Friday, July 1, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Jen Barkley (Parks and Recreation)


Truth be told, I'm ambivalent about having kids. While I actually really enjoy children in small doses, and I did spend a couple of years interacting with them in very large doses, I don't know if that translates into wanting to be a mother. Most of the time I'm more worried about getting my own shit dealt with - I don't know if I want to spend five years worrying about literal shit.

On the other hand, I'm not entirely against the idea. I know I'd be a good mother, I know I'd probably even enjoy it most of the time.* But does that mean that I need to plan my life as if I'm going to have kids on the off chance that I either wake up one day with some serious baby-fever or I wake up pregnant? I'd rather not. I don't want the CGI baby from Ally McBeal to haunt me for the next ten years. That thing is horrifying.

In times like this and with questions like this, my general go-to is fiction. Isn't that true for everyone? I look around and see if there are any stories that will help me figure it out, help me figure out how I feel and what I want and if it's okay for me to feel and want those things. Unfortunately, when it comes to this issue, the examples I can find are alarmingly one-sided.

I'm definitely not the first person to point this out, but as far as I can tell, American media must have a vested interest in a population boom. How else can you explain the fact that there are almost no (zero, zip, zilch, none) female characters on mainstream television shows who just plain don't want kids.

There are characters who tragically can't have kids, characters who never thought about it mysteriously end up with kids, and characters who don't want kids but then get pregnant and change their minds immediately, but when you try to sit down and think of female characters who straight up do not want children, the mind draws a blank. Even more, it's bafflingly difficult to think of characters who don't want children and are never told that they're wrong for thinking that. Characters who even dislike children but aren't the villain.

Like I said, alarmingly few of those.

No, instead we get tropes like the busy career woman who doesn't like children and can't play with a kid when presented with one but who by the end of the season or the movie or whatever is all over kids and loves them and is happily engaged in good, moral motherhood. We get women who seem to have made their minds up about this kid thing only to be told, effectively, that no, they were wrong, and the story is going to make sure they regret their terrible kid-hating ways.

Hell, accidental pregnancy is an entire genre now, with whole stories devoted to forcing women to have unplanned children that they must by narrative constraint adore and fall in love with the fathers of. Aside from Obvious Child, which was great and you should totally watch, movies and television almost refuse to tell the stories of women who don't want to have children and then just don't have children. Literally all of the female friends on Friends either did get pregnant or wanted to and adopted instead. I'm just saying.

So. This is a long intro. And I'm not trying to imply that there's anything wrong with actually wanting to be a mother. I have a few friends who always wanted to be moms and now they are and they're super happy about it. Hey, whatever works for you. I'm just saying that while the world needs mothers, it needs aunties and friends and sisters and people who can't stand kids too. There's no shame either way.

Which brings us, finally, to today's strong female character: Jen Barkley from Parks and Recreation, one of the few female characters I can think of in American pop culture who can't stand kids, never wants them to even touch her let alone call her mother, and who is never ever punished for this. 

In fact, contrary to the usual model where a woman who hates kids must learn to love them or else be the villain, Jen Barkley is a confident, sexy, accomplished woman we're supposed to admire and enjoy. And she really hates kids.

I love her.

If you're not familiar with who Jen Barkley is, though, you're forgiven. A minor character who pops up from season four onwards, Jen (Kathryn Hahn) is a political consultant working out Washington DC who is hired by Leslie's opponent in the race for city council. While Leslie and Ben do manage to beat Jen in that election, it's pretty close and leaves them all with a lot of respect for each other. Jen then offers Ben a job working in DC with her on a Congressional campaign and appears off and on throughout the rest of the show.

In season six, she shows up to give Leslie the pep talk of all time about her political future, concluding with the oddly inspiring line, "You can trust me, because I don't care enough about you to lie." And then in season seven, she blows into town to convince Ben to run for Congress himself and run his campaign. That's where most of our material comes from.

See, when Jen shows up in season seven, it's been a few years since she last really saw Ben and Leslie. No big deal normally, but in this time the Knope-Wyatts have actually had triplets, adorable children who are now rambunctious toddlers. Good for Ben and Leslie, who love having children and are super stoked, but less good for Jen Barkley who hates kids and has to maneuver through a house that looks about as disgusting as you can imagine the home of three toddlers looking.

Jen isn't quiet about her disapproval here, though it's worth noting that she never directly shames Ben and Leslie for their choices. 

She makes a lot of comments about being "so happy with my choices", but she doesn't openly tell Leslie she should have tied her tubes or anything rude like that. Instead, she just takes this opportunity to celebrate her singleness and her joy at definitely not having any children.

Parks and Recreation as a whole, actually, is the rare show that manages to avoid insisting that all of its female characters love babies. While Leslie and Ann do both definitely want children (and while the show does become increasingly heteronormative and "pair the spares" as time goes on), April struggles with her feelings about maternity and Donna (who is getting her own article soon, don't you worry) never mentions wanting kids and as far as we can tell never has any. 

So this is a show that respects a woman's right to choose if maternity is right for her or not, and even what flavor of maternity to go with. Leslie goes the sitcom route of just finding out she's pregnant at one point, but Ann actually meticulously plans on her pregnancy and for a long time actually intends to go it alone via artificial insemination. Right on.

Still, even with these other characters taking main stage, there's still room to appreciate the relative uniqueness of a Jen Barkley. I mean, she doesn't just not want kids, she really doesn't want kids. She even occasionally seems confused about what kids are. And yet she's never punished for this. We're not told that Jen is heartless or awful, we're not meant to find her off-putting or harsh, she's just a very competent, intelligent, funny woman who thinks the idea of squeezing a watermelon-sized spawn through her vagina is horrifying. And I kind of can't blame her.

I don't mean to imply that her distaste for motherhood is the only interesting thing about Jen Barkley either. It's also worth celebrating that in her we have an awesome recurring female character who is straight up badass. She's a smooth political operator who charges $1200 an hour just to give advice and who routinely works on national campaigns. She loves what she does, and she doesn't apologize for who she is. She's the kind of confident that makes me want to sit up straight, put on my best death-laser facial expression, and get shit done.

I'm focused on the kids thing because right now, that's what I need a character to be for me. No, me having kids or not isn't a particularly urgent issue, but it's something I think about. A lot of people do. And as much as I enjoy the hell out of Jane the Virgin, sometimes you want a nice sour taste to counteract all that sweet. Sometimes you just want Kathryn Hahn stomping loudly across your television screen reminding you that not everyone likes children and that is perfectly okay.

What I'm saying is that Jen Barkley hates kids, and I love her for it. 


*No one enjoys parenthood all of the time. No one. No. One.

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