First of all, Ron Swanson would not condone Valentine’s Day. It was invented by Hallmark to sell cards.
Anyway, as a prelude to a forthcoming post about April Ludgate, I wanted to take a moment to celebrate the feminism of Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation. Ron, the embodiment of hyperbolic white masculinity (see: Ron’s Pyramid of Greatness or the Pawnee Rangers Handbook) and libertarian thought, is often a nonchalant mouthpiece for feminism. Ron loves strong women (Steffi Graf is his dream woman. He goes to a lot of WNBA games…). When Andy decides to take a Women’s Studies course (sadly, women’s lasers isn’t a real thing…) at the community college and can’t pay for it, Ron gives him a Ron Swanson Scholarship.
There’s also the exquisite “Woman of the Year” (2.17) episode in which Ron is given a feminist award for a project Leslie started. He has every intention to give Leslie the award because she deserves it, but uses the opportunity to teach her a lesson about not over-valuing institutional achievement. Here’s where I find some trickiness with his character, though. Of course institutional recognition doesn’t matter that much to Ron. He’s a WASP male. He is the institution. At times it could be very easy and very droll for the show to fall back on the sight gag of putting feminist thought in the mouth of the stoic, macho boss. And sometimes it does play that way. Overwhelmingly, however, as with most feminist moments on the show, it plays as a natural line of thought. Of course Ron’s a feminist. He respects reasonable, independent, self-sufficient people regardless of demographics. There’s a ton though about feminism on the show; see my further readings below.
What I want to focus on specifically is the way that Ron’s nonchalant feminism plays out in his interactions with little girls. Periodically, there’s been some storyline involving Ron and children. It’s good for a laugh because Ron treats children as though they are adults in miniature. (At one time this was the mainstream approach to children, but now they’re generally treated as incompetent in a lot of ways.) Take, for example, the clip below from “Road Trip” (3.14). A little girl turns up to do an interview with a government employee for her essay, “Why Government Matters.” No one else is in the office, so Ron reluctantly talks to her about government. Ron’s hesitance doesn’t seem to stem from her gender or her age, so much as his general lack of interest in doing anything for the government. So, Ron gives her such a straight-forward, yet biasedly libertarian, lesson in taxes that she writes a report that says only: “It doesn’t” Ron is very, very proud.
This dynamic is sort of thrown for a loop, however, when Ron’s girlfriend asks him to watch her children. This season, Ron has started seeing Diane (Xena! Xena!), his first romantic partner on the show who seems like an actual kindred spirit. She can match his dominant attitude pretty evenly. Diane also has two daughters who, unlike many of the children on the show (awesome though they are), seem like actual children rather than delightful bits of comedy. Ron says, “[Diane] is a sharp, confident, strong woman. Her children are loud.” Andy gets along with them great, which is a pretty good indicator. In “Halloween Surprise” (5.5), Diane asks Ron to go trick-or-treating and she and the girls all go as princesses (which Diane thinks is a nightmare). Diane has to go handle a “vice principle emergency” and leaves the girls with Ron and Andy. Ron, the manager who handles everything without doing anything, can’t be passive with the girls. He has to handle things and he doesn’t know what to do. When one of the girls cries over her sister breaking her tiara, he breaks the other tiara to even things out. Both girls burst out in tears and Ron looks panic-stricken. His nonchalant approach has been compromised. Though Diane so clearly fits Ron’s type and his emotional needs, he starts to back away using the excuse that he’s not ready for a whole family. After April convinces him that he’s messing things up, he reaches out to Diane with roses, chocolate, and grout-cleaner and confesses that he’s been alone for most of his life by choice, but he wants to try. For the girls, he brings a saw. To teach them to saw. Again, rather than go for the obvious–a new tiara, a doll, etc–Ron goes for what he thinks is useful, even if he’s reaching out to little girls. I think there’s a strong streak of selfishness here, but there’s also the fact that Ron treats everyone equally, largely because he keeps most people at an arm’s length. In this storyline about Ron and the girls, the show complicates Ron’s egalitarian, laissez-faire attitude by matching him with someone who forces him to actually do something.
Later, in the impeccable episode “Women in Garbage” (5.11), Diane asks Ron to watch her girls. Again, Ron doesn’t know what to do with children because he doesn’t understand the things that they consider fun these days. Sure, he can talk to them like they’re rational creatures, but he can’t entertain them. He brings in Ann to help him out. But Ann’s “weird with kids” too. Ron’s problem is the B-story in an episode about Leslie forming a gender equality commission, so in this way the show makes a point of not couching Ron’s inability to hang out with the kids as a gender issue. Instead it’s about the intimacy of bonding with someone else’s child. I think it’s really funny that the weakness of this hyperbole of masculinity turns out to be the daughters of the woman he loves. Ron is always just Ron, but when faced with the stakes of losing Diane over a failure to engage with her children, he has to step out of his comfort zone. He does it. And the girls run him ragged. I don’t know what to make of this dynamic, really, and I’m curious to see where it’s going. What do you think?
So, I want Ronald Swanson to be Ph.D.s and Pigtails’s valentine because he treats little girls just like everyone else. Unless he’s in love with their mother. (And because of this)
(Sorry for the poor quality. Also, this cuts off the part where Ron asks her to sign her paper for him. And when he gives her a vintage landmine.)