23 2 / 2011

Leslie Knope, Liz Lemon, and the Feminist Lessons of NBC’s ‘Parks and Recreation’

Programs on air now do have a slightly larger range of female—though not always feminist—characters: Nurse JackieUnited States of Tara, the Middle each present a different and nuanced view of white, young-ish, able-bodied, middle-class modern womanhood. But the day that McEwan writes about is still in the future. Until that day comes, however, anyone looking for a perspective different from Liz Lemonism should please consider Leslie Knope.  
Knope is the protagonist of Parks and Recreation, another show on NBC’s Thursday-night block. She’s a goody-goody and a little bit of a pill, the too-earnest assistant director of the Pawnee, Indiana, parks department. Like Lemon, she’s a slightly awkward overachiever, unlike Lemon, she has an overinflated estimate of the importance of her job, which at the end of the day is that of small-town civil servant. 
Leslie’s a staunch advocate for the advancement of all women through mentorship programs, positive role models, or grating, often unsolicited pep talks. She believes in equal opportunity for, and the untapped potential of, women. She cultivates and values female friendships: witness Galentine’s Day, the amazing ritual she puts on for her female friends every February 13, complete with gift bags and affirmations for the important women in her life. She interacts with her female coworkers, talking to them about more than boys and babies.    
After some early jokes about how bad she was with guys, we’ve seen Knope date (for the most part) handsome, intelligent, noncrazy men; her two sustained relationships have been mature and realistic. They ended not because of her horrible man-keeping skills, or because she’s such a workaholic, but because for various believable reasons, they weren’t working out. She’s a career-minded gal who balances work and personal life. She’s in her mid-30s, but doesn’t spend her downtime fantasizing about children or weddings (unlike Liz Lemon, who at one point is so consumed with maternal urges that she steals a baby).

Leslie is competent. She’s good at lots of things—hunting, golf, her job—and isn’t afraid to admit it (due, in part, to her social tone-deafness. “Guys love it when you can show them you’re better than they are at something they love,” she says in one episode.) Her work is valued, her eagerness tolerated, her role respected by those who know and love her—and her friends and coworkers do love her, rather than pity her, patronize to her, or put up with her.

So what would Leslie Knope think about Liz Lemon? That’s the best part, and the most telling: Leslie would be proud of Liz’s accomplishments. She would respect her desire for a husband and baby, and admire her career achievements. She’d encourage her efforts to get more respect as a female executive, while encouraging Lemon to reach out to the other women in her office. Leslie Knope understands that women’s advancement is about the advancement of all women, and that women need support from one another just as much—in fact, much more—than they need approval and access from the men that surround them. She might get frustrated with Liz; they may butt heads or disagree on certain points. But at the end of the day, Leslie realizes that she doesn’t need to compete with “Liz Lemonism,” and she’s not interested in besting Liz, shaming Liz, or proving Liz wrong. Instead, Leslie wants for Liz exactly what Liz wants for Liz: the freedom and confidence make choices, the ability to command respect, and the opportunity to achieve all her goals.

Because Leslie Knope, overambitious dreamer that she is, believes that all women deserve those same advantages.