The Leslie Knope of It All

02/19/2016

I was reluctant to start watching Parks and Recreation (I’m not usually big on situational comedies) but since there are such few powerful women characters on television, I decided to give it a shot. I’m so glad that I did. Not only did I frequently laugh out loud – which is very rare for me – but I fell in love with Amy Poehler’s character, Leslie Knope. Apparently I’m not the only one. There are a lot of lists on the internet about ways to know if you’re Leslie, awesome quotes from her or what qualities you might share. All those are great (and the gifs are terrific) but what they’re missing is how truly revolutionary Leslie Knope is.

Who could have imagined that in a country that is disdainful of government, uses a variant of feminist as a form of hate speech (femi-Nazi anyone?), denigrates female ambition, and celebrates competition and greed as art forms, Leslie Knope would be so popular? From Day 1, she was clearly an unabashed feminist with political aspirations – the walls of her office filled with pictures of female politicians – who firmly believed in the power and importance of government as a way to provide services for people. Instead of wielding her influence like an axe the way many leaders do, she was willing to share power and worked to build consensus which, by the way, are bedrocks of feminist leadership. Whenever a difficult issue arose, rather than just making a decision, she held a public forum so that people’s voices could be heard. She wasn’t even threatened by conflict, choosing instead to view it in a positive light: “What I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring really loudly at me.”

The ground-breaking nature of Leslie didn’t stop there. One of the things I love most about her is the way she valued and nurtured her female friendships. In a television landscape littered with female characters who either talk only about men (see the Bechtel Test) or view other women as competition, Leslie gathered women to her like a moth to a flame. She created Galentine’s Day – the day before Valentine’s Day in which ladies celebrate ladies – and started the Pawnee Goddesses when the Pawnee Rangers wouldn’t allow girls. The Goddesses got badges for things like most community service hours and best blog while creating crafts like a Gertrude “Stein” and learning about the Bill of Rights via puppet show. And then, of course, there’s her relationship with Ann Perkins (“you rainbow-infused space unicorn”) in which they both support each other through everything from jobs and ambitions to romance and parks. We all deserve a best friendship like that. Maybe if young girls in particular saw female relational dynamics like that more often, they’d be nicer to each other.

Other unique relationships sparkled in the show. One of the most interesting was Leslie’s friendship with her boss, Libertarian Ron Swanson. The two of them were polar opposites in terms of their beliefs about politics, government and people but they supported each other like nobody’s business. Thankfully, there was never even a hint of romance between them, just respect and caring, which begs the question of why there are so few female-male peer friendships on television and in real life. Leslie and Ron were there for each other, overlooking their philosophical differences, accepting the other’s flaws and even working through a major feud in ways that were funny and even touching.

And then there was Leslie’s relationship with Ben Wyatt. You knew there had to be a love interest in there somewhere and Ben was an terrific character in his own right. Serious, awkward, nerdy but determined to be of service and do the right thing, Ben truly was yin to Leslie’s yang. Their romance grew slowly and realistically in a way that is rare for television. You understood why they were drawn to each other. But more than that, the two of them were willing to support each other when they could and compromise when they couldn’t. They were loving and adorable and we should all be so lucky to create such a fabulous partnership. Their wedding vows even included one of the healthiest statements ever heard within a committed relationship: “I love you and I like you.”

One of the many great things about Ben was that he too was a feminist and the two of them saw the world in the same way. An amazing speech at a press conference for Ben’s political campaign offers a perfect example. Leslie took on all the stupid, sexist charges and questions leveled at women. To a men’s right group called the Male Men, she said, “You’re ridiculous. And men’s rights is nothing.” Her answer to the anticipated question of whether she’s trying to have it all: “That question makes no sense! It’s a stupid question, stop asking it!” There is much, much more to her part of the speech but the icing on the cake was when Ben joined in and pointed out, among other things, that he’s never been asked about who’s watching his kids. He also entered the “Pie-mary” intended for candidate’s wives, was Leslie’s campaign adviser both times, and never allowed anyone to stomp on her dreams. He even gracefully endured her crush on Vice President Joe Biden.

While there were many great characters and hilarious situations, at the end of the day, Leslie Knope was what made the show so great. Her political ambitions were seen as positive, something to be nurtured and celebrated instead of feared and mocked. She mixed compassion with enthusiasm in trying to get people to do the right thing, like when she subdued Ben’s squabbling parents with her unity quilt or when she got her arch-rival, City Councillor Jeremy Jamm, to vote her way by being sincerely nice to him. Leslie always fought for her beliefs – attacking the food industry, incorporating Eagleton and enfranchising their citizens – even when it cost her politically. And what other female character has managed to rub elbows with everyone from First Lady Michelle Obama and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright to Senators Corey Booker and John McCain? Frankly, I’m disappointed that Hillary Clinton never made an appearance. I bet she is too.

Leslie showed us that, in addition to loving other people, it’s also important to love yourself. She gave herself pep talks (she once sent herself a voicemail: “Hey, Leslie. It’s Leslie. Hang in there. I love you. Bye.”), worked hard to achieve her goals and didn’t let disappointments keep her down for long. She was wise enough to take responsibility for her mistakes, listen to constructive criticism and work on changing herself whenever it was warranted. And she didn’t let embarrassment or the risk of looking grubby (she once worked as a sanitation employee for a day in order to break stereotypes about women’s abilities) keep her from doing whatever needed to be done.

There are so many things that make Parks and Recreation wonderful – the satirizing of ridiculous politicians was delicious – but it was the feminist emphasis that made this show so innovative and delightful. One of my favorite quotes from Leslie is, “I’m a feminist, okay? I would never ever go to a strip club. I’ve gone on record that if I had to have a stripper’s name, it would be Equality.” Whether it was the show’s tweaking of society’s insistence on blaming women for men’s harassment by asking Ben if he was “asking for it” when her mother flirted with him or celebrating the fact that she had no consequences (“No matter what I do, literally nothing bad can happen to me! I’m like a white, male US senator!”), you could always count on Leslie Knope to champion women’s issues and tell it like it is. What other show has a main character dress as Rosie the Riveter for Halloween, ask a contestant at a beauty pageant a question about de Tocqueville’s American Experiment, and turn the “Bro Code” on it’s head (“You know my code…Uteruses before duderus. Ovaries before brovaries.”)? She is a great feminist role model because she constantly talked about women’s achievements, nurtured and mentored the women in her life and emphasized intelligence over beauty (“What kind of lunatic would want to be Cleopatra over Eleanor Roosevelt?”).

If you haven’t watched Parks and Recreation, I strongly suggest that you Treat Yo Self. Over and above enjoying great entertainment, I want Hollywood to know that people appreciate watching powerful, intelligent, and complicated feminist women. Because the bottom line is: we need more Leslie Knopes in our lives.

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