April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), a listless intern and college student in seasons one and two of Parks and Recreation, is not unlike YouTube’s Honey Badger: She don’t give a shit. It’s not clear what her ambitions are: A day job that lets her pursue other passions? A cushy public sector role? An occupation where she can help others? During season one, she seems apathetic even in her personal life; her so-called boyfriend is openly gay, has his own boyfriend, and therefore doesn’t require true intimacy or commitment from her.
In season two, we see that her real motivation is the cute guy in the office building, Andy (Chris Pratt). Because of her unrequited love for him, she pushes for a promotion. In the episode “The Set-Up,” her boss, Parks director Ron Swanson, realizes that he needs an assistant. But when the flamboyantly useless Jean-Ralphio isn’t right for the job, April suggests that she’d be the perfect assistant for a government employee who doesn’t believe in government: “I’ll make sure you don’t have to go to any meetings. If anyone comes to see you, I’ll scare them away…I just figured I might as well get paid for being here.” She’s not only been an intern this whole time, but an unpaid one.
In real life, hundreds of thousands of college graduates intern without pay in order to get experience and connections at coveted workplaces. Yet unpaid internships are tenuous jobs; they may be a foot in the door, but they don’t guarantee paid, full-time work once the internship is over. And because these roles are unpaid, there’s an inherent barrier to entry for students who can’t afford to spend time working in return for “experience.”
So what does this mean for April? No one’s saying that she needs to have figured out what she wants to do with her life and be all Tracy Flick about it the way Leslie (Amy Poehler) is. But at a time of rampant unemployment and underemployment that has hit young women particularly hard, it’s puzzling to see someone so disinterested in converting from an unpaid internship to a paid job. (Millennials make the darndest career moves!) Moreover, it’s disappointing that what prompts her to ask for the position is not her own ambition, but her schoolgirl crush on Andy.
Similarly, on Girls, Hannah (Lena Dunham) doesn’t ask to get paid for her work as a publishing-company intern until her parents have withdrawn her allowance and her best friend Marnie prompts her to confront her boss. Hannah delivers a feeble ultimatum: Pay me, or I quit. Turns out, she’s not all that valuable to the company. (I mean, no Photoshop skills?) Her boss sees no need to give her a leg up—to him, she’s just a “quippy voice” that can be duplicated by the next college grad in search of an internship.
And, as previously discussed, Daphne (Sarah Habel) on Underemployed ascends from an unpaid internship to a paid one, but only after she sleeps with her boss and blackmails him into putting her on the payroll.
So what does this mean for young, underemployed women, 13 percent of whom are students who do not work for pay? It means we need to build our skills and assert ourselves in the workplace rather than, like Hannah, finding out too late that Photoshop skills could have landed her a full-time job or, like April, hoping that Jean-Ralphio gets fired so that she can apply for the position. So how can we maximize such internships? I spoke with Emily Miethner, founder and president of FindSpark, the largest Meetup for college students and recent grads in the nation. She interned at Gawker Media before getting her current job in social media and offered the following tips for new interns:
With my first couple of internships, there were days where I wouldn’t have any work given to me. I was too afraid to say something about that and ask for projects. I didn’t get as much out of those first experiences as I could have.
If you don’t have something to do–there is something to do, you just haven’t asked the right person.
Whatever assignments are given to you, do them with a smile and be positive about them. Realize that, as an intern, these projects are not always going to be the most glamorous. If they ask you to assist at an event or go out for drinks, that’s where you’ll probably learn even more than you will on the job. You’ll get insight when it comes to the company culture and politics and that sort of thing.
Onscreen, women struggle as unpaid interns but are saved by, in April’s case, a surprise job opportunity and, in Daphne’s case, her leverage from her hookup with the boss. But in real life, about one in six 18-to-24 year-olds are unemployed, and those who land coveted internships often go unpaid. This means that we have to work the hell out of the no-pay or low-pay jobs we’re given and seize even the small opportunities that come our way, so that, whether or not we want to become the next Leslie Knope, we’re primed for success.