All hail Leslie Knope, the only feminist on primetime TV.

NBC’s Parks and Recreation has been generating lots of critical buzz. The critics have been encouraging people to watch this show, lest it be canceled due to poor ratings. The show is funny– the writing is clever and there are actual laugh-out-loud moments– and not merely because of the mocumentary form it shares with The Office. Its real charm lies less in the ordinariness of its subject matter than in the uniqueness of its lead character, Leslie Knope. Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope is a spunky, smart, hard-working, bureaucrat. Like Michael Scott, she is that rare person that actually believes in, and likes her job, but unlike Michael, she is a hard-working public servant. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever worked in public service knows, the dream rarely lives up to the reality.

But all of this is the background info for a character that is much more sophisticated than the obligatory sketch might suggest.  Leslie is not just a smart working woman who takes her job too seriously, she’s also a self-proclaimed feminist, and for once, this on-air feminism seems to be about something other than cheap laughs. In a side note, it’s unclear how much of this feminism comes from Poehler herself, who, like her character, is not afraid to use the F word in public (see her online web series Smart Girls at the Party ) and how much comes from the writers.

Leslie’s personal heroes are women in politics, Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright, and her brand of feminism, like theirs, is decidedly second wave. She is interested in being treated as an equal by her male co-workers, and has strong opinions about the objectification of women for male pleasure. But Leslie is a human being (not just a feminist) and so sometimes, she finds herself in situations which she wouldn’t normally ‘approve of’. When a friend and co-worker Tom is feeling down about his divorce, Leslie decides that in spite of her convictions, she MUST take him to the local strip joint, The Glitter Factory.

Tom: Leslie, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but once you go in there, you will see things you cannot unsee.

Leslie: I’m a feminist, OK, 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 E Quality, but I’m willing to sacrifice all that I’ve worked for just to put a smile on your perverted little face, so don’t blow this.

Leslie (to camera): I kind of feel like Jane Goodall studying the chimps, you know? ‘Cause there are some feminist scholars who say that stripping is a feminist act.

Of course, Leslie has some of the obligatory flightiness that characterizes pretty much all ‘smart women’ on TV. She consistently assumes that her one brown co-worker (in-spite of his American English and Californian descent) is a foreigner. She is single, and seems to have no luck when it comes to dating, and of course, is constantly being walked all-over by her more attractive, less intelligent best female friend. But Leslie Knope is not a buffoon. She, unlike her obvious NBC analogy, Liz Lemon, is not held under the thumb of a male superior. Leslie’s boss hates government, but he does not tell Leslie how to live either her personal or professional life.

Consider the episode “Rosemary’s Baby” in season 2 of 30 Rock, where Liz meets her idol, Rosemary Howard, the first woman to write comedy for live TV (a caricature of the 1970s bra-burning feminazi). It’s important to note that this episode opens with a scene where Liz receives an “annual followship award” from the parent company General Electric, presented by her boss, Jack Donaghy.

Liz hires Rosemary to be a guest writer on the show, and she encourages the writers to “push the envelope” on TGS, to not be “cogs in their machine.” This advice inspires an existential crisis in Liz, who feels she has abandoned her radical political roots. But when she sees the material results of Rosemary’s career: a one-bedroom rat-infested apartment in a “gritty and real” neighborhood called Little Chechnya, Liz realizes that she would rather be censored by GE than write racy comedy as a free-lance radical. The moral of the story is that if you let your feminism interfere with your work, you will end up poor, alone, and unemployable. As the seasons progress, it has become increasingly difficult to make a feminist out of Liz Lemon. This makes it all the more refreshing to see an optimistic portrayal of the Feminist project in a character like Leslie Knope.

In lieu of concluding remarks, I will leave you with this lovely set of dialogue from the episode “hunting trip” of Parks and Recreation, in which Leslie (covering for a friend) must explain to a park ranger why she shot a man in the head while hunting. Of course, Leslie finds herself in this situation because she is protecting a friend from a well-earned law suit. This, I think, is what is really lovely about Leslie. She’s a feminist, but not at the expense of also being a kind-hearted and generous human being.

Ranger: So what happened? I mean, did you forget to check the entire field? I find a lot of women have problems with tunnel vision?

Leslie: No I’m an excellent hunter.

Ranger: How did you end up shooting a guy in the head then?

Leslie: Fair enough, I was walking in the woods and then I tripped and then my gun went off.

Ranger: So you forgot to put the safety on?

Leslie: No, I always put the safety on… Ok. Fine. I got that tunnel vision, that girls get? That’s what happened, end of story.

Ranger: Well, I think you’re hysterical, because of all the excitement, obviously. So, I’m just not following your story, alright?

Leslie: Um, I let my emotions get the best of me. I just, I… I cared too much, I guess. I was thinking with my lady parts. I was walking and I saw something icky. I thought there was going to be chocolate. I don’t even remember. I’m wearing a new um, bra and it closes in the front and it popped open and threw me off. All I want to do is have babies… are you single? I’m just like going through a thing right now. I guess when my life is incomplete I just want to shoot someone. This would NOT happen if I had a penis. What? Bitches be crazy. I’m good at tolerating pain, I’m bad at math, and I’m stupid.


3 thoughts on “All hail Leslie Knope, the only feminist on primetime TV.

  1. Amy Poehler is an incredibly smart and funny woman (check out Upright Citizens Brigade to see her at her best). Although I clearly never gave Thursday night sitcoms on NBC the amount of thought you have.

    The best part is that every time we saw a preview for “The Blind Side,” Sarah would say, “Erin would call that paternalistic.” And I would think to myself, “no one would ever care enough about a Sandra Bullock movie (or TV show, etc.) to give it that much thought.” I was wrong.

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