Pawnee, Indiana may just be a small town, but to Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), it means the world. The masterminds behind The Office, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, reunited in 2009 to create Parks and Recreation, a show following the cheerful, optimistic, and work-driven Knope, whose job as Deputy Director of the Parks and Recreation Department leads her on many adventures to liven up her hometown. At the beginning of the series, Knope is a young, mid-level bureaucrat struggling to find love, success, friends, and her place in the world, and throughout the seven seasons of the show, she finds all of that and more with many jokes along the way.
Knope is among the many fictionalized, working women characters in sitcoms that are subject to various negative stereotypes. From breaking away from the traditional domestic sphere to having power in a patriarchal society, working women in sitcoms and the real world alike have been scrutinized for changing the status quo. Since the start of the workplace sitcom in the 1970s, series have used these stereotypes to either fuel their shows or to push against them (Kutulas). In Parks and Recreation, the evolution of Leslie Knope is used to show that a modern working woman can achieve both her professional and personal goals by defying stereotypes about love, friendship, appearance, and power.
Much of the first season includes Leslie’s infatuation with a co-worker, city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), with whom she had a fling with several years before. Through her short-lived relationship with Mark and a series of many awkward and hilarious blind dates, Leslie fails to find a relationship other than with her job. Leslie’s dilemma fits into the conventionally held attitudes about women in power and the perceived personal sacrifices they must make for professional gain. Of these sacrifices, love and marriage are at the top of the list (Reardon 1995).
On top of being too committed to their work, women in the workforce have often been characterized by men as too ambitious, bossy, and threatening to be suitable partners. In contrast to Leslie’s character, one can argue that Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer) in The Office – an attractive, shy receptionist – has a thriving personal life and love life in particular because of her nonthreatening lack of career ambition and sweet disposition (Barrett and Davidson 2006). While Leslie’s personality is not suitable for the men she meets early on, she is soon introduced to her perfect match during the show’s second season, Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott). Wyatt is a nerdy state auditor who comes to Pawnee to evaluate the town’s funds and finds a lot more.
At first, the rule against dating within the office tests Ben and Leslie’s newfound attraction for each other. After secretly dating for a time, the couple decides to cut things off to avoid a scandal when Leslie decides to run for City Council. After the breakup, Leslie and Ben are both miserable as they try to avoid each other at work. After months of debate, Leslie finally confronts Ben and makes a decision (“Smallest Parks”).
Leslie: There is another option. We could just say “screw it” and do this thing for real.
Leslie: I miss you like crazy. I think about you all the time. I want to be with you. So let’s just say “screw it.”
Ben: No, we would have to tell Chris.
Ben: It could turn into a scandal.
Ben: It could hurt your campaign. I mean, how would you imagine we do this?
Leslie: I don’t know. But I…I know how I feel, and I want to be with you.
Putting her beloved job on the line, Leslie shows where her priorities lay and the power of what love can do. Viewers watch as Leslie’s relationship with Ben passes many milestones, including a tear-jerking proposal and wedding, and viewers ultimately see the couple happily raising triplets together. Even with her dedication to work and her ambitious personality, Leslie proves that she is capable of finding and fighting for love.
Another stereotype that Leslie fights is a lack of relationship with her co-workers. Early in the series, Leslie is often made fun of or dismissed by her co-workers for her “can-do,” positive attitude. In the pilot episode, viewers see two of Leslie’s employees, April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) and Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), laughing at pictures of Leslie falling in a pit that she is trying to convert into a park. One study reinforcing this idea states that “individuals tend to hold negative stereotypes of female managers,” and women leaders are more liked to be “implicitly associated with incompetent traits” (Heilman).
While much of the beginning of the show includes scenes where Leslie is disrespected and disliked by her co-workers, through the seasons she is able to establish real and meaningful relationships with everyone in the office. One of the most powerful relationships in the show is between Leslie and her boss, Ron Swanson, a private, deadpan libertarian who believes all government should be privatized, which is essentially the opposite of Knope. Despite their differences, Leslie and Ron learn from each other and grow to become best friends. During the fourth season, when Leslie’s campaign to run for City Council takes a turn for the worse, Ron comforts Leslie in a rare scene of vulnerability (“Win, Lose or Draw”).
Leslie: Ron, for the last six months, my friends have worked so hard. Every five-minute coffee break at work, every night, every weekend, every spare moment of their lives, they gave to me. If I lose, I’ll never forgive myself. You deserve to win.
Ron: We didn’t volunteer to help you because we wanted to wrap ourselves in personal glory. We did it because we…care about you. You had a dream, and we wanted to support your dream. That’s what you do when you care about someone. You support them, win, lose, or draw.
This moment, among others, truly encapsulates the love and compassion others feel toward Leslie. Through the series, these friendships endure the ups and downs of life from dealing with breakups to moving on to new jobs, but through it all, Leslie proves over and over her ability to be the very best friend. When revealing her values, Leslie states, “We need to remember what’s important in life: friends, waffles, work. Or waffles, friends, work” (“The Fight”). As a boss and a co-worker, Leslie is respected for her dedication to her work, but her empathy and ability to create these meaningful relationships and to be a true friend is what makes her even more admired.
From the very beginning of the series, Knope’s looks make her instantly stand out in contrast to many other women on TV. Knope’s affinity for pantsuits combined with her ignorance of conventional beauty standards defies the media’s oversexualization and beauty ideals it has set for its viewers. Women on TV have been used to attract male viewers for generations by selecting actresses who are very skinny, pretty and sexy. By doing so, the media has skewed women’s standards of beauty for themselves to almost unrealistic expectations, resulting in consequences such as eating disorders and self-objectification (Vitelli).
Knope, on the other hand, provides a realistic woman who is slim, but not a size zero, and attractive, but not as conventionally pretty as most successful actresses are. Additionally, she dresses mainly in pantsuits throughout the series, defying the sexualization of women in media who often wear short, tight, and revealing clothing to intrigue male viewers. Besides just her physical appearance, Knope’s character creates a contrast to the idea of conventional beauty in a way that mocks the standard portrayal of women on television.
In “The Banquet” during the first season of the series, Leslie attends a banquet for her mother, who is to be receiving a public service award for her work in the town’s school system. After deciding to get her hair done for the event by an old-fashioned male barber, Leslie loves her new bold look. She says, “Salvatore calls this hairdo ‘The Mayor,’ and yes I will wear my hair like this when I am the first female mayor of Pawnee.” She arrives at the banquet and is instantly made fun of for her boyish-looking hairdo as she is called “Sir” by many guests and is even mistaken as a part of a lesbian couple. Knope’s ignorance on beauty standards makes her both funny and empowering because she doesn’t know and her character doesn’t necessarily care what people think about her looks. Appearance is only a small part of Leslie’s whole persona, which makes her someone to engage with rather than something to look at in the series.
Women in the workplace have been placed at a disadvantage for generations. From lower pay to less opportunities for advancement, negative stereotypes have prevented women from gaining power and having success in their careers (Latu). Although significant strides have been made to reduce gender inequality in the workplace, women fall victim to a world dominated by men at work and in other aspects of their lives.
One area where this issue is especially prevalent is the underrepresentation of women in positions of power. Across the world, only 21.8% of members of parliament are female (The Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2014) and of the 196 nations across the world, only 22 are led by women. Additionally, although women comprise 47.3% of the US labor force, the percentage of women occupying top leadership positions, such as Fortune 500 CEOs, is quite low: 5.2% (Catalyst, 2014). These facts confirm that even though women make up around half of the workforce, there is a significant disparity in the number of women compared to men who have had the opportunities to achieve great success in their careers.
For three seasons, Leslie serves as Deputy Director of Pawnee’s Parks and Rec Department and is only able to accomplish so much as a mid-level bureaucrat. Knowing and wanting to do more for her hometown, Knope successfully campaigns to be the first woman member of Pawnee’s City Council. When showing Ben her new City Council office, Leslie reveals a mantel full of portraits of powerful women such as Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi and – to his surprise – he finds someone else on the wall as well (“How a Bill Becomes a Law”).
Ben: Is that a picture of you?
Leslie: Yes. I am big enough to admit that I am often inspired by myself.
Her progression of power, something that real women are often criticized for or unable to achieve, marks not only a small victory for Leslie but for all women everywhere.
Erika Engstrom states that Pawnee acts as a “symbol of the U.S. itself, and by extension, patriarchal views that prevent feminist progress,” and Knope presents a woman who has the ability to shake up the established system. Leslie often states her ultimate goal is becoming the first female President of the United States, a feat that in real life almost occurred this past November. In a world dominated by men, a character like Leslie Knope sets a new ideal and inspiration for working women to strive for power and to be proud of their accomplishments.
Parks and Recreation’s success is hinged on Leslie Knope’s evolution. The show’s first season received criticism, some stating that the show “lacked in character development” or “could use a genuinely likeable male lead” (Moyer). This negative feedback, although harsh, led to some much-needed changes, particularly in Knope’s character as the lead of the show. Her transition, while subtle, made a big impact on the audience, gaining viewers and leading them to watch for six more seasons. As the series progresses, Knope is no longer simply the butt of all the jokes; she evolves into a genuine, strong, and ambitious working woman dealing with everyday situations to which an audience can relate.
Over and over again, Knope pushes boundaries and stereotypes while never settling for what people expect whether it concerns her work or relationships. Although fictional, Knope’s character offers a new and optimistic perspective on all the possibilities for working women of our generation to show that they can have all they wish for and more. Her ambition and bold attitude has even led fans of the show to create the saying, “Be the Leslie Knope of Whatever You Do,” and subsequently mugs, t-shirts, stickers and other products have been produced with the quote. She is inspirational, bold, and never for a second is she someone other than herself. She is Leslie Knope.
Maia Scacchi is a Junior at Wake Forest University from Westchester, New York. She is a Business major and Communication minor.
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