Leslie Knope’s Defiance of Sexual Performance Standards
NBC’s sitcom Parks and Rec may not be receive the highest of ratings or the most prestigious of awards, it does however offer viewers something they are not getting any where else, and that's Leslie Knope. Leslie Knope, the main character of Parks and Rec is an obnoxiously optimistic and energetic Council Woman from Pawnee Indiana who places public service and civic duty above all. Unlike contemporary television’s tendency to perpetuate sexuality, Parks and Rec defies hegemonic sexual performance standards through Leslie Knope’s appearance, messages and the framing of supporting roles. Leslie’s character has become the polar opposite of today’s standard of television that objectifies feminine sexuality as she illustrates the value of her professional attributes rather than her physical assets.
Television today inundates us with sexual images of female characters that are framed as eye candy for television’s target market of white male audiences, making sexual objectification a common denominator throughout television. Utilizing sex as lure for male viewers is not a new strategy as it has been used for decades. As early as the 1970s, The Mary Tyler Moore Show utilized Mary Tyler Moore’s “blazing Irish smile” and “tight tight jeans” to draw in and captivate male audiences, sending Nielsen ratings through the roof (Goodman). Today it isn’t just flashy smiles and trendy tight jeans that seduce male viewers, instead its evolved into repeated sexual innuendoes and raunchy amounts of cleavage and flesh that blast the airwaves. While this sexual bait ranges from CBS’s Two Broke Girls raunchiness (who just received at least a hundred informal FCC complaints of indecency) to Zooey Deschanel’s “adorkable” sex appeal in New Girl, it is still a predominant strategy used by television production companies today (McKay).
These productions serve as examples of television’s standard sexual objectification of women, making it easy to analyze the sexual nature of Parks and Rec, as well as the character of Leslie Knope. Leslie’s character primarily avoids sexual objectification through her conservative and professional appearance as she usually appears in business appropriate attire. Leslie never reduces herself to becoming a sexual object by refusing to reveal explicit amounts of flesh or behave in a seductive manner that undermines her professionalism. Leslie is also not unrealistically attractive as compared to other female sitcom stars such as, New Girl’s Zooey Deschanel and Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Couco, emphasizing her comedic qualities as an actress over her sexual performance. While New Girl relies heavily on the “niche sex appeal” and trendsetting qualities of Zooey Deschanel, Leslie is able to draw in viewers with an everyday appearance that wouldn't otherwise turn heads (Patterson). While Leslie’s appearance is not of a homely one, it is of a modest nature that rejects today’s standard of sexual performance.
Parks and Rec also uses camera angles and other aesthetics to prevent the sexual objectification of Leslie as well. Often times television and advertising will utilize different camera angels in order to sexually enhance images by solely focusing on independent parts of the female body, highlighting their sexual nature. Parks and Rec avoids fragmenting Leslie’s body into pieces, as the camera never focuses on one specific physical feature of Leslie’s body such as her lips, breast or buttocks. She is viewed primarily from the shoulders up or through entire body shots, representing her as a whole person rather than an ensemble of independent sexual body parts.
Another point to note is that while sex is discussed in association with Leslie, it is usually used for comedic value rather than making Leslie a sexual spectacle. An example of this humor is the reoccurring theme of Leslie’s massive crush on Vice President Joe Biden. Obviously the goal of this sexual discourse is not to sexually captivate male viewers with images of Leslie and Joe Biden, but rather to create comedic value. Although the discourse definitely revolves around Leslie and sex, it does not emphasize a provocative nature associated with Leslie, but focuses more on the humor often associated with sex.
Parks and Rec not only prevents the sexual objectification of Leslie, it also provides positive messages from Leslie that reinforce her refusal to endorse sexual performativity. Leslie promotes these messages of moral character over sexuality through her unwavering devotion to civic duty and relentless work ethic. Leslie provides a great example of this message in the episode “Beauty Pageant” where Leslie is a judge in the local Pawnee Beauty Pageant. Throughout the episode, the other judges are marveled with the beauty of one contestant, Trish, who is stunningly attractive but lacks any hint of character or talent. Disgusted with the committee’s decision to select Trish, Leslie gives a speech congratulating the more deserving contestant chastises the notion that beauty is more valuable than character. Despite Trish winning, Leslie’s message is blatantly conveyed through the framing of the text as Trish is clearly mocked for her inability to legitimately answer questions and her lack of real talent. Through Leslie’s speech and the framing of “Beauty Pageant”, it is clear that the dominant message of character over beauty is victorious.
Although Parks and Rec does a good job of framing Leslie in a manner that avoids sexual objectification, it does push the envelope in terms of perpetuating sexual agenda with other characters. A classic example of this sexual tone is with Ron Swanson’s two ex-wives (the Tammys), as they are characters defined by their sexuality and ability to manipulate Ron with their seductive nature. These two characters define the vulgarity of sexual objectification, as they are merely sexual objects framed by their sexual innuendoes, provocative dress and behavior. The entirety of their purpose within the text is to use their sexually dominating behavior to lure in Ron and consume his existence.
Another example of Parks and Rec’s sexual objectification is through the discourse and personality of Tom Haverford. Tom’s character resembles the demeanor of a male adolescent entering the hormonal stages of puberty who is consumed with sexual thoughts and desires. He is known for his perverse comments and his failed attempts to seduce the opposite sex. Although Tom’s character is not overly masculine due to his size and personality, he still serves as a reinforcement of the hegemonic male thought process revolving around the consumption of sex.
While both of these themes serve as examples of the sexual messages displayed by Parks and Rec, it is arguable that they actually serve as reinforcements to Leslie’s superiority to sexual performativity. For example in the case of Ron’s ex-wives, Leslie’s character acts as the protagonist, who saves Ron from being lured into the antagonistic and seductive arms of his ex-wives. This heroine vs. villain situation places a negative connotation with the sexual behavior of the Tammys and celebrates Leslie’s ability to negate that type of behavior. The text clearly reinforces Leslie’s anti-sexual performativity ideology by portraying her resistance to sexual exploitation above the sexually deviant behaviors of the Tammys.
This same message of reinforcement can be said with that of Tom’s hormonal behavior and sexist language as well. While Tom is usually portrayed as a good person with good intentions, he is never taken seriously due to his inability to act maturely. His sexist comments and inappropriate behavior reduce his image to that of an adolescent. Tom’s inferiority is clearly illustrated in the episode “Beauty Pageant”, as he is one of the judges who are unable to see past Trish’s sexuality and supports her selection as the winner. Throughout this episode Tom’s shallow behavior is emphasized through his cliché advances towards Trish and his inability to evaluate her performance beyond her sex appeal. As Tom’s dominant sex yearning ideology is pushed to the side for being immature, Leslies message is reinforced and viewed as morally superior.
While Leslie Knope may not be the eye candy male viewers are used to seeing, she provides viewers with a female role model that defies television’s standard of sexual performance. Through her appearance and messages, Leslie Knope illustrates that is possible to be a female on a major network production without becoming a sexual spectacle for male viewers to salivate over. Parks and Rec effectively utilizes supporting roles to further reinforce Leslie’s defiance of sexual objectification.
Goodman, Mark. "TV's Reigning Queen." - Personal Success, Mary Tyler Moore : People.com. N.p., 30 Sept. 1974. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. <http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0%2C%2C20064517%2C00.html>.
McKay, Hollie. "'2 Broke Girls' Gets FCC Complaints for Raunchy Humor." Fox News. FOX News Network, 16 Jan. 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. <http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2014/01/16/2-broke-girls-gets-fcc-complaints-for-raunchy-humor/>.
Patterson, Troy. "New Girl Reviewed: Zooey Deschanel Brings Her Niche Sex Appeal to the Small Screen." Slate Magazine. N.p., 19 Sept. 2011. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. <http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/television/2011/09/new_girl.html>.