thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

The Politics of “30 Rock” and “Parks and Rec”: Macho Men and Powerful Women

In Television on April 20, 2012 at 8:18 am

Sarah T.

“Bitches get stuff done,” Tina Fey proclaimed in a 2008 SNL Update, defending Hillary Clinton against sexist naysayers. A jubilant Amy Poehler grinned and threw signs at her side. The women’s allegiance to one another, and to Clinton, was palpable. Together they formed a triangle of  smart, powerful ladies, ready to catch whatever insults got hurled their way and eat them for lunch.

Four years later, Clinton is a Tumblr-inspiring Secretary of State and Poehler and Fey head renowned comedies on NBC’s Thursday lineup. Like Clinton, their characters Leslie Knope and Liz Lemon make their livings getting stuff done. Both are professional single women in their thirties who keep their workplaces afloat—Leslie through five-alarm enthusiastic productivity at all hours of the day; Liz by harriedly shepherding her coworkers over and around the obstacles they create for themselves.

But it’s their bosses Jack Donaghy and Ron Swanson who are truly brothers from another mother. Jack and Ron like their governments small, their Scotches fine, and their red meat cooked so rare it’s practically bleeding. Their trim haircuts hold effortless swoops. They’re manly, confident, all-American, irresistible to ladies, and politically rightward of their female counterparts.

While Fey and Poehler are the heart of the shows as flawed, lovable protagonists, Jack and Ron are meme-generating myths. Onscreen, they’re universally admired by their coworkers and treated as heartthrobs, their aura of manliness serving as catnip for straight women and gay men (bears!). As “real” men, they’re meant to be a dying breed; therefore Jack always has a video vixen or Fox money bunny on his arm, while Ron makes his friends’ ex-wives swoon. (Offscreen, they tend to elicit the same response—a recent article by LA Times critic  Mary McNamara confessed her undying love for Ron Swanson.) And on comedies that are quick to identify characters’ weak spots—whether lovingly (Parks and Rec) or cynically (30 Rock)—Jack and Ron are rarely the butt of a joke. The character-driven jokes about their personalities and preferences tend to come from their own mouths, not from other characters; their fortress of masculine invulnerability protects them from cutting zingers.

That invulnerability arises from their backgrounds as self-made men. Jack grew up in a working-class family and got his first job as a stevedore at age 12; Ron began working at a sheet metal factory at 9. “Within a week, I was running the floor,” he declares.

According to Jack and Ron, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps isn’t the American dream—it’s the American mandate. Jack climbed the socioeconomic ladder from humble beginnings, attending Ivy League schools, embracing corporatism, and eventually becoming the kind of man who feels like a farmer if he’s not wearing a tuxedo after 6 pm. Ron isn’t so much interested in upward mobility as in being left alone: his spooky campfire stories are about mandatory government car inspections. But he values self-sufficiency above all else, which makes it easy for him to argue for privatizing the parks department, eliminating taxes and child labor laws, and a perfect government where “one guy who sits in a small room at a desk, and the only thing he’s allowed to decide is who to nuke.”

These bootstrap origin stories are intertwined with Jack and Ron’s small-government politics and their masculinity. That they’ve worked hard all their lives to end up in positions of power is proof of their status as real men. This also marks labor as a masculine realm—that is, an area that rewards traits traditionally identified as masculine such as toughness, self-reliance, and ambition. And because Jack and Ron were able to work their way up, they believe that everyone else can and should do the same.

Of course, Jack’s Republican and Ron’s Libertarian views are exaggerated for comedic effect. But the characters also reveal a lot about the gendering of politics in American culture.

Broadly speaking, women are more likely to vote Democratic than men, while the opposite is true with Republicans. On 30 Rock and Parks and Rec, that same demographic breakdown plays out as Jack and Ron counter the liberal, socially-oriented politics of Liz and Leslie. As representations of their political parties, the four show that Republicans are manly winners, Libertarians are rugged individualists, and Democrats are funny, frazzled ladies who tend to fetishize very specific foods (sandwiches and waffles).

This breakdown is a bit surprising, given the left-leaning feminist politics of Fey and Poehler and the fact that 30 Rock and Parks and Rec both get classified as entertainment for the coastal liberal sets. Don’t get me wrong: Jack, Ron, Liz and Leslie are all great characters on great shows. But I wonder if mainstream, major-network television shows featuring women in positions of power require a few concessions: namely, that if a show is going to center on a successful career woman, there had at least better be a male character signing her paychecks.

There are, however, a few key differences in the power dynamics between Jack and Liz and Ron and Leslie—differences that reveal a lot about the sexual politics of each show, and that also explain why I ride for Parks and Rec but keep an appreciative but cool distance from 30 Rock.

Liz and Jack’s relationship can be described in a number of ways—Liz calls him her “work husband slash uncle,” while Jack settles on “coworker slash little brother.” They’re friends as well as boss and employee, but their defining relationship is that of mentor and mentee. With her blend of drive, intelligence, humility, and chaos, Liz is the perfect candidate for the Jack Donaghy Mentoring Experience. After all, she may fear sex, tape her bra together, wear Duane Reade bags as underpants and consume entire pizzas in her sleep, but she’s also smart and hardworking and reform-able. Since Jack is a winner and Liz is a mess, Jack wants to make Liz be a winner too.

This relationship is a solid premise for comedy, and 30 Rock regularly spits out laugh-out-loud jokes like an amped-up tennis ball machine. But sometimes it seems odd to me that the woman who stuck up for Hillary has created a power dynamic that keeps Jack consistently at the top of the heap. His character often serves as a mouthpiece for pointing out Liz’s perceived flaws. Jack regularly mocks Liz’s appearance, love life, eating habits and age—all areas in which women are notably subject to extreme cultural criticism. Since these criticisms are delivered in the form of witty quips, the audience is encouraged to laugh with Jack at all the ways Liz is doing womanhood wrong: Being single! Being 40! Wearing too many button-down shirts! Liking food! Somebody call the gender police.

On Parks and Rec, on the other hand, Ron and Leslie are equals. Ron is technically Leslie’s boss, but they both know she runs the parks department—and Pawnee—pretty much top to bottom. Their professional goals are often at odds: all Leslie wants to do is provide public service, and all Ron wants to do is body-block the government. But mutual respect underlies their every interaction, even as they duke it out. Take this season’s excellent “Pawnee Rangers,” in which Ron’s survivalist boys-only club met its match in Leslie’s far more fun and no less tough Pawnee Goddesses. When Leslie eventually triumphs over Ron, rather than rub it in his face—which, okay, she does a little, but only for a minute—she starts a new wilderness club for boys and girls. The name of her new group? The Swansons.

In the world of Parks and Rec, truly powerful men—that is, men who are secure in themselves—don’t feel threatened by powerful women. That’s why Ron and Leslie work so well together, and it’s also why he loves women’s studies and WNBA games. 30 Rock, on the other hand, constantly affirms Jack’s power but never really allows Liz to be powerful, no matter how much she supports Anna Howard Shaw Day. Liz may be the head writer of TGS, but on 30 Rock, the joke is always on her.

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  1. This is a really smart take on two smart shows. Though it’s a bit upsetting to realize the gender problematics of a show that consistently makes me laugh, your points are so true that I just fell a little bit out of love with Tina Fey. (Disaster! Confusion!) But then, I’ve had many a conversation about NBC comedies, specifically about why Community, 30 Rock, and Parks and Rec make The Office look petty and sexist; it’s only fair to recognize how masculinity often closes down the gender universe in 30 Rock too.
    Ah well… vote Knope.

    • Thanks Taylor! I’m still a major T. Fey supporter too; I think she’s pretty much a genius. But as you say, it’s probably good to acknowledge the problematic parts of shows we like… even if it’s a little heartbreaking.

  2. […] right to choose, and her control over her body, are actually under threat. Other jokes, as Sarah pointed out last week, create humor at Liz’s expense. In the sketch about Jamie Garnett as a reporter, Brian Williams […]

  3. […] of 30 Rock, and just like that, my heart grew a thousand sizes. I love Fey and 30 Rock. But I’ve complained before about some of my problems with her show on gender-femiladyism matters. I agree with Laura Bennett […]

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