Leslie Knope: A Rare Inspirational Feminist Television Character
By Katie Boyer
We need more women in positions of power in the media like Leslie Knope, played by comedian Amy Poehler, on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Although she may not always be fighting directly for women’s issues, her dedication to her job, politics, and issues she is passionate about is something we can all learn from. She always goes for what she wants and doesn’t stop until she gets it. In the introduction clip to the first episode of the first season she brings up how it is a great time to be a woman in politics although she may be a small-town Parks Department Deputy Director of Pawnee, Indiana.
Parks and Recreation took off in 2009 with a similar mockumentary comedy style as that of The Office, created by many of the same comedic minds. It got mixed reviews at first but now the show has received multiple award nominations. The show premieres with Leslie on a mission to fill in an empty pit and build a park on it. The park is completed during the next season. Another project Leslie heads that ends successfully is the Harvest Festival.
Leslie isn’t a social activist (“Pawnee Zoo” Season 2 Episode 1) or a third-wave feminist like myself. She might be described as a first wave or early feminist because she points out the positive differences between men and women and the issues and difficulties women face today in our patriarchal society. But while she wants to “infiltrate” the “Boys Club” (Season 1 Episode 4), she could be trying to disband it. Even so, at the end of the episode she says she hopes that someday we will live in a society where the very idea of a “boys club” is ancient history. At least she is realistic about the societal oppression we live with and sees hope for a better future. Maybe “infiltration” into the male-dominated political world is the best step towards ending sexism in politics. As always, I admire that Leslie is trying with all her might despite her sometimes juvenile methods.
Even in her love life she holds men to high standards. In season two, she is courted by dumb and awkward but sweet policeman Dave played by comedian Louis C.K. She isn’t interested right away, especially when he doesn’t recognize any of the female politicians from the photos she has in her office. He makes a sweet attempt to impress her by learning about Madeline Albright , Condoleeza Rice, Michelle Obama and more. She may not be surrounded by the best support group at work either (Tom Haverford– a funny but misogynist character; Ron Swanson– Leslie’s stereotypical masculine, mustachioed boss who always stands up for Leslie; April Ludgate– the young, apathetic, rude but loveable intern; and many more) but this doesn’t keep her down. It must be because she holds herself to higher standards than others and sees the world more optimistically than most.
The contrast between Ron and Leslie is one of the most interesting relationships. Although Ron is Leslie’s boss, she is much more in charge of what goes on in the Parks Department than he is. She cares more about her job and is better at it. For example, in “Woman of the Year” (Season 2 Episode 17) Ron received the Pawnee Woman of the Year award that Leslie expected to win. He tries to correct the mistake and make the organization give the Leslie the award. Leslie may not be the brightest but she means well and will never stop trying to succeed at what she believes in.
Take “Beauty Pageant” (Season 2 Episode 3) for example. Leslie takes her job as a judge very seriously. Her custom scorecard includes the categories: presentation, intelligence, knowledge of “HERstory”, fruitful gestures, je ne sais quoi, the Naomi Wolf factor. Leslie sees the Miss Pawnee winner as someone who needs to represent the ideal woman for young girls to look up to. She insists on discussing all of the candidates fairly instead of the Barbie doll candidate that the rest of judges automatically want to choose. “The Hot One”, as the judges and host call her, wins despite Leslie’s persistence against it. As Leslie reluctantly congratulates the winner, asking her to appreciate her crown, the young pageant queen is taking shots of Jagermeister in the back. Oh the irony! (There are many more episodes and examples I could go into but I will let viewers discover Leslie’s inspiring passion on their own.)
Some people may call Leslie’s positive attitude too positive, bordering on naïve, but that’s what makes her one of my favorite television characters. I hope the millions of viewers appreciate Leslie for the strong woman she is. Although she may not be able to be the first female President like she claims she will, she is clearly a woman who will go far in her field. That is something young women need to see more of in the mainstream media and why I love Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation, and especially Leslie Knope.
Not yet convinced? Check out these episodes and clips!
“Boys Club” (Season 1 Episode 4); “Pawnee Zoo” (Season 2 Episode 1); “Galentine’s Day” (Season 2 Episode 16); I’m just a girl (where Leslie is covering for a coworker who accidentally shot Ron) clip from “Hunting Trip” (Season 2 Episode 10); “Woman of the Year” (Season 2 Episode 17); Sick Presentation (a delirious Leslie sneaks out of the hospital to give an important presentation she has been working on) clip from “Flu Season” (Season 3 Episode 2).