Emmy Week 2011: Leslie Knope

Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope

“It’s a great time to be a woman in politics… Get on board and buckle up, ‘cos my ride’s gonna be a big one.”
In the Parks and Recreation pilot, Leslie Knope made clear the extent of her political ambitions. But it was also clear that she was deluded. The Deputy Director of a tiny government department in the fictional small town of Pawnee, Indiana, she earnestly compared herself to Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. She forged ahead with a plan to build a park in a lot abandoned by a developer, against the advice of her senior colleagues, and when investigating a dangerous pit in the middle of that lot, she fell in. “She’s a little doofy,” Rashida Jones’ Ann spelled out, just in case we hadn’t got the message.
There were few clues back then that Leslie would become one of the most endearing sitcom characters of all time, let alone a feminist icon. In fact, the character TV critics drew the most comparisons with was Michael Scott from The Office. This was understandable, given that, like The Office, Parks and Rec was created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, is filmed in a “mockumentary” style, and in season one, had a dry humor that encouraged us to laugh at, not with, its characters. It got a lukewarm reception, perhaps because no one wanted yet another cynical sitcom.
Thank goodness then, that in season two the Leslie we know and love emerged. Still an idealist, but with a strong practical streak and the ability to get things done. No longer mooning over a long-ago office-mate tryst, but having an actual love life. She’s not optimistic because she doesn’t know better, but because she chooses to be, as a survival mechanism. Instead of considering her an affable fool, her now-best friend Ann tells her she’s, “Cool, sexy, funny, and smart.”
She’s also competent: she not only gets that park built, she re-instates Pawnee’s harvest festival, bringing in thousands of dollars in tourism and new business, and saving her department in the process. We start to see that maybe her earlier pronouncements were prescient: why *shouldn’t* Leslie Knope be the first female president?
Yet (for what the term is worth) she’s no Mary Sue: Leslie has flaws, including an obscenely messy house, a horrific dating history (“A guy invited me to a beautiful picnic with wine and flowers and when I tried to sit down, he said ‘Don’t eat anything, Rebecca’s coming.’ And then he broke up with me.”) and a dorky past, which only make her more appealing. It’s a credit to both the writers and Amy Poehler’s acting skill that Leslie is a believable character, not just a caricature. Which is why the comparison of Leslie to Liz Lemon is so ridiculous.
On one level, it’s understandable, of course. In real life, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are friends, former SNL cast mates and movie co-stars, and both identify as feminists. They’re also in the same age and race demographic and both play female leads on NBC sitcoms. When Parks and Rec started, some articles even implied that Amy Poehler’s success was a threat to Tina Fey’s, as if there could only be one funny woman on a network at a time.
Tina Fey as Liz Lemon
But where Leslie Knope leads her department with skill and good humour despite the petty bureaucracy she often has to negotiate, Liz Lemon is a stress-eating, approval-seeking, baby-stealing mess who dates men who hate her, wears plastic bags as underwear, and is waiting for her real life (the one where she’s married and therefore happy) to start. Tina Fey is charming enough to be entertaining while she portrays this nightmare of modern womanhood, and no doubt she makes a lot of Slanket-wearing insomniacs feel better about themselves. But Fey isn’t just the star of this show, she’s also its showrunner, and it’s not clear what message she’s trying to convey by turning one of the few overtly feminist characters on TV into a self-interested workaholic who always looks to her male boss for guidance. Like Community’s insufferable do-gooder Brita Perry, Lemon’s altruistic and sisterly impulses are often shown to be misguided, undermining not just the character, but feminism as a whole. Perhaps Fey is only trying to puncture the self-righteousness of the movement, but it seems like a weak target when there’s so much misogyny she could be mocking.
Unlike Liz Lemon, Leslie doesn’t just pay lip service to feminist ideals, or spout them in support of her own work goals, she sees political activism on behalf of the women of Pawnee as part of her mandate, and has set up a camp for underprivileged teen girls. And who else, when reluctantly roped in to judge a beauty pageant, would bring her own laminated scorecard with categories including “Knowledge of herstory” and “The Naomi Wolf factor”? (One of the most stealthy and brilliant moments in feminist TV history.) While both Liz and Leslie look to their male bosses for validation, Liz is unable to function without Jack’s help, whereas Leslie is capable of managing the department without Ron’s input, and usually does.
30 Rock frequently employs farce to make us laugh, but Parks and Rec is more lovable because it avoids the obvious and the outsized, creating funny moments by building on what we know about these characters and their relationships. From the second season onward, its lack of cynicism has been refreshing. Tina Fey is great at what she does, but doesn’t have much scope, and doesn’t do vulnerable well. Leslie Knope is unquestionably Amy Poehler’s best role, and it’s because she’s restrained her silly side and concentrated on creating a character we can relate to.
Leslie (Poehler) and Ann (Jones)
One of the most overt ways Leslie’s feminism is displayed is in her friendship with Ann, one of her most significant relationships.  The two women clearly care about and admire each other and are there for each other’s freak-outs. I realized about halfway through season two that I was often clenched when I watched them together, willing them not to fall out. I was sad and shocked to recognize that there’s an undercurrent of bitchiness in so many on-screen female friendships that I’ve started to expect it as standard. Portraying two women who like each other might be the most radical thing a sitcom can do.
I don’t think there’s been such a feminist TV character since the ‘80s, when, at different ends of the class and race spectrum, women like Clair Huxtable and Roseanne Conner challenged sexist expectations through the use of confrontation and sarcasm. The ‘90s saw some backpedalling among feminist characters: Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes struck blows for equality by openly discussing periods and birth control and dumping a man who was anti-abortion, but she mostly showed contempt for her female friends and still bought into outdated gender expectations, like that a man should make the first move on a date. Murphy Brown was a strong, intelligent woman, and in her decision to be a single mother, became the inadvertent enemy of conservative America. But she ended up laughing off her early feminist activism as mere youthful over-exuberance.
Meanwhile, the Friends women valued their independence — Monica was the strongest proponent of the idea that Rachel should cut up her father-funded credit cards — but embodied a very Cosmo, “it’s all up to the individual” post-feminist vision which presents issues of female empowerment (like standing up to sexist bosses and self-defence when your bestie’s boyfriend gets handsy) as individual struggles, rather than the symptoms of the kyriarchy they really are. But these women were paragons of feminist ideals compared to most sitcom women of the ‘90s and ‘00s, who re-created retrograde gender roles with husbands they disdained, nagging all the way, as on King of Queens, Still Standing, Everybody Loves Raymond, and many others.
Sexist tropes these downtrodden wives may have been, but at least they had voices. They’ve since given way to anemic characters like the women of How I Met Your Mother, where Alyson Hannigan’s baby-voiced Lily sighs about the importance of everyone getting married and supports her husband in his dream of becoming an environmental lawyer, while her own ambition to be an artist is played for laughs. Worse, her friend Robin, a news presenter who loves hockey and beer, has her “unfeminine” interests explained by the back-story that her father wanted her to be a boy. HIMYM further plays on gender (and sometimes racial) stereotyping and employs sexist, sexually charged humor as Barney discusses his frequent conquests, saying debasing things which the audience is expected to forgive because Neil Patrick Harris is gay in real life and to complain would mean we didn’t understand post-feminist irony. The same claims can be made by Two and a Half Men, where the (un)importance of autonomous female characters is telegraphed by the title, and The Big Bang Theory, where pretty blonde Penny is just a stereotypically sexy comic foil for a group of clever boys.
It’s notable then, that not only is Leslie Knope an intelligent and capable character, but that these are qualities  admired by her colleagues, friends, and boyfriends. “Flu Season,” the episode for which Poehler is Emmy-nominated, is one of Amy’s, and Leslie’s, finest moments. Charged with making a presentation to local businesses to sell them on the idea of the harvest festival, Leslie refuses to pass the responsibility to her colleague (and soon-to-be love interest) Ben, even though she’s been badly hit by a flu virus. “It’s not that I don’t trust Ben,” she explains. “It’s that I don’t have faith in Ben. And also I’m starting to forget who Ben is.” She escapes from hospital, stealing flu meds from other patients on the way, makes a convincing presentation despite being dizzy and barely able to see her notes, and then collapses into a chair. “That was amazing…” says Ben, his face conveying his admiration. “That was Leslie Knope.”
He’s right: Leslie Knope *is* amazing. Over the course of three seasons, she’s gone from a small-time, small-town government employee with delusions of grandeur to someone it’s easy to believe could make a big splash on the larger political stage one day. I hope she does, and I hope we get to see it.
What’s more, the popularity of her character signals an important change, a backlash against the backlash: the mainstream acceptance of a heroine who lives by feminist values and encourages others to do the same. But she’s just one woman, and a white, able-bodied, cisgender, middle class woman at that. We’re still in need of more diversity: in politics, and more importantly, on TV.

Diane Shipley is a freelance journalist and inveterate blogger with a special interest in social justice as it pertains to TV, books, and actual real life. Her website is www.dianeshipley.com, she tweets as @dianeshipley and she wants Amy Poehler for a BFF.
  • Melissa

    It’s not just that Leslie is capable of running the department without Ron, it’s Ron who is unable to run the department without Leslie.

    I also think that The Big Bang Theory has improved in seasons 3 and 4 with the addition of Bernadette and Amy Farrah Fowler coming on board as intellectual equals for the boys.

  • D

    I agree. Big bang theory is by no means a feminist show, but overall, the joke is how stupid those “smart” boys are. The best part of the show is Howard spouting off MRA crap, showing all the male viewers how ridiculous that stuff really is.

  • Anonymous

    I am shocked that someone with no recognition of satire can write a post about sitcoms. Have you ever even seen 30 Rock?

  • http://www.dianeshipley.com/ Diane

    Melissa, you’re right – Ron needs Leslie much more than she needs him.

    I know Big Bang Theory has been praised recently for having some brainy women characters, but it seems like they still fall into the brainy/stereotypically beautiful archetypes. And while Penny gets to be clever about life/relationships while the boys are clever about science, we know which of those is more valued in society.

    And yes, Anonymous, I’ve seen every episode of 30 Rock. I’m not saying it isn’t funny in a satirical way, but I’m interested in exploring what people laugh at and why, what is intended as a funny commentary on real life, and a lot of that is antithetical to feminism.

  • Anonymous

    I am just unclear on why feminists insist on taking 30 Rock and other works involving Tina Fey (I am thinking of the fake SNL commercial of the brownie boyfriend)literally cannot recognize the true brilliance–radically feminist brilliance–of what she is doing. Tina Fey is likely the most outspoken feminist in the mainstream Hollywood spotlight who has completely changed the place of women in comedy and fundamentally disrupted the notorious Boys Club(although I would never claim that comedy is suddenly a feminist domain, she has been part of MAJOR changes). 30 Rock is hilarious on several different levels, but let’s pull Liz Lemon out and look at her character and her constant failure to “have it all.” Every part of Liz Lemon puts the faux-feminist ideals of the career woman “having it all” under a microscope and reveals the ridiculousness of it, as well as satirically playing up what society considers women’s failures, like dressing supposedly masculinely or eating a block of cheddar cheese each night. Also, her life is a comedy of errors, as many sitcoms are, and wearing a plastic bag as underwear is just funny, especially under the scrutiny of a man who puts on a tuxedo every night after 6. Also, she doesn’t just rely on a man for everything, rather the show has developed a dynamic, layered, and affectionate relationship between the two most unlikely characters that makes the viewer care about both of them. Liz has bailed out Jack at least as many times as he has bailed out her, and she tries to pull him from his comically overplayed conservative buisnessman persona as hard as he tries to make her more feminine and subservient. The world of feminist blogger critics has been doing a horrible disservice to a brilliant and funny woman whose politics are shockingly radical for her mainstream position and who has a used her talent and unprecedented position for a woman in comedy to reveal prevailing sexism and point out our society’s fucked up views of and expectations for women. It is usually because they have no sense of irony.

  • MallyMon

    I am unclear as to why someone posting as ‘anonymous’ would expect their comments to be taken seriously. Nor why they would want to argue just for the sake of arguing.
    I think this is a very well researched, well written, intelligent post. And I’m being neither ironic nor satirical.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02150903050523908951 Stacey

    So just because someone is anonymous, you’re going to ignore their intelligent and well-written response? It’s clear to me that they also know what they’re talking about, even if they’re simply a fan of comedy. To discredit someone because of their anonymity? That’s asinine.
    That doesn’t make any sense, and I completely agree with the anon right before you. Liz Lemon is every bit as feminist as Leslie Knope, and you’re kidding yourself if you think otherwise. Or maybe your sense of humor isn’t as good as you like to think, I don’t know.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02150903050523908951 Stacey

    And I highly doubt they were just “arguing for the sake of arguing” (as you so cleverly typed), because it’s extremely apparent that they are a big fan of the show, and when an article makes statements about a character that a fan sees as being inaccurate or unfair (as I’ve said, I agree with the anon giving Tina Fey much-deserved praise), they have absolutely every right to say what they what, anonymous or not.
    And look at how many things in literary history that have been written anonymously or by authors that were simply unknown.
    Instead of writing a few [in my opinion] lazy sentences, why don’t you attempt at some semblance of a well-thought response? I may not be the brightest person, but at least I tried when I saw you discrediting that anon.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02150903050523908951 Stacey

    So now I actually address the article instead of just being rude to strangers!
    Let me just start by saying that I love both Leslie Knope and Liz Lemon; Amy Poehler and Tina Fey; and Parks & Recreation and 30 Rock. I think that both Amy and Tina are incredible role models for women of all ages, as they have had such immense success in a field that is essentially dominated by men.
    However, I do not agree with your criticisms of Liz Lemon as a character.
    First of all, you criticize her for going to her boss for help but then also criticize Tina Fey for not playing her more vulnerably? I guess you’re talking about emotional vulnerability, but I don’t see how you can say that Liz Lemon has never been emotionally vulnerable.
    Second of all, not every women wants to be like Leslie Knope. I know I personally relate to Liz Lemon more than Leslie, sharing some of her neuroses and desires in life. Some women do aspire to “have it all” but encounter obstacles in the way (such is life), like Liz Lemon. Women are not all like Leslie Knope, and to make all female characters similar would make some people feel alienated. And just because Liz is imperfect doesn’t make her anti-feminist. Women are human, therefore they are not perfect. It comes with the species.
    Third of all, Liz Lemon is (like Leslie Knope) “making it” in a field that is predominately male. Now she may want to have a spouse and children (and as you should remember, she tried various adoption agencies to adopt a child entirely on her own; she wasn’t just going to wait around for a man to impregnate her), but those are things many women want. Though it is necessary to understand that many pressures to start a family simply come from society, to discount Liz as a feminist character because she does have these desires (again, as many women AND men have) is… well, kind of ridiculous.
    Liz Lemon may be a semi-neurotic mess, but she’s my favorite semi-neurotic mess, and I’m grateful for her existence, even if she is a fictional character.

  • Katie…formerly anonymous

    MallyMon, I am unsure why my posting my name makes a difference since you still have no way of knowing who I am and if it is even my real name. That aside, though, I am not saying the post was not well written, though now that I reread what I said I can see why you would say that I accused it of being poorly researched. What I mean more than that, because the writer has clearly seen the show and the others she is talking about, is that I think it is based on a shallow and incorrect interpretation of a show that is smart, hilarious, layered, and very feminist (as well as anti-racist, etc) and written by a woman who is all of those things as well. The reason I take such a strong stance–and am in no way just arguing for the sake of arguing–is I am frustrated by the ways her work is often publicly misread by internet feminists who erroneously charge Tina Fey and 30 Rock with being offensive to women. We should be looking more closely at the work of someone who was the first female head writer at SNL (a long-standing institution of comedy and cultural criticism), a woman who takes seriously her opportunities–and therefore responsibility–to hire/cast/promote talented and smart women, who speaks publicly and candidly about the experiences and pressures of women in the spotlight and otherwise, who speaks publicly and unapologetically about sexism at a time when women are supposed to stop bitching and realize feminism is done, who sharply attacks expectations of ideal female body image, and who refuses “working mom” awards for their faux-feminism. Furthermore, I feel as cultural critics we need to demand more of ourselves and each other to be taken seriously, at the very least understanding that there doesn’t have to be a perfectly feminist character to have a show with a feminist message. Liz Lemon’s flaws are the ways that the show criticizes and satirizes society’s expectations of women. Sarah Silverman’s material, if taken literally, is horrifyingly racist, yet she is one of the most brilliant critics of post-modern color-blind racism I know of. Archie bunker the character was a flaming racist, but the creator of Archie dedicated his work to exposing and fighting racism and used Archie to expose it. I do apologize if my response was more hostile than necessary–besides, I agree that Leslie Knope kicks ass!–and the more complicated comedy of 30 Rock deserves a more nuanced look.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09200575390394666074 Amber Leab

    Wow–great to see so much discussion on a post.

    I think Diane wrote a fantastic piece (kudos, and thank you!). Leslie Knope is a great character…and so is Liz Lemon. Even though I would choose Knope over Lemon personally, I don’t see why we can’t have both. While I agree with some of Diane’s critiques of Lemon/30 Rock, I hate to see this devolve into a competition between the two for the prize of “most feminist.” Some of us might relate to Knope more, some of us Lemon (or some of us neither). The fact alone that we have these two women in prime-time network television makes me very happy.

    Lemon/Fey fans might want to check out (if you haven’t already) a post we published on her character: http://www.btchflcks.com/2011/09/emmy-week-2011-liz-lemon-every-woman-of.html

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