In praise of Leslie Knope: feminism and small-town politics

Some spoilers contained.

In a second season episode of Parks and Recreation, its protagonist, Leslie Knope (Amy Pohler), has to make a speech before a group of small business owners from Pawnee, Indiana, a town approximately the size of Guildford.

“Every one of you”, she begins, smoothly, “has already made history by coming here today”.

And although Leslie keeps pictures of Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Allbright on the walls of her office as inspiration, State of the Union this is not. Parks and Recreation is a half-hour NBC sitcom (previously shown on BBC4 in the UK and available on DVD), from the same creators as the US version of The Office, and if you’ve seen either version of The Office, you know something about Parks and Rec.

It began life as a show fundamentally about bureaucracy: the conflict between Leslie Knope, who dreams of making history, and the mundane reality of small-town life, seen through the lens of a municipal parks department. In that sense, its closest British analogue is probably something like The Vicar of Dibley, another quasi-workplace sitcom about colourful characters in a small place, and Parks and Rec takes gleeful enjoyment in doing slightly off-the-wall plots about park safety initiatives, cable access telethons and racoon infestations. Leslie deals with everything life throws at her with competence, if not always equanimity, but of course this isn’t The West Wing; the things life throws at Leslie Knope are small-town things. There’s a point, early on, where it really seems that this is going to be the premise of the show: Leslie, the local government bureaucrat with delusions of making a difference in the world, gets firmly put in her place. You’re expected to laugh.

Perhaps comfortingly, the critics panned it. Then Parks and Recreation came back in its second season with a new idea. Leslie Knope, the show tells us, wants to make history. She identifies as a feminist; she wants to be the first female president of the United States. But, in the meantime, there are other things she can be doing and what’s more, they’re the things we can all be doing. Leslie decides the local iteration of the Boy Scouts is a sexist organisation; she wants to encourage girls and young women to believe they can do anything, so she starts a troop of her own for them and helps them to value their own history. She thinks there aren’t enough women employed at a senior level in local government, so she starts a City Hall Gender Equality Commission and encourages all departments to send representatives. She wants to build a new public park to replace an old eyesore of a construction pit behind her best friend’s house. The obstructive city council get in her way, so what does Leslie Knope do? She looks up bulldozers for hire.

Leslie values women, both in the abstract sense and as a political group in her personal and professional life

Are these small-town stories? Undoubtedly. Just as much, and more so, as the cable access telethons and racoon infestations. But small, Parks and Recreation tells us, isn’t the same as unimportant. After all, the personal is political and although you might not be blamed for wondering what any show made in 2009 has to say that could be fresh about that idea, Parks and Recreation nails it. Leslie, quite simply, values women – she values them in the abstract sense and as a political group in both her personal and professional life. “Hoes before bros,” Leslie tells Ann (Rashida Jones), her best friend. The narrative quite deliberately foregrounds Leslie and Ann’s friendship as the most important relationship in their lives and just as a sweet underline to that idea, Leslie hosts Galentine’s Day every year, a festival of her own invention to celebrate the women in her life. (It’s 13 February if you were planning to celebrate it. I am.)

And while Leslie’s quest to change the world for the better doesn’t always work out as intended – her horror at the other government departments sending only men to her gender equality commission is a wonderful thing to witness; also, guess what, the bulldozer project doesn’t quite go to plan – it’s somehow not measured in concrete successes but in the effect Leslie has on the people around her. April Ludgate starts off as the Parks Department intern, becomes a permanent assistant and, eventually, begins to take on part of Leslie’s job. Based on April’s first appearances, you would be excused for finding this a very implausible sequence of events; played weirdly and wonderfully deadpan by Aubrey Plaza, April is a sullen, malevolent, deeply apathetic teenager. Everything annoys April, including and especially the Parks Department. But Leslie teaches April about respect by respecting her. She treats April like she’s smart and capable by giving her real work to do and she’s disappointed when April doesn’t do it. Again, the personal is political: for Leslie, mentoring a younger woman in her field is the feminist thing to do. Outwardly, April doesn’t change that much, because this is a small-town story. But when in a quiet moment April tells Leslie she loves her, and more than that, she admires her, you want to cry.

And then comes Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), the state auditor brought in to slash the budget after the city government falls into fiscal crisis. (As if to emphasise that small doesn’t mean unimportant, events in Pawnee often mirror rather larger events elsewhere.) Before he meets Leslie, Ben is a cynic who does not believe in the power of government to change anything; to say he comes around is rather an understatement. I was initially sceptical about the idea of a long-term romantic storyline for Leslie, especially one involving another member of the regular cast. It seemed too much like slotting the show into the heteronormative narrative it had avoided so far. However, it turns out to be a refreshing subversion of the usual tropes.

Firstly, Ben doesn’t hit any male romantic lead stereotypes; he’s immensely socially awkward and a self-confessed nerd. (As an aside, I love that he’s a rare example of a male geek on television whose geekery is not framed by misogyny – The Big Bang Theory, I’m looking at you.) Secondly, and more importantly, when Leslie and Ben come into conflict, it is a conflict that illustrates reality: that to be a woman with ambition (even, if your ambition is not, like Leslie’s, political) is in itself a political battle. And if Leslie had chosen her boyfriend over her political career, I think I would have dropped Parks and Rec like a hot potato; if she had chosen her career over him I would have carried on watching, perhaps, with a vague sense of dissatisfaction at another narrative telling us sadly that as women, we mustn’t want too much, let alone want everything. Without spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, the show elides that dichotomy with an elegance that delights me. It’s grown-up, it’s real and because it’s Parks and Rec, it also features pratfalls and cock jokes and is all the more grown-up and real for that.

Leslie’s feminism is socialist feminism – she believes in public works, public services and community effort

In fact, something that is key to understanding the great joy of the show is how it engages with its themes with a comfortable lightness. Leslie’s feminism would be so much lesser if it weren’t seen against the background of an explicitly feminist narrative. Parks and Recreation can be absurdist, ridiculous and sometimes deeply scathing, but it’s never cynical about the power of advocating for social justice. Leslie’s boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), who is also one of the great joys of the show, is a libertarian and, as a result, takes an unholy delight in the dysfunction and inefficiency of his own department. Ron resents paying his taxes, would rather bury his money in a hole in the ground than trust it to the banking system and has a cabin out in the woods where he’s going to live when the revolution comes. Parks and Rec might have been a show balanced on this tension between that libertarianism – and, seriously, Ron Swanson’s libertarianism is more intellectually coherent than that of many non-fictional libertarians I have come across – and Leslie’s firm belief in government and society as intrinsic goods. But, ever-so-quietly, the show is on Leslie’s side.

For example, April, employed as Ron’s assistant because she’s so incompetent that there’s no danger of her accomplishing anything, grows to emulate Leslie’s role as a committed public servant; Ben’s job working for the state government is presented as atonement for a monumental public screw-up he caused as a teenager; Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), a dedicated nurse, works part-time in the department of health with Leslie’s encouragement because, as Leslie puts it, she can help change the system as well as the individuals. Leslie carries on remaking the cynical world in her own image, and as far as US-made network television could ever allow it, Leslie’s feminism is socialist feminism – she believes in public works, public services and community effort. It’s no accident that it’s not the department of health, or sanitation, or education. Leslie believes in Parks and Recreation – in the need for government to be involved with cultural activities, non-essential services and community-building. It’s an old-fashioned view made fresh. Leslie tries to build community, both on the small scale of her relationships with her friends and colleagues and on the larger scale of the town as a whole – and, sometimes, she succeeds.

Is Parks and Recreation perfect? Definitely not. Its most significant failing is probably its treatment of the Wamapoke, the fictional Native American people who lived in Pawnee before the settlers came and who recur in several plotlines throughout the run of the show. The show’s treatment of the issue tends towards complex and this post at Feminist Film lays out some of the problems. This where the casual lightness with which the show deals with all sorts of things lets it down – that very lightness is what’s problematic, when the events described are by no means ancient history. This is particularly aggravating when Parks and Recreation has a great track record on race, generally. It’s the only show I’ve ever seen that has non-white women pass the Bechdel test with episodic regularity – Leslie is the only white female character on the show – and it does something delightful with Tom Haverford, Leslie’s assistant, played with aplomb by the stand-up comic Aziz Ansari. Tom is the only South Asian male character I can think of on mainstream television who doesn’t have the glasses, career in IT and lack of social skills. (You all know the stereotype: again, The Big Bang Theory, I’m looking at you.) Instead, Tom is narcissistic, mostly talks in quotations from rappers and describes everything as “dope”. It’s both ridiculous and awesome.

It’s more important to make these criticisms of a show that so often gets it right than one that doesn’t

Again, it’s annoying that a show that can be so good at diversity in other ways has no queer diversity. “Tragically,” Leslie tells the counsellor who wants to know if she and Ann are a couple, “we are both heterosexual” – and tragically, the only queer characters yet on Parks and Rec are two of April’s boyfriends from the second series, who are largely there as a running gag. The town of Pawnee is very well-populated with a huge cast of recurring characters, so it seems both frustrating and narratively implausible that none of them should be queer. The show has set high standards for itself, as should any show, I would argue, that purports to say anything meaningful about public life; in a way, it’s more important to make these criticisms of a show that so often gets it right than one that doesn’t.

So Parks and Rec isn’t perfect. Is Leslie Knope perfect? No, but that’s crucial to what the show gets right. Leslie’s failings are not the show’s failings. Parks and Recreation is not a show about Leslie Knope, superwoman. It’s about Leslie Knope, who tries hard with the best intentions and wants the world to be a better place for everyone but still, sometimes, gets it horribly wrong. Sometimes, her well-intentioned plans don’t work out; sometimes, she starts out from a bad place. In one episode, Leslie scuppers April’s political ambitions; in another, she nearly causes a government bribery scandal; she yells at the state auditors three times in one day and then there’s the time Ann and Leslie “get drunk and fight over boys!” It’s a sitcom, of course, and perfection isn’t funny. But the point is that Leslie apologises and makes amends; she serves out a suspension, apologises again, gets up and tries harder. She is a woman and women are human, and if Leslie Knope, who lives in a small town with her friends and colleagues and her family, can be a feminist, radical, activist, dedicated public servant and loving friend, it’s in the same way that we all can.

Back to Leslie’s history-making speech to the Pawnee Chamber of Commerce, which she has discharged herself from the hospital to make after running a hundred-and-five-degree fever. Afterwards, Ben, the only person there who knows about this, looks into the camera and says: “That was amazing. That was a flu-ridden Michael Jordan at the [19]97 NBA finals. That was… that was Leslie Knope.”

Well, exactly. That’s Leslie Knope. That’s all of us.

Image description:

This is taken from the cover for the DVD for season two of Parks and Recreation and shows (left to right): Andy Dwyer looking at the camera with a casual smile (red plaid shirt, grey T-shirt), April Ludgate looking suspiciously towards the characters on her left (viewer’s right, outfit indistinguishable in picture), Ron Swanson with a gruff expression (brown shirt and black trousers), Leslie Knope smiling warmly, with her arms folded (nearer to the camera and in front of the other characters, grey suit and blue shirt), Tom Haverford looking knowing, with his eyes wide and his head to one side (white shirt, dark green tie, black/grey suit) and a smiling Ann Perkins (open burgandy shirt/jacket and navy T-shirt).

Iona is a writer, lawyer and editor, with particular interests in land rights and science fiction. She enjoys local government and politics, writing about spaceships and suing people