Parks And Recreation was, as Leslie Knope would describe it, a "beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk ox" of a show. But it also has an extremely dark subplot that was barely ever acknowledged ... one that also shows how far the world has come in just the last few years. And it has to do with mustachioed outdoorsman and gruff libertarian Ron Swanson.
It Starts With A Typical "Cruel Ex-Wife" Sitcom Subplot
For those of you who haven't seen every episode of this show six times, Ron has two ex-wives, both named Tammy, who are repeatedly referenced, and never in a good way. In fact, their mention is usually accompanied by Ron's solemn wish that they experience a form of vengeful misery. He can even detect when they're around him, like he has some kind of alimony spider-sense.
We see Tammy 2 (his second ex) on numerous occasions, but we only see Tammy 1 in two episodes. She's briefly in "I'm Leslie Knope," and then features heavily in "Ron And Tammys." In the latter episode, Tammy 1, who works for the IRS, tells Ron he's being audited, and announces that she's going to move in with him and help him organize his finances. It's a power play, as Ron often finds himself helpless when he's in the clutches of either Tammy -- that's the running joke.
Then, as Ron casually states it to the Parks gang, we find out Tammy 1 used to be a nurse's assistant, and actually helped doctors deliver Ron when he was born. She was also his babysitter, his Sunday school teacher, his middle school math teacher, his driver's ed teacher ... and started having sex with him when he was 15 years old.
Sitcom Episodes From 2011 Feel Very Old Now
There's a lot to untangle here.
First, another running bit around Ron is that he's such a manly man's man that he was never really a child. He claims that he got his first job at a sheet metal factory at age nine (and was running the place within weeks). So the Tammy 1 relationship is part of that same bit -- this guy is such a man that he was bedding an adult woman before he was old enough to drive.
But not just an older woman -- a woman who had known him his entire life. (As she says, verbatim, "I do know you. I knew you the moment you were born, and I intend to be there the minute you die.") Ron tells the group she had been there for his biggest life moments and taught him everything he knows. Out in the real world, in 2019, we'd say she was grooming him, as predators do. And yet no one in the show seems to care, or think this is alarming at all.
There isn't one horrified reaction among the Parks gang, aside from Leslie casually throwing out an "Oh my God." And April even says, "I don't even know her, but she's my hero." This is shocking if you think about it, especially in a show that's as empathetic to its non-Jerry characters as Parks And Rec.
Everything Looks Different Through That Lens
After Tammy 1 suddenly moves back in with Ron, he shaves his famous mustache and starts dressing like a preteen in the 1950s while saying things like "Leslie, you goofball!" The joke is that she reduces this masculine dude to a childish version of himself. And, oh yeah, this kind of regression is a well-known reaction that child abuse survivors have when being confronted by their abusers.
And it kind of makes all of Ron's quirks less funny and more heartbreaking. Of course he's anti-government and fiercely isolationist -- he was taken advantage of by an authority figure in his life, and no one, not his family or his teachers or law enforcement, helped him. Not to mention his attraction to Tammy 2, who is an epically destructive partner. Victims are conditioned to think they're not worthy of being treated kindly in romantic relationships.
All of this is played for laughs for one reason only: because Ron is male.
Now Imagine If You Switched The Genders ...
Let's say they'd decided to do this bit with a female character, like Ann or April. Imagine Ann's ex-husband comes into town, he's significantly older than her, and it comes out that he was there when she was born, was a constant part of her childhood as an authority figure, and also started having sex with her at age 15. Imagine that storyline played off as a joke about how tough Ann is, and what a crazy life she'd led, and how this guy who groomed and molested her is now her wacky nemesis.
Not only does that not make it out of a writer's room in 2011, but I'm also not sure that'd fly in any era. But even now, the fact that the victim is a gruff man who drinks hard liquor and carves canoes means it's all good comedy fun. Tough guys don't experience trauma, right? "This guy's so badass that he didn't need a childhood!"
Now, when I go back and watch those episodes, I can't unsee it -- especially the fact that in this office full of friends, some of them specifically written to be kind, supportive, and big-hearted, nobody sees this situation for what it is. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to listen to "5,000 Candles In The Wind" on repeat as I remind myself that Ron ended the show by having a beautiful baby boy with his new wife Xena: Warrior Princess and lived happily ever after.
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