Network television’s first foray with a feminist lead
“I am a goddess, a glorious female warrior, queen of all that I survey. Enemies of fairness and equality: hear my womanly roar!”
Genuine empowerment of women is seldom present in our culture. It’s often distilled to the trite “girl power!!!” merchandise of youth. Self-empowerment is considered to be indulgent. Even if a woman does think she’s beautiful, it’s bitchy to proclaim it. It’s even more bitchy to express deep, meaningful anger.
Then how the hell have we been blessed with Leslie Knope for the past seven years? Probably, as always, thanks to her creative circumventing of the patriarchy.
Knope (played by Amy Poehler) is the protagonist of NBC’s Parks & Recreation, currently in its final season. The show chronicles a crew of small-town government employees and their leader, Knope, who refuses to give up under any circumstances. Although Knope is a politician, she only has one core value: love. This includes love for her career, her husband, her town and especially her friends.
This might not sound too crazy. If you are a woman, or maybe have met one, you know women are just as complex as Knope is with ambitions and affection for all of the above fields. But, network television has never been given a Leslie Knope before.
Jack Powers, associate professor of television-radio at Ithaca College, said, “There’s the age old questions: Do television programs reflect society, or help shape society?”
“Comedies typically are way ahead of the progressive curve,” he said.
Parks & Rec is direct. There’s an episode (“Pawnee Rangers”) where Knope starts a renegade girl scout-esque troop, because her BFF/libertarian counterpart Ron Swanson starts a boys-only outdoors club. When the men in sanitation say they refuse to hire women, Knope corrals her intern April into working in sanitation for the day (“Women in Garbage”).
She inspires the city manager to create a Gender Equality Commission in city council, and only men show up. Her intern April tells him his gender equality commission is a real sausage fest.
“Oh, my God,” Chris responds. “You’re kidding me. I just assumed that some of the departments would send women. Oh, my God. I am part of the problem.”
When Knope goes to a strip club with her male co-workers, she adamantly declares, “I’ve gone on record that if I had to have a stripper’s name, it would be Equality,” (“Tom’s Divorce”).
Many women on TV look like Knope. She is white, thin, straight and middle-class. She is blond and super-cute. Hell, she works for the government. If she’s an activist, she’s pretty mainstream, working within the system to change what she can.
We’ve been given women who seem like Knope, too. The immediate parallel is 30 Rock, created by and starring Poehler’s pal Tina Fey. Fey’s Liz Lemon was a feminist too but portrayed much less flatteringly. She calls Valentine’s Day “Anna Howard Shaw Day” after the famed suffragist, but always with bitterness. She shoves a sandwich into her mouth and shouts, “I can do it! I can have it all!” But, it’s obvious she can’t. Like Knope, she struggles to achieve success in her career and is constantly dealing with shitty guys. She embodies the stereotype haunting women characters that they can’t ever really be fulfilled in their lives; they’ll always want food, men or career advancement, or to be thin or liked, and they’ll never quite feel satisfied.
That’s what’s revolutionary about Leslie Knope: she is satisfied.
“Leslie does have it all, doesn’t she?” Powers said. “She leads a fulfilling life. Whereas you always got the idea that Liz Lemon did not, that Liz Lemon was always wanting for more, typically in the relationship department, and typically in the idea that she was going to be single and never going to have children and never have somebody. And we don’t have Leslie with those same concerns.”
Getting shit done in the bureaucracy of her local government is challenging, but Knope does it. Like Lemon, she often overworks herself, deteriorating into a complete mess. But, she has a foundation — friends who love her, a supportive partner and employees who pull together when she needs them.
Knope’s friendships with other characters are the show’s foundation as much as Knope’s. She has endless support for her best friend, beautiful-tropical-fish Ann, who loves her right back. She becomes a mentor for her intern, April. These relationships are not often portrayed in mainstream media. She is close with her government-hating superior, Ron, who is her opposite, but they respect each other.
Parks & Rec isn’t the only progressive show out there, and it certainly isn’t the first show to turn the tide on a social issue, explained Powers, who has worked with the producers of Modern Family.
“We have a show like Modern Family,” Powers said, “[that] even among conservatives — liberals were already on board with gay marriage — but that show, it has been identified as a show that made a difference among conservatives in accepting how same-sex relationships between men are seen… So, yeah, it makes a difference.”
For every little girl watching who sees Leslie Knope, loved and loving, with Madeleine Albright’s portrait on her desk as she eats waffles unapologetically doused with whipped cream, her dreams might be a little closer too.
Alexa Salvato is a sophomore journalism major who keeps a picture of Poehler and Fey on her desk. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.