Leslie Knope, the much loved and indulged protagonist of Parks and Recreation, is by her own account, a feminist. For Leslie (Amy Poehler), feminism means, rather simplistically, that she admires women who are in power, believing that gender should be no barrier for achievement. Unfortunately, despite Leslie’s determination to highlight her dedication to furthering the feminist cause, her understanding is not only crude and rather rudimentary, but can, frequently, be damaging.
Her identification as a feminist is, much like Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, hugely lacking in intersectionality. This is even more frustrating considering that three of the four female cast members are women of color. Leslie is a feminist when it comes to her own interests, or encouraging other women who resemble her. She is more than willing to actively encourage April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) in her pursuit of career success, but works hard to distance herself from women that are not aligned with her own personal beliefs. While she does advocate for comprehensive sex education and contraception access, Leslie’s version of feminism is entirely reliant on her own morals and desires. She never truly wants to further the feminist cause, but applauds her own personal efforts as achievements for the movement.
Leslie often finds herself threatened by other women, despite no reasonable impetus. Regularly, this threat is manifested into jealously. Take, for example, her numerous interactions with Shauna Malwae-Tweep (Alison Becker). Shauna, a journalist, is regularly critiqued by Leslie. Her initial issue stems from Shauna’s romantic interactions with Mark Brendanawicz. Mark has shown no romantic interest in Leslie, and in fact, seems to find her relatively irritating at the start of the series. Despite this, Leslie places blame on Shauna, and attempts to question her professionalism and worth.
Meeting Shauna again in a similar scenario, when Leslie observes Shauna speaking to and flirting with Ben, Leslie immediately pits herself Shauna. She perceives her as a rival, rather than a fellow professional woman.
Perhaps Leslie’s disdain for other women is highlighted the most when it comes to her interactions with Brandi Maxxxx (Mara Marini). Leslie has made her views on sex workers clear from the start of the series. Spending time in a strip club, she questions the women’s life choices without recognizing her own privilege as a white, educated, middle-class woman.
Leslie would rather silence Brandi during a public forum than be associated with her. Brandi offers Leslie her support, but Leslie consistently attempts to distance herself. Her character is held up to be a figure of humor, derived both from her occupation and her perceived lack of intellect.
Take the scene in which both Leslie and Brandi are discussing the concept of hard work. Brandi, in recognizing Leslie’s work ethic and clearly admiring it, attempts to draw parallels between them. She states that, like Leslie, she too works hard. Rather than commend Brandi’s hard work, or thank her for her praise, Leslie is clearly horrified.
Leslie is not on Brandi’s side, and we, the viewer, are also told to treat Brandi in the same way. She should be laughed at, and ridiculed, not applauded.
The viewer, in looking at both women and their physical similarity, is effectively instructed to draw comparisons between the two. Brandi is clearly presented as an example of a vacuous woman who should be treated with disdain. While Leslie, thanks to her privilege and education, should be commended for her intellectual approach.
Notably, much of the praise surrounding Parks and Recreation has surrounded Leslie and Ann’s (Rashida Jones) friendship. Yet, as has been noted, for Leslie, Ann is never really her equal. Ann, rather than fulfilling an equivalent role, is content to act as Leslie’s sidekick, cheering on her aspirations rather than necessarily fulfilling her own.
Leslie’s friendship with Ann originally stems from her personal desire to further her career, rather than truly helping Ann’s plight. The dynamics of their friendship is entirely uneven. Leslie clearly holds power, and even in her hyperbolic praise, focuses more on Ann’s physical appearance than her intellect. When she does praise her career abilities, she does so in such an exaggerated manner, that it becomes supercilious, forcing Ann to downplay her skills and in turn, undermine her own ability and qualifications.
Many of her hyperbolic compliments are used to obscure Leslie’s real intention; asking Ann to support her without question or judgement, to be silent and supportive.
As the series progresses, Ann, under pressure from Leslie, begins to work at City Hall, despite being happy in her current occupation as a nurse. Leslie does not consider Ann’s feelings in this decision, but rather focuses on the benefits that it will bring her. Ann is a sounding board for Leslie; a compliant friend who will readily allow Leslie to offload with little in return.
Fans of Leslie will note that she is regularly applauded by other characters in the series for her kindness and consideration. She regularly provides friends with elaborate, carefully thought-out gifts, but these gifts, rather than being given selflessly are, too often, a means for Leslie to feel valued. Leslie revels in her ability to provide these presents, and gains much satisfaction from doing so. Ann and Ben both note in one episode, that they feel immense pressure to provide Leslie with a similarly thoughtful present. If Leslie’s habit of purchasing such gifts were to be truly selfless, it would not leave her loved ones feeling so despondent.
Leslie’s version of feminism is entirely informed through her own privileges and limited life experiences. Certainly the series is intentionally “small-town” in its approach, using this central conceit as the source of much of its idiosyncratic humor. Yet, when a show is going to be broadcast to such a large audience, and a character’s perceived feminism is so ingrained in character construct, it is damaging and short-sighted to allow this character to espouse the virtues of feminism when she displays so little interaction or understanding of wider intersectional issues.
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Siobhan Denton is a teacher and writer living in Wales, UK. She holds a BA in English and an MA in Film and Television Studies. She is especially interested in depictions of female desire and transitions from youth to adulthood. She tweets at @siobhan_denton and writes at The Blue and the Dim.