“I work in an office full of women, and that includes the men.” - Ron Swanson
What does it mean to be a man? It’s a question that every male-identifying person has to answer somewhere between birth, puberty, and adulthood. Society gives us a lot of gauges we can use on our masculinity — How do we dress? How many women do we sleep with, and how hot are they? How much meat do we eat, and how is it prepared? How many sports do we watch or play or know the rules to?
As our culture moves forward in feminism, LGBTQ acceptance, and a more fluid idea of sexual identity, men are leaving some of these ancient, inscrutable metrics behind. But when they do, they’re still left with these questions.
Television, at its best, is a way that our culture works through questions of identity, and these questions are no exception. The effeminate man has been a sitcom staple since Ross and Chandler on Friends. Or witness the progression of stereotypical masculinity in the cast of NewsRadio— from Joe to Bill to Dave down to Matthew. For pure comedy, it’s an easy well to go to.
But no sitcom has gone at the questions of modern maleness quite so heartily as Parks and Recreation, the show that created Ron Swanson, who has become the Internet’s mustachioed arbiter of all things man.
Swanson is a professional bureaucrat, but he’s completely apathetic about his government work — in fact, he’s a libertarian who believes his own job shouldn’t exist. His passions are an absurd list of stereotypically masculine things: hunting, woodworking, his mustache. He represents the old guard of masculinity, which is about working with your hands, building, following your own rules, and projecting a sense of dominance and virility — which he certainly does.
Although Ron is apathetic about the work, and projects a similar apathy to those around him, time after time he’s revealed to care deeply about those in his employ, and even takes on a fatherly role toward many of the younger cast members.
There are a couple of cast members who provide foils to Ron’s version of manhood. Chris Traeger, the city manager, is a yuppie, urbanite health nut at odds with the small town charm around him. He runs constantly and eats a carefully concocted diet of fad foods and health foods. He’s relentlessly and unbearably positive (whereas Ron is often dour).
The beta male to Ron’s alpha in the office is Tom Haverford, a wannabe playboy who perpetually tries to use his government job connections to launch a career in fashion, clubs, perfume, or other elite industries. Tom obsesses about his wardrobe, worries about how much he’s exfoliating, and is notably bad with women for all the work he puts into attracting them. The others in the office frequently refer to him as a “manboy” and he flees in the face of any danger or hard work.
Between Ron and Tom, the show seems to make a pretty definitive statement about what kind of maleness is to be desired and which avoided. Ron is more self-assured, more successful, and more attractive to women than Tom, to the point of attracting Tom’s ex-wife.
But here we fall into a cultural trap — the very idea of “success with women” is a minefield of misogynistic assumptions. Ron has two failed marriages behind him, and, from what we see, he pursues abusive women for shallow reasons and fails to relate to them well once he’s with them. Tom repels women with skeezy pickup lines and by trying too hard, but when he does make it into a relationship, he falls hard and loves deeply. Tom’s capable of being a great person in the moments when he stops being Tom.
The obvious contrast between Ron’s manhood and the metro aesthetic embodied by Chris and Tom is between the old masculinity, which Nick Offerman describes in this AV Club interview (warning, contains a NSFW image), and the new, encapsulated in this Salon piece about The New Girl‘s Schmidt.
But that’s not the real contrast between Ron and Tom. The truer contrast is between a person who is wholly self-assured and comfortable with himself and his philosophy, and a person who is trying desperately to be something he’s not. That’s what makes Ron seem so obviously a man and Tom seem so much more like a boy.
Unlike Tom, however, Chris is grown-up, confident, attractive and desirable. So we can really see that clash of masculinities in action between Chris and Ron.
When Chris becomes Ron’s boss, clashes are inevitable. When Chris tries to remove hamburgers from the commissary to promote healthier eating, Ron challenges him to a cook-off: Chris’s carefully calibrated turkey burgers vs Ron’s extremely basic hamburgers. What better symbolism for the clash between Swanson’s capital “M” Man and Traeger’s man of the future? Despite the best effort and ingredients, the judges — and even Chris himself — unanimously agree the hamburger tastes better.
But buried in that challenge is the truth of Ron Swanson’s manly ways. Everyone agrees Ron’s hamburger tastes better, but everything Chris said is also true: it’s contributing to Pawnee’s appalling obesity statistics, and it won’t help anyone live to 150 years old. While Ron and his mustache are an attractive beacon to his kind of maleness, it’s still a beacon shining on the wrong coast — the coast of the past. Chris’s ground turkey burger might be more complicated and worse-tasting, but it’s more sustainable and more healthy.
A lot of young men today are Tom Haverfords — a little lost, perpetually adolescent, and looking to prove their manhood in all the wrong ways. They’re more likely to grow into Chris Traegers than Ron Swansons, but Swanson’s individuality, self-confidence, and compassion are still qualities to be aspired to. Because even if you disagree with everything Ron stands for, you want him, and his mustache, in your corner.
Do you see merit in Ron Swanson’s teachings? What about Chris Traeger’s? What other TV shows and characters have made you think about masculine identity? Sound off in the comments!