Tonight is the season finale of an epic season of one of my favourite television shows, Parks and Recreation. I’ve heard that they’ve filmed two versions of the ending: one where Amy Poehler’s smart, perky go-getter Leslie Knope wins the election to city council, and one where she doesn’t. However, whatever happens, one thing is certain: Parks and Recreation has a collection of some of the best female characters on television.
I originally wrote this essay for my Science and Philosophy of Sex and Love class last semester, and I’ve updated it for this blog according to recent events on the show, and recent developments in Leslie Knope’s overwhelming awesomeness. Parks and Recreation airs tonight on NBC; check it out.
There is constantly debate about the role and portrayal of women in both fictional and non-fictional media. Arguably the pinnacle of these discussions in the last decade came during the 2008 presidential election when several woman politicians ran for high political office. At the same time, women’s’ role in fictional media was also prominent, with characters such as 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon and Mad Men’s Joan Holloway striking a chord with feminists. However, it was a year later, in 2009, that the television show with some of the best representations of women in television history—and by far the best female characters currently on television—began. The show was Parks and Recreation, and its protagonist is the incredible Leslie Knope.
At the show’s inception, Parks and Recreation tried far too hard to make Knope, portrayed by Amy Poehler a female version of The Office’s Michael Scott—no surprise, as the co-creator is a former writer and producer for The Office. Knope was bumbling and silly, although never offensive to the extent that Scott was. Luckily, the writers quickly shifted to make Knope far more competent; however, even in the early episodes she was more than the airheaded caricatures of women that so many networks think viewers want to see. In the pilot episode of the show, Knope starts a project to turn an abandoned pit into a park. While this may seem like a ridiculous task, as a member of the Parks Department of her city, Knope is performing within her job description, taking into account the needs of her community.
More importantly, the pilot episode introduces Ann Perkins, a nurse who lives near the pit. Perkins and Knope become fast friends. This is significant because a focus on female friendships is rare on television. Consider how many shows starring two men are currently on the air: Psych, White Collar, Two and a Half Men, NCIS, NCIS: LA, Hawaii 5-0, and others compared to a very small number of shows that even have a female lead, let alone a female lead with a female best friend. And not only are neither Knope nor Perkins men, but they don’t spend all their time talking about their relationships with men either. They do talk about men, of course, but they also talk about Knope’s job, or Perkins’s, or each other, or a variety of topics that go beyond romantic interests. These are not catty ladies looking for an opportunity to stab each other in the back, as female friendships are so often portrayed on TV; they care about each other. One of the series’ most heart-warming moments is when Knope throws a birthday party for Perkins with a room full of balloons.
In some ways, Parks and Recreation is annoyingly unsubtle in its efforts at feminism. Knope lists among her heroes Hilary Clinton and Madeline Albright, role plays as Nancy Pelosi and Eleanor Roosevelt when kissing her boyfriend, and has the “Pawnee Goddesses,” a Girl Scout-like troop of which she is the leader, make Gertrude [drink] Steins during arts and crafts. However, this relates to the fact that many feminists must be particularly outspoken or else be assumed to be part of the default support of the status quo. If the writers were to have Knope reference more obscure feminist figures the point might be lost on the audience. Still it is less important which feminist ideals Knope derives inspiration from, and more important that her idols are other women who have gained success in her field. One test sometimes used when determining feminist media is whether the role could have been played by a man—if it is not based on stereotypical gender roles, the answer should be yes. While Knope faces problems that are uniquely related to being a female in male-dominated politics, her personality traits are not based in stereotypes of the female gender.
A mistake people often make when they think about feminist media—and the role of feminism in the lives of women in general—is that feminism means being a career women, choosing a job over having a family, and so on. This is a sticking point for many young women. Once more, Parks and Recreation tackles this in a realistic and female-positive way. Knope’s most recent love interest, Ben Wyatt, is a co-worker of Knope’s, and the show frequently demonstrates that he has a great deal of professional respect for her as well as romantic interest—their first kiss occurred at an event which Knope successfully organized.
At the end of the second season, Knope breaks up with her boyfriend in order to run for City Council; however, it is made clear that their break-up is only due to their boss’s rule against inter-office dating, rather than any inability of Knope’s to handle both work and personal relationships. Later, Knope and Wyatt get back together and although this leads to Wyatt getting fired by the department due to an act of unprofessionalism with which both he and Knope were involved, it does not affect their relationship or her ambitions. The realistic way the storyline is presented would be more likely to appeal to women because it is neither over-idealized saying that women never have to choose between personal lives and careers, nor overly-depressing as it is clear Knope and Wyatt are not torn apart for good.
The representation of non-white women is also well done in Parks and Recreation. Biracial actress Rashida Jones plays Perkins, Ludgate often speaks of her Puerto Rican heritage shared by actress Aubrey Plaza, and Donna Meagle, an African American woman (played by the fantastic Rhetta), has seen more screen time as the show progresses, along with having some of the funniest lines this season. None of their characters are stereotypes of their ethnicities, and each has their own backstories and storylines. Parks and Recreation is not perfect when it comes to its portrayal of women. There’s Shauna Malway-Tweep, who sleeps with a source and then quotes their pillow talk in an article. And talk show host Joan Callamezzo is portrayed as a hysterical, alcoholic floozy who flirts with anyone in her path (perhaps the creators of the show have something against journalists?). But as a whole, Parks is kind to its female characters, including the minor ones. Leslie’s mother Marlene has a successful career as a politician in the local government like Leslie; Tom’s ex-girlfriend girlfriend Lucy works as a bartender—not a waitress, but a bartender, which is a role often designated as male, especially on television—until she leaves to attend graduate school.
In particular, Ron Swanson’s ex-wives provide examples of how it is possible for a television show to have well-rounded female characters without making them the protagonists. Tammy One in particular (both of Ron’s wives—and his mother—are named Tammy) is an incredibly competent professional, working at the IRS. Ron is attracted to her strength and serious demeanor. The writers also mock the trope of the “gold-digging” woman by making Tammy One a literal gold-digger; she comes back into Ron’s life to steal gold that he has hidden underground. While giving this storyline to a female character could be seen to utilize the trope, it is meant to be discredited due to the ridiculousness of the way it plays out.
Parks and Recreation subverts several other common tropes of female television characters, often by giving stereotypical female attributes to male characters. Chris Traeger embodies many traditionally female traits: he is nurturing, energetic, and obsessed with fitness, diet, and generally being perfect. He also has the tendency to get overemotional, crying at the funeral of a horse that was the town’s unofficial mascot. By giving these traits to a male character instead of a female character, and making them over the top to the point of ridiculous, it shows how ridiculous it is for expectations of these traits to exist to begin with, and then recognize that these are expectations women face on a daily basis. It is impossible for human beings to be more than human, as the audience is shown through Traeger’s character, and yet this seems to be what is expected of many women.
Andy Dwyer and April Ludgate also subvert and reverse many gender roles on the show. Dwyer is the somewhat airheaded, always cheerful one in the relationship while Ludgate is a more negative, subdued character. What is important is that the show allows and even celebrates her for being so. Often, female characters that are strong-willed in a way that is not constantly positive and optimistic are labelled as “bitches,” but Ludgate is well liked by most of the parks department. She also has a higher position in the parks department than he does, and presumably makes more money, but he does not resent her in any way for this, nor are there jokes made about Ludgate “wearing the pants” in the relationship, as is a common, overused, sitcom joke.
Parks and Recreation has well-developed, well-rounded female characters. They embody different character types, reminding viewers that women are not a monolith, and they subvert tropes and gender roles often seen in female characters on television. Male characters also support the female characters through their characterization, either as foils to the women or to point out the flaws in stereotypical characterization. Knope, Perkins and the other provide admirable role models for young viewers while not preaching in a way that would turn them off from the message of independence, kindness, and competence.
Offscreen Parks and Rec has some fabulous women as well; 40% of it’s season 3 writing credits were women.