Strong Female Character: Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation
Written by GeekGirlCon Copywriter Liane Behrens.
I’ll admit, I haven’t watched the last season of Parks and Recreation yet. I keep putting it off because the longer the episodes stay unwatched, the better I can convince myself that it isn’t over yet. Because Parks & Rec not only has (not had! We’re not in past tense yet!) the best ensemble cast TV has seen in years, but it also boasts the best lady role model I’ve ever seen in primetime.
When Parks & Rec first debuted in 2009, it seemed almost rote to compare it to the other workplace mockumentary airing at the time: The Office. But where Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott is incompetent, irritating and whiny, Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope is determined, friendly, caring, devoted, feminist, and strong—and I want to be just like her when I grow up.
Leslie’s friendships and devotion to those she cares about is one of the strongest themes in the show, and perhaps one of the most relatable. I may not call my best friend a “beautiful tropical fish” or a “brilliant, powerful musk-ox,” but that doesn’t mean the positive relationship between Leslie and Ann Perkins isn’t touching and real. In a world where female friendships are more often cast as back-stabbing and unhealthy, it’s refreshing and lovely to see two women who support each other through anything. While men might regularly come between the ladies on Gossip Girl, for example, Leslie and Ann have proven the strength of their friendship; in the first season of Parks & Rec Leslie couldn’t stop crushing on her co-worker Mark, but in the second season when Mark turned out to have feelings for Ann, Leslie not only stepped aside but gave Ann her blessing. Ann and Mark’s relationship may have floundered, but her and Leslie’s friendship’s roots were deeper and stronger, letting them move past the boy troubles without much worry.Leslie’s lady-friendships aren’t limited just to Ann, either. She has a squadron of close girlfriends, who she loves to spoil and make clear she adores and respects them. One of Leslie’s best ways of showing her lady-love is her made-up February 13 holiday of “Galentine’s Day,” which, she explained in the show, is “only the best day of the year! February 14, Valentine’s Day, is about romance. But February 13, Galentine’s Day, is about celebrating lady friends. It’s wonderful and it should be a national holiday!” In fact, it has spread outside the show: Buzzfeed, USA Today, and InStyle were just some of the few sites this year giving ideas on how to celebrate. I was actually turned onto Parks & Rec by a close lady friend of my own, when I was in the middle of my grad school slog. At that time, Leslie’s continued determination and drive were incredibly inspirational to me. Leslie loves her job, and seeing someone on TV who actually enjoys what they do was a relief. Even Tina Fey’s character in 30 Rock, another show Parks & Rec is often compared to, sometimes was filled with such frustration and ennui at her career choice that it wasn’t always clear if she actually enjoyed being there.
Leslie’s passion for small government and her belief in her town is a constant. She fought for everything from gay marriage (for penguins, sure, but still!) to safe sex (specifically for seniors, who need sex education just as much as anyone else!). These forays may have sometimes been unplanned, but Leslie’s continued fervor for her work and willingness to fight for her values is something to aspire to.
In her work at the parks department and in her private life, Leslie is very aware of both the image she projects and how she can use that to her benefit. In the season two episode “Hunting Trip,” when out with a group of friends and colleagues, Leslie’s boss Ron Swanson gets accidentally shot. Because of happenstance and hijinks, Leslie ends up having to take the blame and confesses to the crime, citing a plentitude of women’s troubles as the reason:
“I got that tunnel vision that girls get. I let my emotions get the best of me. I cared too much, I guess. I was thinking with my lady parts. I was walking and it felt icky. I thought there was gonna be chocolate. I don’t even remember! I’m wearing a new bra, and it closes in the front, so it popped open and it threw me off. All I wanna do is have babies! I’m just going through a thing right now. I guess when my life is incomplete, I wanna just shoot someone. This would not happen if I had a penis! Bitches be crazy. I’m good at tolerating pain; I’m bad at math, and … I’m stupid.”
These rambling excuses, although painfully transparent to anyone with half a brain, appease the sexist park ranger investigating the issue. Leslie’s actually one of the best shots in the group, but if the ranger’s going to make assumptions about her, then Leslie’s going to use those to her and her friends’ advantage.During Parks & Rec’s third season, Paste called Leslie “one of the most relatable and admirable women on television,” in no small part, I’m guessing, due to her intense love for whipped cream and justice. She’s listed on AfterEllen’s Top 50 Favorite Female Characters (they’ve also called her an “unabashed feminist and all-around perfect person,” which sounds about right). And, if that’s not enough, in 2014 Amy Poehler won a Golden Globe for her part as Leslie, along with plenty other nominations.
If I can go cross-canon for a moment, Leslie Knope is the ideal Hufflepuff: loyal above all else, to herself, to her values, and to her friends. I know Hufflepuffs get the short end of the stick in a lot of Harry Potter fandom (and in the canon, but that’s another post), but Leslie helps redeem the house. As the lead in an award-winning, top-ranked, primetime TV show, she’s a strong, real woman for girls both little and big to look up to. She’s even helped me accept my own inherent Hufflepuff nature, no matter how much I used to cling to my Ravenclaw identity.From the beginning of the series to the end I still won’t admit happened, Leslie Knope is not only a strong woman in her own right, but she supports and loves on other women. Her office is decorated with pictures of her own feminist heroes, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Janet Reno, Nancy Pelosi, and, later in the series, even a picture of herself—which she explains by saying, “I am big enough to admit I am often inspired by myself.” That sense of confidence, strength, and self-determination will be enough, I think, to ensure that pictures of Leslie Knope will be decorating offices around the world for a long time to come.