With the sixth season finale looming, I took it upon myself to revisit the archives of Parks and Recreation for a little one-on-one time with one of my favorite TV shows. Watching episodes in quick succession led me to notice something that I had previously taken for granted -- that Leslie Knope may well be one of the most well-rounded and believable female characters in modern television. Hell, she's my TV role model and here's why...
1) She's a feminist and isn't afraid to shout about it.
From her framed pictures of Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton to coining two of my favorite phrases ("ovaries before brovaries" and "uteruses before duderuses"), no one could lay the claim at Leslie Knope's door that she isn't a woman's woman.
In a world where many women are reluctant to call themselves feminist, as they feel it's too staunch or strident a label, Leslie's unwavering commitment to championing women is always evident -- witness her creation of an alternative to Pawnee's sexist scouting troop, The Pawnee Goddesses. Again, her longing to make history as the first female president is unabashed, outspoken and unusual in television. She actually says the words "I'm a feminist" -- which is so rare that it feels subversive.
2) She has a cause she believes in and works hard in its name.
The first season of Parks and Rec wasn't as sympathetic as later seasons to Leslie's relationship to her job -- initially portraying her as a well-meaning but out-of-touch career bureaucrat with no life. However, both the writing and Amy Poehler's wonderfully nuanced portrayal of Leslie have created one of the most interesting portraits of working women that recent television has to offer.
She genuinely believes that government, social programs and community participation can make a difference to the town that she loves and works so hard to serve. From spending her personal time helping to clean up the Pawnee River to launching herself from her flu-ridden bed to give a flawless presentation to the Pawnee Chamber of Commerce, she knows what she wants and is prepared to put in the work to get it -- and importantly, she is respected by her Parks Department colleagues for exactly that quality.
This plays off wonderfully against the crotchety libertarian Ron Swanson, Leslie's boss, who delights in any sign of governmental disarray, particularly in his own department. But what is essential to note here is that Leslie remains assistant director of the Parks Department; despite Ron's obvious disdain for government work, he remains in charge. A subversive point, maybe, about the realities of working life. Sometimes the most hardworking person doesn't get the glory of the title, and often that person is a women.
3) She values her female friendships.
One of the greatest triumphs of Parks and Rec is its celebration of female friendships in their myriad forms, not least exemplified by the central friendship between Leslie and her "chestnut-haired sunfish," Ann Perkins. We enter Leslie's world because of an unlikely friendship struck up between a disgruntled citizen and her local parks department representative. Their friendship is a catalyst to action.
It's a Bechdel Test-passing friendship for television -- both women discuss their hopes, frustrations, careers and ambitions. Relationships figure in there too, and sure, that's realistic, but it isn't the singular concern around which their friendship revolves. Equally as important here is the fact that they are not pitted against each other as rivals for male attention. When Ann starts dating Mark, a colleague and former one-night stand of Leslie's, a story arc doesn't form from any sense of betrayal or an "out of bounds" narrative. What remains important to Leslie is her friendship with Ann (and Mark) and her happiness for them both wins out.
4) Her key conflict isn't the choice between career or personal life.
When Leslie starts to date state auditor Ben Wyatt, she has to do it in secret, as it would threaten both of their jobs. When she is approached about running for city councillor, fulfilling a long-held career goal, she has to end their fledgling relationship because of the damage any skeletons in her closet may pose to her campaign.
This dilemma could have easily played into the usual televisual trope of women having to choose between fulfilling career ambitions and having a romantic life of any kind -- that if women want too many things then they are forced to choose only one.
Parks and Rec elegantly avoids this by making Leslie a spearhead in the fight for both. She and Ben continue their relationship, facing the consequences of its eventual disclosure. What could have become an act of self-sabotage instead shows a self-possessed refusal to sacrifice and the establishment of a TV relationship based on respect and support.
5) She fails.
We celebrate Leslie's successes, but one thing Parks and Rec is excellent at is showing the frustrations and setbacks of this normal working life. Not every personal or professional obstacle in life is successfully traversed supplying an episode-ending conclusion. From being frustrated at the amount of red tape surrounding her flagship park project, right through to being recalled as councilwoman for Pawnee, we are with Leslie for the disappointments just as much as the rewards of her tenacity. Sometimes she wins, but sometimes the wealthy and the well-connected beat her out. Her challenges and failures blast the idea that we live in a meritocracy out of the park -- that's real life.
The key to Leslie's success is that she always gets back up. Maybe she has too many cocktails at The Bulge or a ton of waffles at JJ's Diner but she is never defeated. She remains unwavering in her focus with a work ethic to make seemingly anything happen. Leslie Knope is proof that there is room for driven women on TV. She's complicated, strange and charming, and, despite her superhuman ability to get by on three and a half hours of sleep, she feels very real, and what better example for women is that?