Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Masculinity Monday: Tom Haverford's American Dream


Well, it's the third Masculinity Monday* of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and so far we've covered a couple of really complex and difficult-to-fully-consider-in-2000-words topics. We looked at the myth of the inherently "hardworking" Asian-American man with Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, then we pivoted to talk about "stealth Asians" or the invisible representation of mixed race Asian people, most notably with Bellamy Blake on The 100. So we've been busy. Now we're going to change gears again and talk about a completely different angle of the Asian-American masculine experience: the American Dream.

When I say "the American Dream", I can bet that most of you have a pretty clear picture in mind. A house in the suburbs, white picket fence, golden retriever, two cars in the driveway, heteronormative marriage, and two to three kids. Right? That's what we're all told the American Dream is. It's that thing that we're all supposed to want. Only, I would argue, that image is incredibly outdated. Sure, some people still dream of that life, but a lot more don't. In fact, I would say that the modern American Dream, the thing that we all desperately want even if we pretend we don't, is something more like the characters on Friends. And I don't mean that as a horrible cynical "the world is going to shit" concept. Hear me out.

So at its core, the "American Dream" is really just a distillation of what we as a culture have chosen to value at any given time. Not really what one individual person values - even in the age of sububia, there were lots of people who didn't want kids and liked living in the city - but what the culture as a whole has chosen to uplift and admire. You can tell what that dream is just by looking at the media and stories that we tell. Like, say, sitcoms. 

For the first forty years of sitcoms or so, the vast majority were about nice white families living in nice white suburbs having nice white problems. But at some point in there we shifted, leading to now when most sitcoms are about nice white people in their late twenties living in a big city and having nice white people who have a lot of sex and think about pop culture a lot problems. Do you see what I mean? We've gone through a cultural shift, and I don't think it's necessarily any more or less healthy for us as a culture to revere and idolize the single person with a lot of disposable income more than a nuclear suburban family. Just different.

With this in mind, though, our idea of what it means for a character to pursue the American Dream becomes a little different, especially when we think of it as a generational shift. Particularly in the case of recent immigrants to America and their children, there is likely to be a big difference of opinion in what it means to pursue the American Dream and whether or not that's a worthwhile thing to do. 

You can see this pretty well in Fresh Off the Boat, where parents Jessica and Louis Huang think of the American Dream as owning their own steakhouse and living in Florida while their son Eddie dreams of living like a rapper and being cool and dating lots of girls. But nowhere does this tension find more hilarious and topical fruit than in Parks and Recreation with the life of Tom Haverford. 

Well, I say the life of Tom Haverford, but what I really mean is the life of Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani, which is Tom's birth name. Born to Indian parents in South Carolina (just like the actor who plays him, Aziz Ansari), Tom Haverford is obsessed with his own American-ness. He dreams of being a mogul or a celebrity or somehow famous. He wants his own airline, his own record label, his own chain of high end luxury menswear outlets. 

Even when he's living in a small town in Indiana, working in the Parks and Recreation department in a decidedly unglamorous job, stuck in a greencard marriage with his Canadian college friend, Tom is still trying to live that life that he believes is the American Dream. He's still trying to be a baller.

Look, Tom is a fantastically hilarious character and Ansari did an incredible job bringing him to life and also making him sympathetic, which was no small feat when his character constantly crapping on the incredibly sincere and lovely sentiments of those around him. It would have been much easier to take a character like Tom and make him the butt of every joke, make him the kind of guy who the audience loves to hate. But the show doesn't do that. Instead, it shows us how this modern American dream can be destructive but it can also be motivating, which is a much more complex and interesting story to tell.

Let's start at the beginning, though. When we first meet Tom, he's working as Leslie's assistant in the Pawnee Parks Department. He hates his job, just kind of does it for the paycheck, and dreams constantly of something more, something bigger. It feels like his whole life is stalled, forcing him into a weird netherworld where neither his romantic nor his professional aspirations can come to fruit. 

So it's not super shocking that the show shakes Tom loose of those stagnant situations relatively early on. His greencard marriage ends when his wife's citizenship is secure, leaving Tom free to actually try to find a life partner. And eventually he decides to quit his job at the Parks Department to start his own entertainment business. American Dream, here comes Tom Haverford!

Well, if that were the case, then his character development wouldn't actually be all that interesting or compelling. Instead of having Tom go on to be improbably successful right off the bat, the show makes it clear that he has a lot to learn about business and life before he can actually achieve his dreams. Furthermore, he has a lot to learn about relationships and women before he's going to be ready to commit to a loving and healthy partnership. Tom's story on Parks and Recreation is less about him figuring out what his dream is and more about him growing to a mature enough level to achieve it.

In other words, Tom's story is an examination of our cultural values and a repudiation of the idea that success should be easy or cheap. It's also a story that openly thinks through the question of what it means to be a success in America, to be American, in this day and age. To have this story told by an Indian-American character, then, is both appropriate and really interesting. That's what we're getting at.

Tom's first company, Entertainment 720, fails spectacularly, mostly because he has no idea what he is doing. He just sort of starts the company and assumes this makes him successful. It doesn't. Then he starts a second company, Rent-A-Swag, which rents high end clothing to middle school boys (and other people too). Rent-A-Swag, interestingly, actually does really well right up until a rival store opens across the street and drives it into the ground. So that's two strikes for Tom's business attempts, two strikes for his dream of independent wealth and entrepreneurship.

His third company, Tom's Bistro, actually does very well. By this point, Tom has learned a lot from his failures and is ready to actually go into business and do it well. But you know what? Tom's Bistro fails too. He pushes for a big expansion which should have been very sound and a great idea, but economic forces beyond his control conspire to crush it, causing him to declare bankruptcy again. Tom feels like nothing is going to go right, like his dream is nothing more than a concatenation of his failures. As it turns out, though, his failures are the most important part.

It's after this third strike that Tom changes direction and really starts to think about his life and what it means to pursue the American Dream. And from that comes his book on how to fail your way to greatness. Tom becomes a self-help guru, the kind of guy who sells out stadiums and writes bestsellers and buys back his old restaurant. He finally does get his success, but not without a lot of failure and disaster along the way.

On the romantic side it's very much the same story. We first meet Tom in a semi-loveless marriage, trying to pick up girls using PUA techniques and generally being a lech. When his marriage breaks up, however, he realizes he had feelings for his wife and we start to see a small level of maturity breaking through the clouds. 

Each of his successive girlfriends then gets to know a slightly better and more giving Tom, culminating in his relationship with his second wife, Lucy, a partnership of equals. 

In other words, Tom gets his dream. He gets to be cosmopolitan and a success and married to a woman he loves and a jetsetter and all of that, but he doesn't get there without a lot of failure first. So what does that have to do with Asian-American masculinity.

So in a lot of ways, Tom is a subversion of what we've come to expect of depictions of Asian-American men. Like Harold and Kumar before him, he can be extremely lazy and he fights back actively against the stereotype of Asian men as sexless. Tom loves sex and we are made well aware of this at every turn. Like Bellamy Blake, however, Tom also exists in a weird nether-space of kind of Asian-ness and kind of not. As we noted above, he's changed his name to sound more "American" - read, "white" - and he doesn't seem to value or express his parents' culture.

But more than either of these, what I think is fascinating about Tom's status as an Asian-American male character is how thoroughly he's allowed to celebrate American culture. And not just the parts of American culture that we think should be celebrated. Tom is a lowest common denominator kind of guy. He likes tabloids and celebrity culture and pickup artists and all sorts of things we just aren't used to seeing Asian-American men enjoy. Tom is not a nerd, he's not a "worker drone", and he's not some stoic high-culture snob. He's a dude who constantly calls his best friend Ben a hopeless dork and refers to himself as a "pimp". 

And yeah, it's a little jarring to think of it as a good thing to have a character like Tom who celebrates everything we tend to think of as the bad side of our culture, but that's the beauty of it. Tom loves the crap we don't like, and that's because he can. His character is allowed to choose, and he chose schlock. That is, strange as it may sound, a good thing. 

It's a diversity of representation, a reminder that Asian men are allowed to be shallow and vain and obsessed with monetary success. They aren't inherently more "spiritual" or "intelligent" or "above that". To think that way is to deny the basic humanity of a whole group of people - being a person means having the option to choose garbage if you want. So we should celebrate that Tom does choose what he likes and lives it so loudly. It's good for us.

Going back to Tom and the American Dream, though, I think that perhaps the most interesting aspect of Tom's character on Parks and Recreation really is this new conception of what the American Dream is and should be. We're used to the idea of immigrants and the children of immigrants going after that other dream, the dream of suburbia and a house of one's own. But we're less comfortable with the update, with the idea that immigrants and their children might come to America because they want fame and fortune, because they want to be young and hot in New York City, because they want to be moguls and celebrities. 

As an ambassador of the new American Dream, Tom exists as a reminder that the world is much bigger than we give it credit for. And by succeeding in the pursuit of his dream, he teaches us that our traditional American values of hard work and grit can still count and still matter even in this new world and new dream. And that's worthwhile too.

So here's to Tom Haverford, a baller. You know that's how he'd want us to refer to him.


*Shush.

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