November 29, 2009
Thursday night on NBC should really be renamed from “Must See TV” or “Comedy Night Done Right” to “Ladies’ Night.” The staple show for me is The Office at 9 p.m. EST. As I have mentioned in other posts, on this show, office lovers Jim and Pam have gotten married and own a house together with a private art studio for Pam in the rear yard – wouldn’t Edna Pontellier of The Awakening be jealous!, and “matronly” Phyllis is happily married rather than – as some might expect it – withering away as an “old maid,” her unattractiveness to the opposite sex limiting her romantic prospects. At 9:30 p.m., on 30 Rock, we get to witness the career exploits of successful female Television Writer-Producer and Third Wave Feminist Liz Lemon. But before all of that begins, we can spend 30 minutes with Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department in Pawnee, Indiana. Parks and Recreation, a picaresque show, features the industrious Knope trying desperately to claim abandoned Lot 48 for a new park, which, as she envisions it, will be “a perfect park with state of the art swing sets, basketball courts and, off to the side, a lovely sitting area for kids with asthma to watch the other kids play.”
She really has thought of everything.
I love Leslie! She is completely earnest but not always politically savvy, much like myself. She challenges established authority, often makes a fool of herself when drinking too much and almost always says “the wrong” thing thinking it’s the right thing. Her office is full of portraits of her political heroes (Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright to name a couple) and she dreams of being the first woman President. (I let that dream go when I was 10 or 11.) Wouldn’t Knope’s election to Mayor, State Senate, Governor, Congress or even President be a fine ending to this empowering story?
When it comes to protecting her department’s claim to the former construction site turned abandoned pit, Leslie runs into certain obstacles: lack of funding, public disapproval and the “diabolical, ruthless bunch of bureaucrats” known as the Library Department. “They’re like a biker gang; but instead of shotguns and crystal meth(amphetamines), they use political savvy and shushing… The library is the worst group of people ever assembled,” she tells us, the viewers. “They’re conniving, rude, and extremely well-read, which makes them very dangerous.”
I had no idea that librarians could be that nefarious. (No wonder I’ve always stammered when asking for help with the Dewey Decimal System.) When led by Tammy, Leslie’s boss Ron’s ex-wife (Megan Mullally), that’s exactly what they become. Tammy is smart and pleasing to men. In other words, she’s Veronica to Leslie Knope’s Betty. And everybody knows that, in the world of classic comics, Veronica always gets her way.
In Betty and Veronica, an Archie Comic circa 1950, two high school girls, best friends and simultaneously worst enemies, fight over one boy, namely Archie, and other things like clothes and popularity. And it always comes down to somebody winning out: on the material side, Veronica Lodge finds herself happy in her enviable position as a wealthy teen; but on the side of morality, Betty Cooper wins as the girl who will always do the right thing. In theory, every girl would like to be Veronica with pretty clothes and tangent high school boys fawning over her. But in reality, even if we want this kind of material wealth and attention, only some of us will have it. And the rest of us will have to settle, as “Bettys,” for whatever is left over. In the comic’s 600th issue, Archie proposed to Veronica. Poor, poor Betty.
Of course, it’s all relative. There are many Veronicas I see that make me feel like a Betty. But I’m sure I’m probably Veronica to somebody.
It’s not that Veronica is all bad – or that Betty is all good, for that matter, it’s that Veronica is in possession of the things we validate as achievements in our culture, especially for women: money and good looks. Veronica therefore exhibits a sense of entitlement to all things within her grasp, where as Betty is prepared to fight for the things she wants in life. And of course, classifying women by “types” – such as how some men have done over the years thinking of us as either Madonnas or whores – is reductive. But this Betty/Veronica invocation is theoretical hyperbole used to examine our actions and how they affect the women in our lives.
Pawnee’s own Betty and Veronica, Leslie and Tammy, find this age old conundrum to be true: will Veronica or Betty get the thing they both covet? At first, Leslie thinks that she’ll be able to talk Tammy out of “stealing” Lot 48 to build a new branch of the library. She optimistically enters Tammy’s office, confesses her true passion for the park and finds that Tammy is strangely accommodating, agreeing to drop her crusade to rule the lot. “We government gals have got to watch each other’s backs, right?” Tammy remarks. And even though Leslie suspects that something about Tammy isn’t completely sincere, she shakes hands with Tammy. “Government Gals,” to our Betty, sounds like a wonderful and empowering organization. For shouldn’t women really want only the best for other women? (Yes, I have fallen for that trick too.)
Wanting to return the favor, Leslie tries to help her boss and his ex become friends again, which works and the two engage in an exaggerated and humorous series of sexual encounters. “I truly believe everyone should be friends with their exes,” Leslie tells us. “I can’t even tell you how many of my ex’s weddings I’ve been to.”
Leslie feels quite satisfied with her actions until she realizes that the sexual activities between Veronica and Archie – uh Tammy and Ron – are part of Tammy’s plot to seize control of the lot. “That woman really knows her way around a penis,” Ron confesses, adding that sex with Tammy is “like doing peyote and sneezing slowly for six hours.” Then he admits something quite controversial. Tammy and he have arranged a trade: sex for the land.
Leslie confronts Tammy:
I know what you’re doing. You don’t care about Ron. You’re just using him to get Lot 48 for your library.
Leslie, that’s crazy; and correct.
Why are you doing this?
Les, there are two kinds of women in this world. There are women who work hard and stress out about doing the right thing. And then there are women who are cool. You could either be a Cleopatra or you could be an Eleanor Roosevelt. I’d rather be Cleopatra.
Cut to: Leslie, direct-to-camera interview
What kinda lunatic would rather be Cleopatra over Eleanor Roosevelt!?
Cut to: Leslie and Tammy at the elevator
Haven’t you ever messed with a man’s head to see what you could get him to do for you? We do it all the time in the Library Department. You should come join us some time.
I would never work at the Library Department… We’re no longer Government Gals!
And that was the end of female political unity in Pawnee.
Well, not really; but this scenario does take us right back to the classic love triangle featuring two women and something they both love: giant pits of dirt. And it also stirs up a lot of moral murkiness. For instance, is trading sex for something acceptable in the political arena or anywhere else? There are theorists like me who would argue that trading sex for money as a service (prostitution) is morally acceptable and consistent with feminism provided that all ground rules are met: participants are safe and the money that is agreed to in advance is exchanged. However, I take issue with trading sex in this case because the sex represents an unfair advantage of one woman over another. Ron tells us that he likes pretty brunettes and breakfast food, and that Tammy made him breakfast while naked earlier that morning. He doesn’t want breakfast food (sex) from blond Leslie. Therefore, Leslie does not have the means to compete with Tammy.
Furthermore, in a professional environment where sex is restricted from being a commodity, Leslie and other women shouldn’t have to compete on a sexual turf for Lot 48 or any other resource. They should be able to make their best arguments for the use of the land and let an impartial leader, who isn’t sleeping with either of them, make an impartial decision. (I know: when does that ever really happen? Like Leslie, I’m optimistic that fairness is possible.)
The other issue I take with this type of sexual maneuvering is that it’s really bad for our feminist cause. It isn’t that Tammy is physically or emotionally hurt in the process – though Ron sustains some emotional scars, it’s that Tammy will damage her reputation and the potential for herself and other women to advance in their careers. Ever heard a man or woman around the workplace refer to another woman as requiring knee pads to do her job? This kind of cynicism makes it very difficult for women to get ahead because of their intellectual merit. In other words, the Veronicas of the world owe us Bettys some fair dealing when it comes to peddling sexuality lest we all will be undermined in our careers. Just because Tammy sleeps her way to the top, doesn’t mean the rest of us do. And just because a woman sleeps with her boss doesn’t mean she isn’t good at her job.
These are real paradoxes that exist for some women. I am really anxious to find out what will happen in the careers of David Letterman’s co-workers and simultaneous sexual “partners.” While our culture hasn’t been very hard on Letterman, human resource departments will struggle over whether Letterman’s ladies are Veronicas or Bettys: women who took advantage of male sexual desire to get ahead in business or women who were taken advantage of. Their ethics will be questioned even if his aren’t. Were they actually good at their jobs or just good in the sack? And what about why they did it: did they think they had to sleep with the boss lest they be excused from employment at The Late Show? It’s really muddy water over there at CBS…and everywhere in puritanical America where sex is concerned, I’m afraid.
This episode would probably have ceased to be funny if Leslie had done what I would have done: file a report with human resources the minute Ron told me he was participating in a sex trade. I’ll cut her some slack in the name of sitcom frivolity. (Shame on Ron, however!) But I do want to mention the opposing argument that I met with many times in graduate English seminars when talking about women in Victorian literature. Let’s take The Wings of the Dove, for instance, wherein a woman schemes to marry a poor man by asking him to seduce a dying woman so that, once she dies, all of her money will go to him and he’ll be free to marry the schemer. I remember a classmate explaining to me that I couldn’t be mad at the schemer because she’s a woman and she has to operate within the boundaries of the period and culture she lives in. The only way she can marry the man she loves is if they have some money, and the way she’s found she can get that money is to con an innocent out of her fortune.
That’s tragic. I’ve never been able to agree with this viewpoint, however, because I think a woman hurting another woman is counterproductive. This is why we have an expression “kicking someone when they’re down.” Women historically have been the underdog, so why would we kick each other? That same sympathetic logic applied to the Pawnee triangle would mean that Tammy’s actions are acceptable, even though Leslie gets hurt, because the limitations of Tammy’s circumstances make it difficult for her to get the lot any other way than by sexual means. Leslie was first to claim Lot 48 and she’s been working on her park idea for months. She is an obstacle for Tammy that can be overcome through sex. So, for me, the sex is just the means to a horrible end: Leslie loses her park. Is the sex wrong? Yes, because Leslie gets hurt and not because it’s sex. Bribery with any commodity like money or a promotion or food, etc. would also be wrong…because Leslie gets hurt.
Which is the prevailing feminism? It probably isn’t mine. In my experience, many feminists aren’t critical of women in these types of hypothetical scenarios. The tendency is to blame the man: it’s Ron’s fault, he’s in charge and he’s letting what he wants get in the way of doing his job, he’s using Tammy for sex and nothing more, etc. But in my book, I think that, while Ron is contemptible, so is Tammy. Tammy also should know better. Tammy should be kinder to a female comrade, a fellow “Government Gal.” Tammy should play fair and pose her argument for the lot to higher powers based on practical concerns for the community. (Where will the children with asthma sit in her library, for instance?)
And I agree with Leslie: only a “lunatic” would rather be a conniving, manipulative person over a bona fide hero.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945, married to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her legacy includes such democratic feats as: co-founding Freedom House to evaluate the level of human rights consideration in government, supporting the creation of the United Nations and even serving as a delegate, as well as proving instrumental in launching the “Second Wave” of the Feminist Movement.
Perhaps she too was a Betty. Nothing like a conventional beauty, she often sacrificed personal satisfaction, adoration and comfort for a life of public service. And she had her own Veronica: Lucy Mercer Rutherford, her former social secretary. Informed and angry about the affair between her husband and her former employee, Eleanor reportedly threatened him with divorce, also known as political murder/suicide. She arrived at his deathbed to find Lucy by his side, which is really a tragic end to an unsatisfying romance.
However, Roosevelt’s unhappiness in love did not infect her political, feminist and humanist triumphs. Betty she may have been, but she was no less than the Betty I want to be.