In vain have I tried to repress my feelings. It will not do. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you. With a numbered list of reasons!
01. You invented “Galentine’s Day.”
It’s been a while, that I’ve been watching your show, Leslie. I sort of caught it in the first season, occasionally, normally while cooking dinner or talking to someone or answering my e-mail. Then, at some point during the second season, I actually started, you know, watching it.
It got more intense over time, the way crushes usually do. And, to be honest, I think it was just the right time for us. The Office and I were not getting along; ever since Jim and Pam got together and Jan became like the worst misogynist stereotype you’ve ever seen on a TV set, something had been distinctly and pervasively Not So Good. There was 30 Rock, which was just weird, like this intense ambivalent roller coaster where I had no idea what was going on most of the time, or how I felt about any of it. And Community was okay, but not really all-consuming. But then: Parks and Recreation. Wow! So good! I watched the last six episodes four times in a row, on Hulu, so I could write this piece. And, can I tell you? I did not get bored.
I don’t know what sealed the deal, but I strongly suspect it was the episode “Galentine’s Day,” where I figured out that you were probably the most likable lady character I had seen on TV in a long time. “Galentine’s Day” is, in addition to being the title of the episode, your name for how you celebrate Valentine’s Day, Leslie. It is an occasion on which you have breakfast with every lady you know and like — there are a lot of ladies you know and like, apparently! That is a full table — and you celebrate your mutual friendship and ladyhood with gifts, including “a personalized 5,000-word essay on why you are all so awesome,” written by you personally.
It is like the best! I mean, I can’t even count the number of times Parks and Recreation has shown ladies hanging out and relating — ladies talk about a lot of shit with each other on this show, things like politics and career and whether or not possums are hideous unearthly monsters that lay eggs — but this was just a really great moment, of a feminist lady on a TV show expressing, in a genuine and believable way, how much she likes and values and enjoys spending time with other ladies. And the greatest thing? That moment was not shown as inherently ridiculous, or stupid, or alienating, or wrong.
I mean, it’s a little ridiculous, of course. That’s why it’s funny. “Ladies celebratin’ ladies,” you say into the camera, with that big goofy wide-open smile on your face, like in such terrible earnest you are conveying the idea of lady-celebrating and it makes you so super-happy. It’s always funny to see people believe in things whole-heartedly without trying to be cool about it; it makes them vulnerable and goofy, like children. And, like, the name of the celebration is “Galentine’s Day,” which is the dorkiest. You are the dorkiest, Leslie: Sunny and awkward and naive and oh so very Midwestern. “It’s like Lilith Fair. Without all the angst,” is your follow-up line. Like Lilith Fair is the most XTreme Rock XPerience you could ever have. It’s so great.
You invited your Mom, Leslie. You. Invited. Your Mom. To the Galentine’s Day party. You do it every year! And it is just the sweetest thing. Ladies celebratin’ ladies. Why don’t more people do this? I think they should.
02. You’re a bad feminist. And it’s hilarious.
Yes, you — YOU, Leslie Knope — are a feminist. You are also (I don’t mean to alarm you) a fictional character, played by Amy Poehler, who I hear is also feminist, in addition to being the best thing about Mean Girls. I don’t know a ton about Poehler’s feminism, but your feminism is pretty damn misguided or silly a lot of the time, Leslie. In this, you are not unlike the character of Liz Lemon, another bad feminist played by a feminist, on the show 30 Rock. I wrote a bit about her, recently; what I wrote ended up being largely about how the bad feminism of the character infuriates me. I mean, granted, it’s often because the writers mean for her actions to be infuriating, and the writing is pretty good, so it works. But still. I get so mad.
Here’s the thing, though, Leslie: Your bad feminism? I love it. Liz Lemon is the bad feminist who is bad because she’s super-educated as to the theory, but just really shitty in practice. Not close to women, doesn’t mentor women, doesn’t like women, often for sexist reasons, and continually practicing well-meaning white lady racism all over the place. She uses feminism mostly as an excuse to complain about how hard the world is for Liz. That’s her feminist practice, even though she probably has like a ton of bell hooks on her bookshelf at home and could quote it at you. And you are the polar opposite of all that.
The crucial thing about you, Leslie, is that you barely know the theory. You have only the most cursory understanding of what “feminism” means. It’s “feminist,” for example, for ladies to do well in politics, and so in your office you have several inspirational pictures of female politicians, selected with no regard for their actual politics whatsoever. Clinton, Condoleeza Rice. Madeline Albright, Margaret Thatcher. I could probably find a Palin picture in there somewhere, if I had TiVo and HD. You just love ladies! You just want them to do well! That’s “feminist,” right?
And yet, although you have no understanding of the theory, your practice is continually good. You are the girl who can’t fake it: You see the entire world as an intrinsically fair place, where people who do well are rewarded, and so you just continually act out of this understanding that everyone is a person deserving of respect, and you should try really hard and be really nice, and then you will of course become President, because that is how things work, in this just and moral universe we live in. Even though everything and everyone continually informs you this is not the case, AT ALL, you keep acting on principle and only on principle, because that is who you are.
People might not think this sounds funny. But it is. It is ridonkulous. In one recent episode, you were passed over for a very minor feminist award, in favor of your boss Ron, who is a man. This was a cheap ploy for media attention, and you were informed that it was a cheap ploy, by the people handing out the award. And your reaction was amazing. Like, first of all, you just kept acting like this very minor feminist award was LITERALLY THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD (“it’s every little girl’s dream to win. But it is my destiny. And my dream”), and then, when you learned that giving the award to an obviously undeserving dude was meant to spark interest, and not to do anything else, you were so furious. It was like the most revolutionary concept to you, awards being unfair. You were like a kid who found out that the Tooth Fairy was just her parents putting a quarter under the pillow, but if that kid got livid and decided to tell her parents off for being such fucking liars. “Sexist jerks,” you called the minor feminist award committee. Spitting each word out as if it were the filthiest thing you could ever think to say to another living thing.
03. You love your job without shame or reservation.
So much, you love your job! It is your stated goal to be the “chosen one” of this very small Parks Department in the middle of nowhere, and you work at it like a woman possessed. But here’s the thing: You’re also really good at it. It would be so easy for this show to make the feminist lady into some stupid girl who’s destined to fail; feminists not being good at stuff is a pretty tried-and-true vein of sexist humor. But every time the show seems like it could head in that direction, could just make you a buffoon, it pulls a save. It shows that you are, in fact, excellent at this job you love — that your love for it is the cause of your excellence. The comedy of you, Leslie Knope, is not that you’re an idiot or incompetent or a bad person. You’re not Michael Scott. You’re like the anti-Scott: The comedy of you is that you are just such a good person that it’s hard for you to believe everyone else is not equally good. It’s sweet, and it’s relatively original, and it’s never lazy. It’s also really fucking feminist.
04. You have a best friend. And she’s a GIRL!
Leslie, you are a woman who is single a lot. You date, but you don’t date a ton. And a lot of your dates do not go so well. But you’re not pathetic. You’re not, let’s say, Liz Lemon. Oh, no! You have a ton of friends. Your boss is your friend. Your co-workers are friends. People you know outside of the office are friends. And best of all, you have a real, live Best Lady Friend, Ann, a girl to whom you talk about your life, a girl who supports you and whom you support, a girl who will help you out with your dating anxieties by role-playing worst-case dating scenarios in a humorous fashion. A girl to whom you say “I love you,” in that casual yet meaningful way girls say these things to their best friends. It’s not Sex and the City, it’s not cheap or sentimental or glamorized: You frustrate the hell out of Ann, with your messy apartment and your self-absorption and your social anxieties and awkwardnesses. And Ann frustrates you too, on occasion. But there are so many scenes of you two just talking and caring about each other. I didn’t know why that meant so much, until I realized I’d been watching The Office (where Pam has no lady friends, and has rebuffed Kelly’s attempts at lady friendship repeatedly) and 30 Rock (where Liz and Jenna have, at this point, an officially Toxic Friendship, if they are even friends at all). I am of the opinion that having strong relationships with ladies is pretty fucking critical, should you be a lady. So it’s nice to have a show where an inter-lady support system is a key feature.
Also, have I mentioned that there are multiple ladies on the show, who are not stereotypes? There are such ladies! You have Ann, who’s practical and down-to-earth and smart and friendly, but also a little controlling and passive-aggressive and, one gets the sense, condescending despite herself. You have Midwest demi-hipster April, who is swathed in irony and detachment and carefully selected bizarro details, like her entire personality is some sort of Lady Gaga video that no-one else is watching, but who keeps accidentally cracking open and revealing that she’s just a sweet, very young woman who cares and wants to be cared for. You have Donna, who’s been the butt of some of the most frankly fucked-up and offensive jokes on this show, and who was for a long time the only truly stereotypical character on it — as a large black lady, she really got some shit writing handed to her, which I did not like — but who is steadily developing a three-dimensional personality, as a very smart lady who takes no shit and enjoys the finer things in life and loves sex and is quiet a lot because that’s how she can observe and judge you. I would really like the show to write more for Donna, I have to tell you. But still! All these ladies! With actual characters! It is starting to look like a celebration.
05. You dumped Justin Theroux.
Justin Theroux was your Jon Hamm, Leslie. He was, for one thing, a relatively high-profile Guest Boyfriend. Louis CK, we could argue, had a similarly high profile, and so did Will Arnett definitely, but with no offense intended to Amy Poehler, neither of them were as unambiguously and startlingly handsome as Justin Theroux. His character was played up as The Perfect Boyfriend, worldly and charming and beloved by all, and the implication was that you were really lucky to be with him, and that you knew it. But then you broke up. And it wasn’t because he had some specific hot-person variety of Stupid; it wasn’t because he had to move to Cleveland; it wasn’t because he was Dennis. It was because you knew, no matter how great he was, he just wasn’t right for you.
This also happened on “Galentine’s Day,” an episode which aired on the same day as 30 Rock’s “Anna Howard Shaw Day,” which was about the terrors of being single; I had just recently become single, when I saw it, and it made me (I blush to tell anyone else, Leslie, but I think you’ll get this) cry like a tiny child with a skinned knee. I was sitting there, sobbing, because Liz Lemon had no-one to take her home from the doctors’ office, she was vulnerable and fucked-up on the dental anesthesia and completely alone, and she thought the boys she’d loved had come for her, that whatever it was they’d shared had been enough for them to show up when she really did need them, but they hadn’t. They weren’t there; she was hallucinating. The fact was that anything could happen to her, now, she could get hit by a taxi, or be mugged or killed, or be locked in the doctors’ office for an entire weekend with a large pizza, and they would neither know nor especially care. They’d wanted to be away from her, and now they were. Oh, I cried so hard over this half-hour sitcom. It was humiliating. And now I am telling everyone about it, on a blog.
But later, I logged onto Hulu and saw this episode, your episode, which I’d initially missed. And it set me straight. You just sat there, and told your friend that your boyfriend was “smart, and interesting, and there were a lot of things you liked about him,” but it just wasn’t right, somehow. He’d hurt your Mom’s feelings, and he didn’t seem to care about it enough. It was putting you off, a little. And your friend, Ron, told you that you were right: It wasn’t right, you two weren’t right together, there was just something fundamentally different in how you related to life and to the world. And it didn’t matter that he was your hottest guest star, that the character had been painted as The Best Boyfriend Ever That You Were So Lucky To Be With OMG, that things could have maybe worked out. You took a good look at him, and you decided it wasn’t right, and then you walked away. And do you know what happened next? What happened next was that you were fine.
And here’s why: Since your life is about your work, and about feminism — not in the abstract, Liz Lemonist sense, either, but in terms of actually and truly connecting with and helping other girls — and about your ideals and your friends and your goals for the city of Pawnee and for yourself, and very definitively not about any one dude or dudes in general, having Your Life Minus That One Dude was simply not a very big deal. It was sad, but it definitely wasn’t going to ruin you. You already had a full plate, a whole interesting life, and dudes could come in and out of your life without altering that fact. So, no matter what happens to you, dude-wise, you’re going to know that you’re pretty great. And since you put your whole self into all you do, since you care about people and it shows, other people are going to know that you’re great, too. They’ll be there for you. And that’s how you’ll get by.
I talk a lot about feminism, Leslie, and I think about feminism a lot, and I have to tell you: I think this was one of the most genuinely feminist moments on your show. It wasn’t announced as such. But that’s like decades of “oh, it sucks to be single, ladies need their mens” thinking rebuked with a single reaction shot and one off-camera break-up, right there.
06. You care. And so does your show.
It’s not just the lady thing. It’s the way that everyone on the show is treated with some basic human respect. (Well, except for Jerry. But, Jerry.) Andy started out as a repulsive meathead, and deepened into an incredibly sweet guy who just doesn’t think, who’s too busy enjoying the world to reflect on it at all. Ron Swanson started out as a stereotypical Jerk Boss and turned into a saxophone-playing, breakfast-food-loving mentor and feminist ally. Tom — Aziz Ansari — is a sleazy douche, and he’s played as a sleazy douche, but he’s also played by Aziz Ansari, so that’s always funny. And he’s also vulnerable, a boy trying to be a man with the information he’s garnered from men’s magazines (hence sleaziness), and there are all the jokes with him having to remind everyone that he’s not “from” anywhere except South Carolina, and there’s his green card marriage to a white, Canadian woman, and how much that confuses everyone. Plus, he originated the line, “think about how much better our friendship would be if we added… DOING IT.” Which is suitable for all occasions.
Basically, what I’m saying, Leslie, is that your show, Parks and Recreation, comes across as an entertainment put together by good people. People who genuinely like, and are interested in, other human beings. The comedy comes from a place of sweetness that I’m not used to seeing. And I’m not saying you haven’t fucked up — that Fred Armisen episode was some offensive, xenophobic, racist business, and I need you to know. And the whole “gay boyfriend” arc was interesting but I think kind of poorly handled. But I’m thinking of the best moments, like April standing up at the senior center and renouncing irony and all its works, because a boy she likes is singing a song she likes and it makes her happy to see an old couple clearly in love, or Leslie refusing to kill an innocent possum for the sake of her career because That Just Isn’t Right Or Fair, or Tom handing Leslie the feminist award against the wishes of the feminist organization because her work that year had been great. That kind of attitude, I think, is what your show is really based on. That basic sort of decency and faith in people, that looks so sappy and dorky and yet works so much better than so many other options. And yet, despite this sweetness, the show isn’t medicinal or preachy; it’s still funny and absurd and charming and everything a quick comic diversion during the dinner hour should be. It’s a lot like you.