Parks & Rec is one of my favorite shows. But it wasn’t perfect. For all of its smarts and brilliant hilarity, there was a blind spot — constant and nearly universally unquestioned fat-shaming.
However, for all the (deserved!) praise this show got for its feminist leanings and progressive tendencies, its deplorable use of anti-fat bias was overlooked a lot. Not that that’s too surprising — mainstream feminism likes to completely neglect fat people most of the time. Fat-shaming comics are still treated as groundbreaking; brands bill themselves as “feminist” without making clothes over a size large; the needs of larger people are ignored when looking at issues like reproductive freedom (psst, Plan B might not work if you’re over a certain weight). I’m not saying fat-shaming is the ONLY thing that ever gets a pass (this is not Oppression Olympics), but it definitely gets swept aside on the reg.
On the plus (ha!) side, Parks & Rec had two main characters that were fat — Donna and Jerry. Jerry was, of course, regularly bullied by the rest of the office and made the butt of a lot of jokes. They didn’t come right out and make fun of his weight, but the implication was definitely there throughout. It was especially apparent when we were introduced to his wife, Gayle. She was a beautiful blonde, played by model Christie Brinkley, and everyone was always confused about what she was doing with Jerry. The idea that a conventionally attractive person could fall in love with a fat person was foreign to them, and while that may be representative of the way people in real life react, it’s never resolved in any way that feels satisfying.
Donna, on the other hand, is more progressive. A fat, black woman, she never allows any degradation for her size (or race). Men love her, but she won’t get with them unless they meet her high expectations.
Despite some surprise from others when they come across her in a bar surrounded by men, Donna is an overall positive character, self-assured and unwilling to compromise, successful and adored for who she is and what she looks like — not in spite of it.
But the major issue with this show and fat is in its discussion of Pawnee as a town. The constant thread throughout is that it’s the fourth-fattest city in the country. They use the headless fatty trope at least once, and bring up the past Harvest Festivals as a chance for people from other towns to “marvel” at how fat Pawnee citizens are.
On top of that, the main fast food chain featured is Paunch Burger, the logo of which is an outline of a fat person with belly, and the commercials for which show sloppy, cheesy foods that are clearly meant to disgust the viewer. In the “Soda Tax” episode, the drink sizes are exaggerated — a 512 oz “child” size, for example. Plus, the tax passes, which is a demonstration of how thin people, especially those in power, often act like they need to regulate the food intake of us poor, stupid fatties who don’t know any better.
Leslie Knope’s eating habits are hardly perfect, by the way. She basically lives on sugar and mainlines waffles like they’re going out of style. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except that when she does it, it’s presented as cute and quirky. If it were one of Pawnee’s fat residents acting the same way, it would be presented as disgusting and in need of regulation. The thin, attractive woman is allowed to act gluttonous and have it be positive, but if she is fat, the exact same behavior is deserving of mockery.
You could say that Knope is just acting like a typical overzealous, clueless politician. But on every other topic presented, she is far from clueless. Even if she starts out that way, she has demonstrated an ability to learn and grow. She’s passionate, yes, sometimes to a fault, but she’s smart and frequently more adaptable than she seems on the surface. I don’t doubt her heart is in the right place in caring about the health of her citizens, but the way it is portrayed onscreen comes across as cruel and demeaning, two things she most definitely is not.
So why are we so quick to forgive Parks & Rec for this? For a lot of people, of course, it’s not something to be overlooked because fat is still a punchline or something worthy of disgust. But for others, who would not normally stand for bigotry and bullying, it still seems to get a pass. Perhaps it’s because the show is parroting the same ridiculous status quo that the government does and we’ve been desensitized. Perhaps it’s because the show is otherwise extremely charming and handles a lot of issues well. Perhaps it’s that fat prejudice just isn’t important for certain people, because we’re seen as subhuman. I don’t know. But when my concerns on this topic get brushed under a rug, as often happens when I bring it up, it sends a clear message of dismissal and hate. Since Parks & Rec ended, it’s too late to fix the problem within the show, but we can at least be willing to think critically about it, no matter how otherwise great it was, and use it as an example of how NOT to handle fat issues. In the future, we need to be vocally critical when it comes to this topic, so the people who are making shows hear us, and know to change the way they portray fat on TV.