When it comes to icons and heroes, it says a lot about society when most these days are fictional characters. We’ve become a very cynical bunch, never putting too much stock into real people. It’s often only a matter of time before they tweet something stupid or are discovered to be card-carrying asshole.
In some ways, it’s a sign of the times. We are an exceedingly jaded bunch, born from a generation of burned-out hippies. We also live in a world where we have no concept of privacy and no ability to give anyone who holds problematic opinions a pass. For anyone who becomes an icon, it’s usually only a matter of time before they say or do something to ruin their iconic status.
Recently, Joss Whedon added his name to that bloated list of fallen icons. Up until a few weeks ago, he wasn’t just a successful director and alpha dog of geek culture. He was held up, by many, as a feminist icon. He was the gold standard that feminists referred to when asked to reference how a male feminist should conduct themselves.
Now, like so many other icons whose hypocrisy was exposed, Joss Whedon’s once impeccable feminist credentials have been shattered. While I’ve argued that his hypocrisy isn’t quite on the same level as other less reputable celebrities, it’s still a mortal blow, of sorts, to his status as an icon. He may still be a celebrity and a successful director, but he cannot be a feminist icon anymore.
I think that’s more than tragic. As an unapologetic fan of superhero comics, I know the value of having an iconic hero who embodies the values of a particular idea. While I’ve taken issue with certain brands of feminism, I do think there are still important women’s issues that deserve attention. Those kinds of struggles need icons and heroes.
So, in lieu of Joss Whedon’s shortcomings in this area, I’d like to offer an alternative to those seeking a new feminist hero who can raise the bar for everyone in terms of true gender equality. That hero is already an icon to many and one whose feminist credentials are a lot more pragmatic than Whedon’s ever were.
He’s a man, but he’s a man who earns the respect of men, women, and everything in between. He’s also a fictional character, but one who managed to carve a special place in popular culture for all the right reasons. Ladies, gentlemen, and those of unspecified gender, I give you the ultimate feminist hero, Ron Swanson.
To those who haven’t watched every episode of “Parks and Recreation,” bear with me. I have a feeling that those already familiar with the unstoppable force of American manliness that is Ron Swanson don’t need much convincing. They already know damn well why this man deserves to be an icon to men and woman alike.
For the sake of those who haven’t seen the show, and I weep for those people, allow me to explain. Ron Swanson isn’t just a man of many talents, from wood-working to cutting wasteful government spending. He’s a man of principle. Throughout every season of the show, he makes those principles clear and doesn’t give a wet fart about whose feelings or faces are hurt in the process.
Those are ideals that plenty of men can respect. However, it’s how he conducts himself around women that sets him apart even more. The fact he can do so with a perfectly groomed mustache is just an awesome bonus.
One of Ron Swanson’s most defining traits is that he deals with everyone the same way and sees them on a similar level, as individuals. Specifically, he sees most people as morons who annoy him and are too lazy/stupid/weak to solve their own problems. Yes, that’s a somewhat cynical view of people in general, but that’s just it. It’s how he views people.
Ron Swanson is nothing if not even-handed in dealing with men and women alike. Throughout the show, he holds both genders to the same standard. If you annoy him, as most people do, he won’t give you special treatment on the basis of what body parts you may or may not have. Annoyance is annoyance, no matter where it comes from.
That is, in essence, what traditional feminism has been about, treating both genders fairly and holding them to a similar standard. Ron Swanson does that better than anyone. Moreover, he doesn’t need to be constantly reminded. That’s just how he rolls. He doesn’t need any rigorous feminist training.
He also trusts women to be as capable as men in whatever tasks he gives them. While he’s the director of the Pawnee Park’s Department, he delegates most of the tasks to his deputy, Leslie Knope. However, he doesn’t do that because he has to. He does it because he trusts her to do the job and because Leslie wants that job.
His relationship with Leslie Knope shows that Ron is capable of working with women, trusting them, and acknowledging their value in a professional, non-romantic sort of way.
He has a similar relationship with his assistant, the crass and crude April Ludgate. Again, Ron doesn’t give her the job because she’s a woman. He gives her the job because he knows she’ll do it effectively. He also doesn’t try to make her conform to any particular standard for an assistant, gender or otherwise. He lets her be herself. Can you think of fairer, more pro-feminist way to deal with a female employee? I think not.
Beyond his working relationships, Ron shows he’s also capable of having deeper relationships with other women. Not all of them are healthy, though. He’s been divorced twice, both to women named Tammy. However, it’s these unhealthy relationships that really help solidify Ron’s status as a true feminist hero for men and women alike.
In a sense, Ron’s ex-wives are the very antithesis of feminism. In fact, they’re perfect feminist villains. Tammy One, as Ron calls her, is a joyless, ball-busting tyrant who has the warmth and comfort of a venomous snake. She exists to control everyone around her, especially Ron. She doesn’t accept anyone for who they are. She tries to mold them into whoever she wants them to be. Men and women alike are right to fear her.
On top of that, she works for the IRS. I honestly can’t think of a way to make anyone, man or woman, more terrifying. The fact that Ron survived a marriage with her should immediately give him credibility with any feminist looking to avoid the label of a man-hater.
Then, there’s Tammy Two, as Ron calls her, and while not quite as terrifying, she’s every bit as devious. What she lacks in Tammy One’s callousness, she more than makes up for with weaponized sex appeal. I’m not talking about the cute, lovable kind of sex appeal either. I’m talking about the kind that attempts to strangle a man with brute vaginal strength.
Like Tammy One, Tammy Two attempts to use sex to bend men and everyone around her to her will. Throughout the show, she makes multiple attempts to seduce Ron back into her grasp and almost succeeds a number of times. Despite her supernatural ability to manipulate men with her vagina, Ron is able to resist and break her hold.
On one level, that’s a perfect demonstration of a woman who uses sexuality for manipulation, something feminists and men’s rights activists alike complain about. On another, it also demonstrates that some men cannot be bought with sex, no matter how wild and amazing it might be. Ron is one of those men and he’s a better man because of it.
Despite his experiences with his ex-wives, Ron Swanson still treats women fairly. He’s even a romantic, of sorts, and not just towards bacon. In the later seasons of the show, he meets a woman named Diane Lewis and she’s everything the Tammys aren’t.
She accepts him for who he is, doesn’t want him to change, and eventually marries him. Ron treats her the same. Theirs is a true relationship of equals, a kind that feminists can respect and admire alongside that of Cyclops and Jean Grey. For a man to have endured two failed marriages to two monstrous women, yet still love a better woman for all the right reasons, is as heroic a story as any, especially within a feminist context.
Between the way Ron works with women, the way he loves them, and the way he deals with them, he demonstrates a far more refined approach to feminism than Joss Whedon ever did. He didn’t need to create female heroes. He didn’t need to make multi-billion dollar movies or iconic TV shows. He just had to show that it’s possible to deal with women in a fair, equal, and respectful way.
The fact that Ron does all of that without being the kind of whiney beta-male that makes every male feminist sound like they have a deflated scrotum. Ron is, by every measure, as alpha as it gets when it comes to men. He’s strong, he’s tough, he’s stern, and he has one of the manliest mustaches of all time. No one in their right mind would doubt this man’s masculine credentials.
On top of that, he’s not the kind overly-muscled, John Rambo kind of alpha male with woefully impractical muscles and ridiculous skills that nobody without Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body-building routine can hope to match. Ron Swanson has the build and physique of an actual man. He does set the bar too high or inspire body image issues, except when it comes to manly facial hair.
By nearly every measure, Ron Swanson is the kind of man that should earn him a place in the feminist hall of fame. He is everything men respect and women admire. He should be the icon and hero that feminists refer to.
I’m not saying he’s without flaws. I’m not saying there aren’t other men, real and fictional, who deserve a similar status. I’m just saying that Ron Swanson is the kind if icon that feminists can rally around. Granted, Ron doesn’t care much for rallies, icons, heroes, or annoying people in general, but that’s what makes him Ron fucking Swanson.