The Parks and Recreation season 7 premiere means it’s the beginning of the end of our relationship with feminist goddess Leslie Knope.
There’s a lot to love about Parks and Recreation: the beauty of “Treat Yo’ Self” day, Ben’s butt, the many wonderful ways to describe Ann Perkins, and the constantly changing names of Jerry/Garry/Larry/Terry, to name but a few. But the main reason we are so sad to see this show leave our screens is the casual, normalized feminism it offers.
Parks and Recreation’s feminist qualifications are more than simply being a show built around a female lead (although we’ll always take more representation on that front, please). Instead, Parks depicts a town where men and women can be feminists without the negative connotations usually attached to such characters in the media, including being angry, militant, and unreasonable.
Much of this is due to Amy Poehler’s beloved and award-winning portrayal of Leslie Knope: Feminist Queen Of Our Hearts. Leslie is a dedicated, loyal, passionate, and complex woman. Even more importantly, she is our hero. We are invited to laugh at Leslie’s weird obsessions – like waffles, and Ben’s butt – but never at her for being a feminist. She asks, “What kind of lunatic would want to be Cleopatra over Eleanor Roosevelt?” and she is being sincere. She even invents Galentine’s Day, a holiday celebrated on February 13 with her lady friends, and it is never a joke for either the characters or the audience. Even April enjoys herself.
But Parks goes further than to make Leslie it’s token feminist. A less intelligent show could have easily gone this way, by making a joke of Leslie and her beliefs, or making her a lone feminist voice. The Parks writers have instead created a whole ensemble of feminists around Leslie, both male and female. By doing so, they present feminist ideals as normal, important beliefs. The characters don’t constantly talk about feminism and gender equality, but their ideals influence their decisions, just like in real life.
In particular, the female friendships on Parks contribute to the dismantling of dangerous media stereotypes that women are always in competition with each other, or are “frenemies.” Ben (Adam Scott) and Leslie are forever, but we all know that Leslie’s true soulmate is that beautiful, rule-breaking moth, Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones). Luckily for Ben and Chris (Rob Lowe), the pair are “tragically heterosexual” – a line that is not played for laughs. Ann and Leslie are wonderfully supportive and proud of each other. Despite facing obstacles, just like in every friendship, the show never sets them against each other in romantic competition.
Leslie and April (Aubrey Plaza) have a different, but similarly important relationship. In this role, Leslie is able to act as a mentor to a young woman; again, in a less intelligent show Leslie might resent April for her youth, or April would see Leslie as her older competition. Both April and Leslie learn and grow from each other. And despite Leslie’s positive demeanor (she is LITERALLY never not smiling), she never forces April to “cheer up” or “smile more” – something we see women told to do all too frequently in society and in the media.
Rounding out the female characters, Donna (Retta) is just plain fabulous. Her confidence and sexuality (two things women are also told not to have too much pride in) are, once again, a point of celebration, rather than derision.
Feminist ideals are by no means restricted to the female characters. A parody of traditional masculinity, Ron (Nick Offerman) embodies typical, old-fashioned beliefs, but still believes in gender equality. Ben resigns from his job so that Leslie can keep hers, not because she needs a man to save her, but because he understands and values how important her job is to her.
The first college class Andy (Chris Pratt) takes is women’s studies, which he, Ron and April are all shown to be fascinated by, proving that men too can, and should, take an interest in gender equality. Tom (Aziz Ansari), Chris, and Jerry/what’s-his-name (Jim O’Heir) are all shown to respect Leslie and the other women in the Parks Department, without gender ever being a factor.
That is not to say that the fictional Parks town of Pawnee is a feminist utopia where gender equality no longer exists. Indeed, Pawnee is depicted as operating on a reasonably entrenched patriarchy. Many characters, especially older males working within the government bureaucracy, exhibit openly sexist attitudes, which Leslie is forced to confront frequently.
However, the writers set these opinions up as the jokes – we are supposed to laugh at these characters for their out-dated and ridiculous viewpoints, rather than at Leslie or her team for fighting for equality. The heightened sexism of Pawnee acts as an indictment of our society, and demonstrates how far we still need to come.
The feminist aspect of Parks works so effectively because the ideals of gender equality pervade every episode in various subtle ways. Yes, there are episodes that focus more closely on these issues, but they are not Very Special Episodes that deal with an issue that is never raised again. Sexism is a underlining part of life in Pawnee, just like sexism is an underlining part of life.
Parks and Recreation is by no means perfect, but it comes much closer than many other shows on television. With only thirteen episodes left, we will savor every wonderful moment with Leslie and her friends.