(screencap by http://ohilovecaps.tumblr.com)
Last night on Parks and Recreation, internet-beloved twerp Ben Wyatt wore a Letters to Cleo shirt, and the internet is freaking out about it. To demonstrate how much the internet is freaking out about it, let me point you toward benwyattinletterstocleoshirts.tumblr.com (disclaimer: a fantumblr which I curate).
In this episode, “The Comeback Kid,” Ben is visited at home by Chris, who is concerned that Ben is depressed. Ben of course denies this, insisting instead that he’s just burying himself in his hobbies since his recent job loss.
The producers piled on physical and material markers of “depression”—the wearing of gray, the stubble, the fatty foods, the unkempt hair. But it was this shirt that resonated most with the audience—why? A less well-orchestrated show would have picked something a little more obvious (Whitney might have gone with The Cure, Up All Night maybe Smashing Pumpkins), but Parks and Recreation is not only more clever (as far as I’m concerned), but they are clearly uniquely tapped into their audience base: women in their early twenties who are on tumblr.
It was a really interesting depiction of mental illness, and not an entirely unfair one. It’s no secret that both Ben and Chris are experiencing mental health issues in different ways. Here, Chris’s tried to intervene with Ben’s patterns by using his own coping mechanisms (gross health shakes), which (of course) didn’t work. But it was the act of an intervention of perception at all that disrupted Ben’s patterns and made him notice that he was depressed. He was too buried to realize it before.
Mostly, I’ve been thinking hard about what that Letters to Cleo shirt means. It’s no secret that Letters to Cleo is for Feelings, including Depressed Feelings. What made the use of the shirt most remarkable is that it wasn’t used to feminize Ben. It wasn’t used as a marker to show how depression makes men weak and feminine and therefore into Kay Hanley, it was used as a marker to make the audience identify even more with Ben. I know it’s a cheap way to talk about it, but: no one was laughing at Ben, we were laughing with him in a way that I’ve rarely ever seen. And that’s why [mostly] women on the internet are reacting with such force, I think.
Further, it’s significant that depression itself wasn’t the butt of the joke at all, it was Ben’s mechanisms for cheaply masking his depression which founded the joke (mechanisms which were funny because of the way Ben is, and his ridiculous fondness for calzones).
I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that there’s a deep cultural connection between Letters to Cleo and commercial female adolescence in the 1990s. I started a post about this very phenomenon in the summer, but I tabled it. I’ll definitely revisit that soon.