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The Audacity of Knope

What NBC's 'Parks and Recreation' can teach us about feminism.

Arts and Culture  |  Feb 2, 2017  |  By Erika Engstrom
Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope
Editor's Note: 

Erika Engstrom, a professor of communications studies, specializes in media portrayals of women, weddings, and aspects of popular culture that deal with religion. At 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 7 she will present "Gender and Politics in NBC's 'Parks and Recreation'" at the Marjorie Barrick Museum as part of the University Forum lecture series. The talk is free and open to the public. Here, Engstrom delves into why the Amy Poehler comedy serves as a sterling example of gender equality.

Imagine a television show that actually makes government look good. Not only good, but peopled by kind men and women who care about what they do and for whom they do it. That’s the premise of the NBC comedy series Parks and Recreation, which ran from 2009 to 2015. 

Set in the fictional Midwest town of Pawnee, Indiana, the show follows the professional and personal lives of city government workers in the town’s parks and recreation department. Anchoring the ensemble is Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), a mid-level bureaucrat whose dreams of running for president serve to inspire her run for city council.

To be honest, I thought the idea of a show about city government would be boring, but as a media researcher, I had read about how funny the series was, and how it was underappreciated. (In other words, it had low ratings.) I quickly became a fan. What really got me interested, however, was the way in which Leslie was presented as a feminist character — one who openly expressed her identity and spoke up about her views as she tried to bring real change to her small, sometimes small-minded, town. Beauty pageants, sex segregation in children’s scouting organizations, gender equality on the job, and even strip clubs made their way onto Leslie’s agenda for change. Even though successes in these areas of everyday life in Pawnee were hit or miss, Leslie’s optimism nevertheless inspired her coworkers to improve the lives of their fellow citizens.

Real-life women, holders of high office, inspired Leslie’s political aspirations. Viewers can see their photos in Leslie’s office throughout the series — and, yes, Hillary Clinton is a constant presence on Leslie’s “Wall of Inspirational Women.” The on-camera appearances of women of distinction, both Democrats and Republicans, add to the reality of the series. 

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright even becomes one of Leslie’s closest friends and mentors after Leslie joins the National Parks Service as a high-level bureaucrat. While these famous women show up, male politicians do too, including Leslie’s big-time crush, Vice President Joe Biden. The inclusiveness of both men and women from both parties underscores a gender equality promoted by Leslie’s personal and professional beliefs regarding her town, her nation, and her world.    

The men who surround Leslie at work and at home also become a way for the show to present a humanism in which masculinity becomes questioned — and thus recasts the notion and rules that tell us what it means to “be a man.” The variety of portrayals of the men in Leslie’s life opens up the possibility that being a real man means being a real human being. 

Tom Haverford’s “dope” suits and penchant for fashion; Andy’s man-child innocence and sweetness; and Ron Swanson’s fish-is-a-vegetable take on nutrition provide great comedic images, but these disparate portrayals never question if these are real men. Leslie’s love interest and eventual husband, the incredibly competent but nerdy Ben Wyatt, is referred to by Leslie as her “Elf King.” Rounding out the spectrum of real men is Chris Traeger, played by the beautiful Rob Lowe, a health nut whose enthusiasm and optimism eclipses even Leslie’s. 

By osmosis, these men who support Leslie and her foray into the world of political leadership become feminist as well — showing that the concept of feminism is not about being pro-woman and, therefore, anti-man, but about supporting women and seeing them as equals.

Indeed, in one scene during the final season, it is hinted that an elderly Leslie and Ben each had reached the pinnacle of politics as occupants of the Oval Office. Alas, that fictional allusion presented on a network comedy series, while offering a vision of a more gender-equitable future, met a reality that today has, ironically, spurred what many hope is a reawakening not only of the feminist movement, but the responsibilities of citizenship championed by Leslie Knope of Pawnee.