What sets Leslie apart from other leading female characters is her tenacity and overt feminism. She champions the role of a civil servant to her hometown of Pawnee, Indiana; despite the roadblocks she faces every day, both in and out of her office. How often are strong female characters seen in television shows centering on political issues or government? I’ll answer that for you, not often at all. And if you’re thinking “Olivia Pope is a total badass chick working in the world of politics”, let me remind you that one of the main plot points involving her character on Scandal is that she is having an extramarital affair with the President of the United States. Not exactly the behavior that young women should attribute to the idea of strong and powerful female role models. And in a world where 3rd wave feminism has become the norm, it is refreshing to see a little harkening back to some of the more traditional feminist beliefs and attitudes through Leslie’s character. As Abigail Kelso puts it in regarding Leslie’s work style, she “sees herself as a part of the continuum of powerful female influences in government and integrates her feminism (and she actually uses the word) in much of her work serving the public” (Kelso and Norman, 145).
You cannot talk about Leslie Knope, however, without mentioning her ever-loving friendship with the one and only Ann Perkins. The friendship between these two female characters is one that has not been seen on television in quite a long time, if ever. Unlike so many other programs wherein female characters are pitted against one another and pine for the same man, causing catfights and degradation to one another, no such thing exists between these two ladies (with the exception of one drunken night at the Snake Hole Lounge). Even Ann quickly recognized the idiocy of their drunken catfight about “boys” the next morning, saying “I can’t believe Leslie and I got drunk in a bar and fought about boys. We’re so much better than that” (“The Fight”, 2011). Their relationship is built on appreciation of their differences, pride in their ability to be both independent and collaborative at the same time, and their undying support of one another in all aspects of life. Countless blogs on sites like Tumblr have been dedicated to the now iconic friendship of Leslie and Ann. The reason their friendship has gotten so much attention and has been such a wildly popular and important part of the show is because it is refreshing. To have a show with two leading characters that are not only females with careers, but are non-competitive friends and supporters of one another is practically unheard of. The closest comparison would likely be the characters of Mary and Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which even then is lacking when stacked against the powerhouse that is Leslie and Ann.
One of the most popular and prevalent forms of comedy when it comes to women is self-deprecation. Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller perfected the self-deprecating shtick, which NPR noted made these comedians “less of a threat to male comics” (Blair, 2012). Amy Poehler’s representation of Leslie, however, refuses to fall into that female comedy mold and instead harnesses an obvious and sincere love for herself and pride in her abilities. Perhaps the best example of this high self-esteem and appreciation unique to Leslie Knope can be seen in an episode from 2012 after she wins a heated city council election, an area of Pawnee’s local government dominated by sexist and misogynistic men, when she remarks “I’m big enough to admit that I’m often inspired by myself” as she points out her own picture among pictures of the powerful women of government she looks up to and often refers to (“How a Bill Becomes a Law”, 2012).
All in all, Leslie Knope is a one of a kind character. Her overt feminism, supportive and strong female friendships, and her high self-esteem make her both endearing and inspiring all at once. She is the strong female figure that has been lacking from network television for so long, and one that we all so desperately need. Whether she is fighting past the red tape of a bureaucratic institution or refusing to be oppressed by ever-present sexism in the work place, Leslie never gives up or loses sight of who she is. She remains true to her values and loyal to her friends, two attributes that can rarely be seen in characters on television at all, let alone in a female character changing the world one Paunch Burger at a time.
Blair, Elizabeth. "Comedy's Self-Deprecating Pioneer Phyllis Diller Dies". NPR. August 20, 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/08/20/154540372/phyllis-diller-comedys-self-deprecating-pioneer
Kelso, Abigail and Norman, Kelly. "Television as Text: The Administration of Parks and Recreation". Administrative Theory and Praxis Vol. 34 Issue 1. March, 2012.
Parks and Recreation. IMDB. 2009. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1266020/
Parks and Recreation "The Fight" (originally aired May 12, 2011)
Parks and Recreation "How a Bill Becomes a Law" (originally aired October 4, 2012)