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Show of Subversiveness

A new book on NBC’s Parks and Recreation sheds light on how feminist ideologies and humor within the TV show helped challenge our thinking.

Research  |  Aug 15, 2018  |  By UNLV News Center
still from tv show set

UNLV professor Erika Engstrom's new book explores the use of humor and blatant sexism in the show Parks and Rec to shed light on the barriers women face in society.

Erika Engstrom is a communications professor at UNLV and the author of Feminism, Gender, and Politics in NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Her research interests include gender and nonverbal communication as well as mass media portrayals of gender and weddings. Feminism, Gender, and Politics in NBC’s Parks and Recreation explores the ways feminist ideologies were incorporated and portrayed within the popular TV series.

Vincent Filak, journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, read Engstrom’s work and shared his thoughts on this contribution to the field.


book coverThe ability to dissect an entertainment product and apply a high level of scholarly insight is rare, as attempts to do so often overreach or come up short. This is particularly true in the field of media studies, in which a theoretical paradigm that examines a marginalized group is applied to a mainstream program or film. In such instances, authors tend to become myopic in their analysis or focus too heavily on the minutia to make their points.

In the case of Feminism, Gender, and Politics in NBC’s Parks and Recreation, author Erika Engstrom manages to avoid these traditional pitfalls while providing a compelling portrait of the show, the characters, and the show’s themes through a feminist lens. The book immediately establishes with clarity and purpose the definition of feminism the show relies upon and the way in which Engstrom herself plans to apply the theory to the inner workings of the show’s fictitious Pawnee, Indiana, city government. Engstrom’s work provides a logical and sensible analysis of how feminism is “something normal” within the framework of the show and how the show relies on humor and occasional absurdity to advance the simple premise that women are valuable societal participants.

What makes Engstrom’s approach valuable to readers is that she explores the overarching patriarchal culture that imbues Pawnee while simultaneously demonstrating the ways in which the show’s characters run counter in some ways to the stereotypes each of them appears destined to embody. In Chapter 3, for example, Engstrom analyzes the prototypical male characters, working through the ways in which each of them serves as an archetype of what it means to be “a man.” However, Engstrom goes beyond the rough sketch of these men and provides a solid analysis of the nuances present in each one, citing specific episodes in which the men play against the archetype and reveal supportive aspects of their personalities while dealing with the main character, Leslie Knope. Engstrom’s explanations in these cases demonstrate that these characteristics are not “one-offs” or character reversals intended for a cheap laugh, but rather larger veins of truth that reveal genuine elements of their nuanced personalities. Just as Knope is not any one thing, neither are her supporting characters and male foils.

Engstrom’s work provides readers with a complete understanding of the show’s use of humor and blatant sexism to shed light on the barriers women face in society. However, beyond that, she also digs deeper into the show to unveil a depth of character in each cast member and in the show as a whole. It is in these examinations that Engstrom’s book especially shines.

Feminism, Gender, and Politics in NBC’s Parks and Recreation stands as a significant contribution to the overall study of both popular culture and the continuum of feminist discussions related to it. It provides both a well-defined theoretical foundation for Engstrom’s discussion of the show as well as particular examples of how theory attaches to specific elements within episodes. The result is a highly digestible tome that is well worth the read.