I don’t think of network television as a place where we can learn about our political values – but there are exceptions. Because “Parks and Recreation” leans center-left in its politics and consistently works to incorporate topical political subjects into its stories, it can be seen as an excellent barometer of mainstream progressive politics. In the season premiere of season two, for example, Leslie Knope accidentally “marries” two male penguins in a public ceremony at the Pawnee Zoo and is immediately recognized as a hero by the local LGBT community. There is considerable backlash by the religious right of Pawnee, and Leslie is forced to balance her beliefs (in this case, it is her belief in “cuteness” more than marriage equality) with her role as a public official. The show’s writers addresses the issue with comedy, but underneath the funny stuff was a tacit endorsement of the issue of same-sex marriage. If it is good enough for “Parks and Rec,” it is probably good enough for mainstream America. After all, a sitting president came out in favor of gay marriage less than two years later.
The show has reflected other timely and politically-sensitive issues. Just last week, an episode featured now-Councilwoman Knope proposing a ban of large sodas, a clear reference to the policy being enacted by NYC Mayor Bloomberg. But how does “Parks and Recreation” succeed in addressing these politically sensitive issues without engendering much political resistance? It probably has something to do with the show’s warm gooey core. At heart, it is a very positive show about people who, although they may disagree on political issues, love each other and would stick their necks out for each other at a moment’s notice. Whether the show leans left or right is immaterial because it is wholeheartedly pro-people, and so the subtextual defense of big government goes down smoother for all.
Which is why I have been surprised by the show’s constant efforts to make fun of the suffering, mistreatment, and unnecessary death of animals. While PETA has been busy criticizing “Animal Practice” for employing a live monkey in a central role, they would be wise to turn an eye to “Parks and Recreation,” whose fondness for animal cruelty as comedy stretches back to its second season – but reached its apex in the fifth season premiere earlier this month.
The examples from seasons 2-4 are numerous. Here are just a few:
1) In “The Possum,” Pawnee’s mayor orders Leslie to catch and kill a possum that bit his dog, a task that she leaps to fulfill so that she can advance her career – the preferences of either animal are never discussed.
2) In “Hunting Trip,” the whole office goes hunting, and when Leslie kills her first turkey, she proudly carries around its carcass on screen. The episode generally celebrates hunting as male-bonding experience.
3) In the Andy/April wedding episode, season 3’s “Fancy Party,” two park staffers who have been hired to release doves after the ceremony mess up – and one dove falls to the ground dead with a comical thud.
4) In “The Campaign Shake-Up,” Swanson tells the audience the story of when his father made him choose which of his pet calves to slaughter. His solution: “I couldn’t choose, so I slaughtered both of them. And they were delicious.”
Yes, most of this really comes down to Ron Swanson, whose love of animal protein is his defining characteristic. Why not? It is certainly a mainstream American value (although there is evidence it may be declining). But his fondness for turkey legs wrapped in bacon (dubbed “The Swanson”) or a burrito named the “Meat Tornado” is not offensive to most. However, his enthusiasm for slaughtering the animals himself – that is, bearing witness to the pain and suffering – is still rare and very much out of the mainstream. Some may argue that Swanson’s position is far more ethical than that of people who choose to have their dirty work done behind closed doors, and this is a legitimate point. But “Parks and Rec” isn’t trying to make that point – it’s going for simple, basic laughs, mining the suffering of those animals for humor, and thus contributing to widespread cultural disassociation with the feelings, suffering, and sentience of animals.
This season’s premiere provided a perfect example. With Leslie visiting Ben in Washington, DC, Ron is tasked with organizing the annual departmental barbecue. When he brings a live pig to the barbecue in an effort to help the staff “meet their meat,” his effort is met mostly with the outrage that you would expect to hear when people are faced with the actual process by which their dinner is made. One character asks: “Why are you doing this to us?” Another is more practical: “Dude, there’s kids around here.” But right away, the writers turn this to comedy by giving the pig the same name as one of Ron’s employees.
The real laughs, however, come towards the end of the episode when Ron serves up a plate of meat that came from the pig. The staff is horrified for about two seconds, but then their appetites get the better of them and they dig in.
Vegetarians and animal rights activists are all too familiar with this reaction – people will profess a deep concern for the welfare of animals, but when faced with some tasty ribs, their concerns go out the window. This discrepancy holds true in Washington, as well. Protecting the rights of animals may be a value that most voters would say they hold, but when it comes to policy, it has not been a priority for either party. You might mention that neither candidate was asked about animal protection laws at the debate last night (or the environment, which indirectly affects animals more than any other issues). While Romney has been taken to task for tying his dog to the roof of his car many years ago, this is not a policy issue. Americans are very uncomfortable with individual cases of animal cruelty. Systematic, hidden cruelty we are fine with.
And this is not a partisan issue. Despite the existence of some prominent Democrats who are strong on animal protection issues (Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Rep. James Moran), there are many on the right who are just as supportive (Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, Bush/Palin/Ryan speechwriter Matthew Scully). And as perhaps the ultimate indicator that this is not a mainstream Democratic issue, consider the record of President Obama. I have argued that “Parks and Recreation” essentially functions as a defense of Obama and his support for government programs. But what has Obama done for animals? Very little, according to the Humane Society of the United States, the most mainstream animal protection organization in the nation. Keep in mind that the HSUS strongly endorsed him in the 2008 election.
As someone who cares deeply about the welfare of animals, I am shocked and disgusted that “Parks and Recreation” gets away with this blatant disregard for animal suffering in a network show, but the takeaway for those who value the preferences of animals to live without exploitation is clear. We have a long way to go before mainstream America is ready to make the welfare of animals a principle worth fighting for.