It’s no doubt overly optimistic to expect an innocuous middlebrow liberal group hug like Parks and Recreation to provided a serious examination of the crisis of masculinity wrought over several generations by late capitalism and the changing nature of patriarchy. Still, here we are, because one of this week’s episodes, “Pie-mary,” documented how ridiculous life can get for women in politics — the idea that no matter what you do, someone finds a way to condemn you for it. Our own Sarah Seltzer discussed this idea in her recap. But what I want to discuss is something we’ve not seen very much of until now: the portrayal of men’s rights activists on TV.
In “Pie-mary,” Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) is running for Congress, and the episode spotlights how the actions of his wife, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), are used to attack him at every turn. The episode revolves around a traditional pie-making competition for candidates’ wives, which Leslie decides to skip because because she’s too busy. The choice is used by those on the right to suggest that she is boycotting the contest because she hates what it represents. When she decides to help Ben save face by participating, she’s attacked by a feminist group. And when Ben tries to defuse the issue by making the pie himself, the couple are heckled by a small group of MRAs. (Their leader is played by Chris Gethard, incidentally, and it’s excellent to see him make an appearance on a network comedy.)
As far as MRA stereotypes go, Gethard’s character has it all — he’s a scruffy man in heavy glasses with a penchant for saying things like, “We are sick and tired of this feminized society” and “Can we have one conversation about feminism where men get to be in charge?” The character and his concerns are laughable, and eventually Leslie Knope tells him so. To the applause of people with Tumblrs everywhere, she dismisses him at the end of the show by telling him, “You’re ridiculous, and men’s rights is nothing.”
In one respect, it’s nice to see MRAs treated with the respect they deserve, which is precisely none. Still, as the show went on I got increasingly uncomfortable with the way the character was essentially a cardboard cut-out of every MRA cliché imaginable. This was a missed opportunity, I think — not to satirize the men’s rights circus, necessarily, but to satirize it in a way that grasps a) why these people are dangerous and, more importantly, b) why they are the way they are. No one exists in a vacuum, and stereotyping all MRAs as troglodyte basement dwellers is as reductive and smug as depicting Republican voters as all gun-toting rednecks with Confederate flags.
This kind of satire is difficult, because even discussing the ideas that motivate MRAs is to risk being called an apologist for them. So, for the record: MRAs are ridiculous, and indeed, they’re far more ridiculous in reality than they are on TV. Similarly, there are plenty of real people on the right who listen religiously to Rush Limbaugh and measure their patriotism in how many guns they own. If we want to get to grips with why our political discourse has shifted so far to the right in the last few decades, though, we need to do better than just pointing at the lunatic fringe and saying, “Hey, everyone’s like that — they’re all stupid and ridiculous and you can’t reason with them.” There’s some truth in this, but it’s not the whole picture.
Extremist movements take hold if there are genuine concerns, however misguided, for them to leverage — and, more importantly, if those concerns are dismissed by the mainstream (or, perhaps more accurately, if they can convince people that what they see as the mainstream is conspiring to ignore them). Look, for instance, at the rise of the extreme right in Europe — it has prospered by exploiting the fears of people who might, in the past, have voted for leftist parties, by using legitimate fears about the economic effects of globalization to justify xenophobia and racism.
When Amy Poehler’s character dismissed the MRA at the end of the episode with a cursory, “You’re ridiculous and men’s rights is nothing,” she was correct, but perhaps not 100 percent so. MRA interpretations of issues like child custody and gender roles are nothing. The manifestations of patriarchy in oppressing men are not nothing. They are something. They exist. That’s not to say that they’re nearly as pernicious as the manifestations of patriarchy in oppressing women, but they’re there. The best answer to them is clearly not the men’s rights movement — in this analogy, it’s the extreme right, a bunch of demagogues who propose alluringly simple, extremist solutions to problems that are anything but simple.
The real answers, such as they are, lie in the political doctrine that exists to oppose patriarchy: feminism. As Sarah Seltzer argued earlier this week, feminism is for everyone, including MRAs. I agree, and I’d add that feminism is at its best (and most effective) when it’s looking in a very complete sense at the effects of patriarchy in all their guises. This is what intersectionality is: an understanding that systems of oppression tend to intersect, and, if you want to take it further, to blend in a single system of oppression. We even have a name for that system: capitalism.
In all of these systems and sub-systems, there’s one constant: getting angry at people who are higher up than you in the pyramid of privilege isn’t wrong, per se, but it does miss the larger point. Of course, it’s easy to say that and a lot harder to live it, especially when the people who are suddenly crying foul have spent centuries oppressing you. There’s a fine line between acknowledging that patriarchy oppresses men too and the type of thinking that demands everyone drop everything and say, “But what about the MEN?” Still, feminism is at its least effective when it’s at its most narrow, and most hostile to anything outside of what it considers to be its own concerns — TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) are an unpleasant example of this, and while no one is suggesting that cisgender men are in any way comparable to trans women in terms of the oppression they endure, it serves no one to slam the doors in anyone’s face.
All of this is to say that the effect of patriarchy on men is a discussion that we should be having — perhaps it’s best had in a quiet corner somewhere, though I’m not so sure of that. It certainly shouldn’t stifle or overshadow discussion about the more tangible effects of patriarchal oppression. But sick burns from Amy Poehler on fictionalized MRAs are a fantasy world, one where concerns about the effects of patriarchy on men are entirely invalid and MRAs can be booted back into the hole from which they stuck their heads out, never to emerge again.
This world isn’t that simple, and as long as we exist in our current system, people like Paul Elam will exist to exploit the concerns of men who feel confused and disenfranchised by a society whose expectations of them has become a lot less clear than it used to be. These may or may not be legitimate concerns — I’d argue that they are — but the fact is that they exist, and that letting their sole avatars be MRAs is bad for everyone. Ridiculing MRAs is all very well; indeed, it’s necessary. But it’s not the be-all and end-all.