It’s hard to tell when Parks and Recreation took the title of the most feminism-friendly sitcom on air. When it first aired in 2009, its premise — a new take on the U.S. version of The Office, featuring Amy Poehler in the Michael Scott role — was iffy. The Office’s best comedy had always been borderline misanthropic, and the original incarnation of protagonist Leslie Knope took that misanthropy to the edge of misogyny, portraying the character as a terminally obnoxious, deservedly single, incompetent busybody — a woman whose emotional life was largely defined by a pathetic obsession with a years-old hook-up.
But when the first season flopped, the show began to course-correct, jettisoning the sourness and leaning in to the strengths of its wildly talented cast. Parks and Rec is now famous for its warm, humane approach, and the character of Leslie Knope has transformed from a caricature of bureaucratic idiocy into an icon of earnest, dorky, hyper-competent political idealism. This, understandably, has drawn in a huge feminist audience. For female and feminist comedy fans — whose experiences with comics tend to range from blithe marginalization to vicious harassment—the show has come to stand as proof that you can make great comedy without disrespecting, humiliating and/or inflicting cruelty upon women.
If you want to keep thinking that, you’d better stop reading now. The Misogyny in Comedy wars are long, complex and likely to continue for a very long time. But one Parks and Recreation writer has chosen his side by publicly wishing death on anti-racist activists and e-mailing and Tweeting a female writer with the opinion that she is “a cunt.”
The kick-off to all of this is a Defamer article, written by Beejoli Shah, about the career prospects of Parks and Recreation showrunner Greg Daniels. The thrust of the article was that Daniels had left his studio, Universal Television, because he couldn’t get any of his new show ideas picked up. As gossip articles go, it was remarkably dry and even-keeled, casting doubt on Daniels (it quotes an anonymous NBC executive saying that the shows “didnt have the usual ‘Greg Daniels quality’ ”) and on the studio in turn. (NBC executives, in particular, are not known for making the wisest decisions about how to air and nurture new comedies.) But, buried in the midst of all this was an unflattering nugget of info about comic and Parks and Rec writer (and sometimes guest star) Harris Wittels.
Wittels, it seemed, also had a show in development. And according to Shah, the course of comedy had not run smooth: “After a notably atrocious development process with Wittels on this project last fall resulted in a subpar script, UTV is currently having his latest endeavor supervised by an upper level writer with a better track record,” she wrote.
Well. It’s reasonable to be offended by having one’s working habits described as “notably atrocious.” It’s also reasonable to write an e-mail to the publication in question setting the record straight, which Wittels did, claiming that he’d chosen to work with that “upper-level writer” himself, that he was not being supervised, and that he thought the sentence in question comprised “borderline libel.”
But if that last bit sounds a little over-volatile to you, well: buckle your seatbelt. After his e-mail had been sent and published, Wittels proceeded to find Shah on Twitter and bombard her with insults, calling her “sociopathic” and “cunty.” (From his Twitter feed, it would seem that he’s since deleted the trolling, but Shah kept and published screen caps.) An anonymous troll used Wittels’ harassment as cover for his or her own, sending an e-mail to the Gawker Media offices which claimed that Shah “deserves to die and all the parks writers will gladly fuck the shit out of her dirty lifeless body.” And when Shah herself reached out to Wittels, showing him the rape/death threat, he chose to double down, writing yet another insulting e-mail and signing off with “you’re a cunt.” To another Defamer representative, he wrote that “my intention of calling her a cunt was to call her a cunt (because she is you see).”
After an investigation, the Parks and Recreation staff has formally disowned the anonymous troll. But they can’t disown Wittels — and his politics are nothing new. In early June, when the stand-up comic community was wrestling with feminist writers (of which I was one) over rape jokes, Wittels Tweeted that “if you think of anything as taboo, you shouldn’t be involved in comedy. Go work in a bank.” As regards race, his politics are apparently even less evolved. Of the wildly racist “Asian Girlz” music video and ensuing backlash, Wittels wrote, “For those who campaigned to have that ‘Asian Girlz’ video removed from YouTube: congrats, you’re against free speech and should be shot.”
The fact that a free-speech militant such as Wittels would lapse into misogynist name-calling when faced with even slightly negative speech concerning himself — remember, this all started over the idea that he was being supervised on a project—should not be surprising. The idea of the stand-up comedy stage as an utterly free space, where everything and anything goes, has long gone hand-in-hand with the idea anyone who says anything about the stage should be silenced immediately and by any means necessary. That attitude interlocks, easily and irrevocably, with real-world prejudices about whose voice has the right to be heard, and what they have the right to say. White men, in particular, have always had the right to say pretty much anything they want, about anyone, without being held to account for it. And the spectacle of a white man reacting brutally toward a woman of color because she hasn’t been properly affirming toward him has its roots in centuries’ worth of history. But any woman who writes publicly is psychically braced to be called a “cunt,” mocked, or harassed from the moment she hits the “publish” or “send” button, because we know that our speech is not “free;” it costs us dearly. Wittels is able to be incensed by a mild condemnation precisely because he doesn’t live with the constant harassment that women face every day they publish their work online. Why he’s chosen to participate in that harassment, only he can say. But it’s probably rooted in that same privilege.
Which brings us back to Parks and Recreation and its status as the Great Network Hope for kindness toward women in comedy. There’s no reason to give up on the show; Wittels is one writer, among many, and there’s reason to believe his input has been balanced out with kinder and more forward-thinking members of the staff. Wittels’ presence in that writing room speaks, most profoundly, to the fact that these hateful behavior patterns are so deep-seated in the industry that even a show famous for its humanity can’t help but hire someone who perpetuates them. If the vicious battles over gender and comedy have shown us anything, it’s that sexist rage and harassment aren’t weird, personally dysfunctional behaviors embraced by a few oddballs within the stand-up comedy community; they are, by and large, the norm. That norm will hopefully change, but until then, there’s always the possibility that the shows we love will let us down.
As a feminist, I’ll keep watching Parks and Recreation. But I’ll always be aware that the words coming out of the characters’ mouths could have been written by a man who thinks people like me and my colleagues “should be shot,” and I suppose I’ll feel a little chillier toward the show as a result. I’m not giving up hope, though. If the history of Parks and Recreation has shown us anything, it’s that this team is more than open to a little necessary course-correction.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.