Parks ends, but Leslie will stay feminist hero
Tuesday marks the series finale of Parks and Recreation on NBC, and I’ll be very sorry to say goodbye to Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler). While Parks and Rec has a strong ensemble cast and witty writing, it is Leslie’s strength that drives the show. The town of Pawnee, Indiana is flawed and absurd, but Leslie shows us what a feminist can look like in 21st Century middle America.
Initial reviews of the show construed Leslie as ditzy, but show writers quickly corrected that perception. By the third season, Leslie had earned our respect as a smart, talented, impressive woman. The show has continued to grow in popularity, with icons like Ron Swanson. While I adore Ron, you can’t talk about Parks and Recreation without talking about Leslie Knope. While Ron advises to “never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing,” Leslie “whole-asses” everything she does.
Leslie is unapologetic in her pursuits. She typifies servant leadership as a member of the local parks department, then as a city councilor, and eventually as the head of the National Parks Service in the Midwest. Her progression is met with adversity and small defeats, but she deals with obstacles as they appear. She perseveres in the face of workplace sexism. The show doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, like the racist murals on the walls of city hall that were some of my favorite recurring items in its first two seasons.
This final season takes place in 2017, a 3-year jump from the end of season six. Leslie has had triplets in the meantime (named after Supreme Court justices!), but the season is not about Leslie’s struggle balancing family with her career. She acknowledges it, but the season arc is more about Leslie’s work and friends. Motherhood becomes a part of who she is, and not a definition of what she is. When Ben launches a campaign for Congress, the pair recognizes the ridiculous cultural expectations related to the “campaign wife” image, and instead maintains their egalitarian relationship dynamic.
As a human being, Leslie is flawed. Over the course of the series, we learn that her home is a “scary hoarder’s nest” and that she has neurotic tendencies about binders. Sometimes her insanely high standards are unfairly projected onto others. What makes Leslie admirable is that she attains professional success while maintaining her status a real person. She is unashamed of her love for breakfast food and has a wall of inspirational women in her office. These hidden passions make Leslie’s enthusiasm seem a little less exhausting and a lot more believable.
Leslie supports her lady friends, and not just on Galentine’s Day. She fights for their happiness in a way that television shows rarely display, instead preferring the jealousy narrative or putting women into stereotyped supporting roles. In my own life, female best friends have been irreplaceable bastions of support. It is reassuring that Leslie is never self-conscious about showing her affection for her best friend or hoping that it is reciprocated. The devotion between Leslie and Ann (Rashida Jones) is immensely validating.
Other women on the show demonstrate that empowerment can mean something unique for everyone. Donna (Retta) pursues business ownership while recognizing the importance of taking time to “treat yo’ self.” April’s (Aubrey Plaza) façade of hating the world actually demonstrates how fiercely she feels about those she loves. Just as importantly, the men on the show recognize the power of the women in their lives. They support them as individuals, not as objects or inferiors.
Most importantly, Leslie Knope exemplifies the modern feminist. She is aggressive and passionate, but as a #bossbitch and not a #bitchboss (to use Donna’s turn of phrase). She is an actual boss — people report to her and respect her ideas. She surrounds herself with a team that respects her as a human being. She is the hardest worker in Pawnee and loves what she does. Still, she asks us to remember what’s important in life: “Friends, waffles, work. Or waffles, friends, work. But work is third.” Goodbye, Leslie. Ovaries before brovaries.