In the “Pawnee Rangers” episode of the fourth season of “Parks and Recreation,” Tom Haverford explains to the audience that he and Donna Meagle set aside a day every year in which all they do is pamper themselves. They splurge on clothes, fragrances, massages, mimosas and fine leather goods. “Three words for you,” Tom tells Donna. “Treat. Yo. Self.”
This is a side storyline in the episode, but out of all of the incredible plots and jokes “Parks and Recreation” came up with in seventh seasons, “treat yo self” is the one thing that I see on a near-daily basis. A Google search for “treat yo self” will give you 4 million results, and the actress who plays Donna, Retta, said in a recent interview that she hears the phrase at least 10 times a day. There are tens of pages on Etsy of joke-related t-shirts, prints, mugs and more. I see it on my social media feeds when people decide to publicly justify their splurges, and it’s a standard response in my friend groups when we’re waffling on whether or not to buy or do something we think is nicer than normal. Recently one of my friends posted a Snapchat of some caloric food with the phrase as a caption, which got me thinking about how pervasive the mantra is. I realized that as a phenomenon there’s more going on than just a funny joke.
It’s a thing a lot of people (especially millennials) know about, probably because of Netflix.
I’ve written about Netflix before and how streaming is changing our cultural experiences, so it’s unsurprising to me that something that’s actually pretty funny is a well-known thing. All seven seasons of “Parks and Recreaction” are on Netflix, so millions of people can watch and revisit them whenever they want. Because it’s available whenever and wherever, the jokes stretch much farther in the cultural psyche than if the show was only broadcasted live once or just put on expensive DVDs. People that discover “Parks and Recreation” through binge watching on Netflix get fresh takes of “treat yo self” and are let in on the joke, while fans of the show who rewatch “Pawnee Rangers” get to revisit the joke and file it away in their brains. And when I say it to myself, it’s an in-joke that somehow helps me justify buying a new sweater or expensive coffee from my favorite spot.
From one angle, something like “treat yo self” is a cultural shibboleth that’s made possible by something like Netflix. If you like “Parks and Recreation” and drop the “treat yo self” joke to someone and they get it, you know that you probably have similar cultural interests. Knowing what my friend meant in her Snapchat by “treat yo self” enhanced its meaning for me — in some way she wanted to justify why she was eating badly without a special occasion — and shared with me that she also watches the show. The widespread availability of the art makes this possible.
It’s resonant because of the economic conditions young people currently live in.
If you watch the clip above, Tom clearly says that this is an annual thing — something he and Donna say is “the best day of the year.” From a broad view, it seems that people aren’t really paying attention to the joke, or that they just want to seem funny to people who would know it.
But the more I think about it, especially since I also use the joke differently, the more I realized it’s a facet of its role as a cultural shibboleth. I know so many people my age who are very worried about their financial situations and whether or not they’ll ever be able to make money, so anything that seems extra gets the “treat yo self” justification and a few laughs. Both Tom and Donna have secure, full-time government jobs, and can afford to set aside one day to buy things they don’t really need. Considering these details of the show are important in understanding the impact of the joke on its audience, in that the context that Tom and Donna find themselves in is something that a lot of people are striving towards. Comedy is a method many people use to feel better about their current conditions, and I think that’s what happening here in a broader way for the millennial set. I’ll be very interested to see if in the next decade “treat yo self” will still have the same meaning amongst members of my age group.
What do you think about “treat yo self”? Let’s talk about it in the comments.