of the change comes as April falls for Andy, a character fittingly described by Margaret Lyons at Vulture as “a human golden retriever.” In contrast to April, Andy exists in a constant state of delighted wonder at the workings of Pawnee, frisbees, peaches, and shoe-shining. His innocent sunniness brings out new dimensions in April: she’s lighter and more free-spirited around him, and touchingly protective. Meanwhile, April both anchors Andy and broadens his worldview.

April’s other relationships cast new light on her character as well. She bonds with her boss, Ron, over a shared dislike of productivity in the workplace. His libertarian gruffness intersects perfectly with her hipsterhood — he’s pretty much her second dad. The show also introduces her sister, nearly identical in both looks and temperament; her doting, bizarrely cheerful parents; and her friend Oren — a tall, pale, raven-like creature who’s constantly freaking everybody out by predicting the dates of their deaths and hiding under tables. Over the course of the series, April has evolved into a richly drawn character: still snarky and sarcastic and a lover of all things weird, and fundamentally good-hearted too.

And so, without further ado, here are a few ways to model yourself after the awesome sauce (April hates that word) that is April Ludgate.

1.) Go ahead and have a bad attitude. It’s liberating. Besides “awesome sauce,” among the things April hates are Valentine’s Day, outside, brunch, and smiling. She also hates “talking to people about things,” boring adult stuff like shower curtains and owning more than one fork, phone conversations, and being efficient.

Andy thinks it’s delightful that April hates so many things, which is in keeping with his adoration for pretty much everything about his wife. I think her bad attitude is something even better: brave. In a culture that constantly demands positivity from women — where men on the street regularly tell women passing by, complete strangers, to smile — April’s curmudgeonly personality is downright bold. A dude who instructs April to smile is likely to end up face-first in a garbage can.

April’s stone-faced cynicism also counters stereotypes of Latina women as fiery and emotional. “My mom’s Puerto Rican,” April explains in “Sister City,” completely deadpan. “That’s why I’m so lively and colorful.” And because she’s skeptical about everything — including mainstream cultural values — she’s one of the most open-minded characters on the show. In season 2, she’s in a non-monogamous three-person relationship with two men who identify as gay. Introducing them to Leslie, she explains, “Derek is gay but he’s straight for me, but he’s gay for Ben, and Ben’s really gay for Derek. And I hate Ben.” Later elaborating on their relationship to Mark (while slyly messing with his head), she says of Derek, “We’re just friends. He’s like the gayest person I’ve ever met, but I make out with him when I’m drunk sometimes.” Notably, what gets played for laughs here isn’t so much the fact that April’s dating life is unconventional as her bored yet convoluted explanations and the bewildered responses of other characters. April’s bad attitude breeds a healthy distrust of all forms of normativity, and empowers her not to care very much about what other people think. That frees her up to become more awesome by the minute.

2.) But carve out some space for love too. As I mentioned earlier, April loves Andy and Ron. And of course she adores her three-legged dog Champion, even though he’s not very good at digging. She’s admitted on multiple occasions that she looks up to Leslie (good choice, April!) and that she thinks Tom is funny and at least semi-cool — after all, it’s hard to dislike the inventor of DJ Roomba. With her recent (separate) matchmaking efforts on behalf of her former nemesis Ann and the overly upbeat Chris, it’s becoming increasingly evident that April actually cares about a lot of people.

Not only does April secretly like other human beings, she also likes some stuff. She can get into a good Model U.N. debate as long as she’s allowed to be the moon, and she really loves Neutral Milk Hotel. Garbage art has a fair amount of appeal. Pretending to be her alter-ego Janet Snakehole, a widow/heiress straight out of a deranged pulp novel, brings her a lot of joy. She couldn’t find a reason to be annoyed with the Grand Canyon, so it’s fair to guess she enjoyed it. And she’ll never say no to a good marshmallow shooter or a water balloon fight.

That’s the key to April’s bad attitude — it doesn’t stop her from forming interpersonal relationships or having fun. It’s just that her kind of fun might not include a lot of smiling or hugging, as a general rule.

3.) Don’t sell yourself short. This is a lesson that April’s in the process of learning, and it’s pretty great to watch. In “Campaign Shake-Up,” April finds a simple, cost-effective solution to Pawnee’s water fountain problem (town residents have an unsanitary habit of wrapping their mouths over the spout). Afterward, Ron asks her to put her innate intelligence and problem-solving skills to work — even if it does violate her do-nothing principles and everything Ron ever taught her. “I don’t like watching you wasting your brain,” he tells her. “And you’re too smart to stay my assistant forever.” This moment echos an earlier plotline from season 2, in which Chris recognizes April’s intelligence and asks her to come work for him in Indianapolis.

I’m hugely relieved Parks and Rec is going in this direction. April and Leslie have been the smartest people in the room for a long time, but only Leslie has been putting her intelligence to productive use on a regular basis. April’s still young enough to believe it’s not cool to care or try too hard. But the whole point of Parks and Recreation is that caring and trying can be really great, as embodied in the whirlwind of ambition and optimism that is Leslie Knope. April’s version of trying to make a difference isn’t going to look the same as Leslie’s, of course — it’ll be a lot more impatient and grouchy. But I can’t wait to see her start reaching.

What else do you love about April Ludgate? Let me know in the comments. Glaring, though optional, is certainly encouraged.

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