In Defense of Leslie Knope

One of my favourite shows on television these days is Parks & Recreation. It is a comedy with a heart, a show that when it is on, literally makes you laugh and cry. With a good episode, it can almost hang with the big dog (the big dog being, of course the one and only, Arrested Development) when it comes to memorable quotes.  He is f*&*king Ron Swanson, after all.

Although I could go on and on about Parks & Recreation as a whole (and I will someday soon, don’t you worry), I’m here today in defense of my girl Leslie Knope.  Played by Amy Poehler, Leslie Knope has been a bright spot for female characters since at least the penultimate episode of the first season. She’s smart, funny, loyal, flawed, and a feminist.

It is that last trait that has recently been called into question. Earlier this month, Amanda Marcotte, called out Leslie’s street cred in an article, ‘Stop the Damsel in Distress Act‘ in The American Prospect. She speaks to the things we love about Leslie: healthy female friendships, a love of Hillary Clinton, caring deeply about her job, and having her own agency. Marcotte writes, in part:

For two years the common thread was that Leslie Knope was the hero of her own story– a nice bit of feminism that didn’t detract in any way from the humor of the show.

Then the writers decided Leslie needed a boyfriend. This shouldn’t be a problem in itself; Leslie has had boyfriends before without any meaningful compromises to her character. For some reason, however, the writers decided that hooking Leslie up with Ben, a nerdy assistant city manager playd by Adam Scott, meant returning to tedius Hollywood cliches about how women can’t have both their career and their love lives. To drive the knife in, throughout season four, Leslie stops being the hero of her own story and spends much of her time being rescued by her new boyfriend.

It is on this last point that I interpret this season differently than Marcotte. Yes, it is true that the fact that Ben and Leslie are dating is shown to have a, likely, negative effect on Leslie’s chances to win a city council election. Marcotte points out that Ben and Leslie are dating under an ‘arbitrary rule’ where co-workers can’t date. Whilst it is used as a plot point, I don’t find the rule itself that arbitrary. I have worked at places that frowned upon office romance, especially one up or down the chain of command. I also find it entirely realistic, within the consistently drawn wacky world of Pawnee (where taped town hall meetings debating the Twilight Saga go into time capsules), that voters would find a romance between Ben and Leslie to be illicit. The show isn’t saying this judgement is correct, in fact, it pretty mush says it isn’t, but that’s how it is. It is has always been that way in Pawnee, and that is the world they are telling this story.

It is also true that the first episode of this season led Leslie to realise that, at this point in time, she would need to choose between Ben or election. However, to me, the typical Hollywood cliche would have a) seen Leslie realise that love conquers all and step down or b) fabricated some easy fix so they can stay together. Instead, Leslie chose to stay in the election. And she has a real hard time telling Ben this. And, I suppose, in a sense he ‘rescues’ her, by breaking up with her. Expect to me, I read that as a portrayal of a feminist man, understanding the very real pressures women face, saying let me do the heavy lifting on this one–you have an election to win.

Leslie and Ben eventually end up together, several episodes later. The articles mentions other times when Ben has ‘rescued’ Leslie. First, by quitting his job so she can keep hers, and punching a guy who calls Leslie a ‘bitch.’ And because Leslie didn’t fix the first on her own, and ‘swooned’ at the second is no longer the Leslie we once knew, the strong feminist woman? I don’t buy it.  Sure, the punching episode is not my favourite one made, but I don’t think this, or the other examples, point to Leslie losing her sense of identity. The character of Leslie has always been somewhat extreme–this is a comedy–with big bold ideas, big swings of emotion, and wacky things happening to her. So, her reaction is wacky.  However, the general idea that after a long weird dating history, she has found someone that wants to stick up for her, just might be a swoon-able idea, is fine with me.  She has spent 35+ years doing it her way, and doing it her way is someone Ben loves. He never fundamentally asks her to change.

The reason I am such a Leslie Knope fan-girl, is that I like seeing a female character on television that I can identify with. I have a pretty low tolerance for how most women are written (see Kate Austen in Lost), but I rarely feel that way with Leslie. Is every act Leslie makes feminist. Probably not. Sometimes Leslie, the character, is written too broadly, and only the acting chops of Amy Poehler keeps her real. But, I don’t believe that the show is, as Marcotte says, “sticking to more sexist romantic comedy tropes,” and re-defining what makes Leslie, Leslie.  My badly-written-female radar has rarely gone off with Leslie, and never for more than a moment or two.

Honestly, I like seeing the Leslie and Ben relationship because I think it is one of the few feminist relationships on television. There is give and take, and neither character is wholly wrong or right. In a recent episode, Ben pushed Leslie to make an attack video of an opponent. Leslie was uncomfortable with this, and in the end, the attack ad was not shown.  Did that happen in funny, hi-jinky ways? Of course, because it is Parks & Recreation. But, what came out of it was Ben apologizing for not listening to Leslie, and Leslie understanding that in order to win, it is okay to point out how your ideas are than others. You don’t have to make nice all the time.  Something that women often have a hard time with, and good growth for a feminist character.  And the ad that came out of it, is truly lovely. And it is one in which Leslie certainly is the hero of her own story. 2012 Campaign Ad


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1 Comment

  1. Kym

     /  23/05/2012

    Hmm…no post about the finale? And the non-crying?


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