WEEKEND ARTS SECTION: Dear Leslie Knope of TV’s “Parks and Recreation,”

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.

20 comments for “WEEKEND ARTS SECTION: Dear Leslie Knope of TV’s “Parks and Recreation,”

  1. PrettyAmiable
    March 27, 2010 at 6:20 pm


    I’m in love with this show too. I did watch from the very beginning, where it was originally a knock-off of the Office with a female lead, but it has completely hit its stride in the second season and developed a voice of its own. That voice is NOT female-bumbling Michael Scott – it’s the face of a real (fictional) woman doing what’s right for her.

    But thank you for this love-note. My favorite thing to say now when someone says something sexist is that it’s completely my fault – I’m all crazy because my breasts are knocking me off balance and giving me vertigo – which is pretty much lifted from the show.

  2. March 27, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    Oh, Sady, I love both you and Amy Poehler/Parks and Recreation even more after reading this. I would totally do your taxes.

    I wrote about this show earlier today, but my post isn’t nearly as insightful as yours.

  3. Anonymouse
    March 27, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    Leslie is a “bad feminist”? Really? I love the show, too, and I love Leslie’s character, but you lost me completely on that.

  4. March 27, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    Yeah, I love the show, but I don’t see how Leslie is a bad feminist. You don’t need to read bell hooks to be a good feminist. She’s kind of a dork, but a big part of the show is rejecting the importance of being cool in favour of being genuine.

    I like that Parks and Rec started out as kind of mocking the provincialism of the small-town parks department and really implicitly looking down on all the characters, but at some point it started rejecting that smarminess and loving its characters; it is feminist but not in a showy way.

  5. Anna
    March 27, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    Hey Sady, if you haven’t before, you really really really need to check out Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls at the Party Web series. It’s on iTunes as a podcast and will blow your mind with empowerment and adorableness.

  6. March 27, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    I love this show so much it almost makes me cry.

  7. Ami
    March 27, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    THIS WAS AMAZING. I agree over and over.

    I hated Parks and Rec when it first aired. Then I actually started to get Leslie and they let her spread her feminist wings. She’s really grown on me.

    I just love how hopelessly optimistic she is. Sometimes I need to be reminded to not be such a cynic!

  8. Mandy
    March 27, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    Anna, thank you SO much for the heads on Smart Girls at the party! It is so refreshing, empowering, and earnest. Brought a smile to my face. :)

  9. Stella
    March 27, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    I take it you’re from the Midwest or currently live here???

  10. AK
    March 28, 2010 at 12:00 am

    Well, I’ve never seen it but I think I’ll have to check it out after reading this. I have mixed feelings on Poehler’s comedy…I really liked her in Mean Girls, but I think her stuff on SNL is really hit or miss–but then, SNL in general is pretty hit or miss, so that may not be her fault.

    But this sounds really nice. I don’t often watch sitcoms because they’re so negative and hateful for the most part. I like ones like Dharma & Greg, which was so silly and flawed and ridiculous, but for the most part all the characters really cared about each other. And ones like that, I really do like (hey, mindless entertainment is good sometimes). So your love note has inspired me to check it out on Hulu next time I’m somewhere where they don’t have severe download restrictions (satellite internet sucks but it’s the only option where I live).

  11. March 28, 2010 at 10:48 am

    I love this list! and I love Sady for writing it! Much better than I ever could write it!

    I could (and should) make a similar list for this same show about how they write about Indiana – because they are cute and funny and a pretty darn nice about the way they portray my home state, where I like to live and feel I constantly need to apologize for my residency therein to folks who do not live here. They could go to extreme stereotypes and make mean mockery of small town midwestern life, but while they do make gentle fun, they don’t go there – and they make the residents of Indiana seem pretty average and likable, like folks who do indeed actually live here. Which is the awesome.

  12. March 28, 2010 at 11:38 am

    LOVE this show SO MUCH!

    (Despite NBC’s inexplicable raging erection for Indiana jokes, as in 30 Rock last week when Jenna implied that living in Indianapolis is the seventh ring of hell. I could do a 5,000 word essay on why Indiana is television’s go-to place for a “cultureless” setting, but I will spare all of you.)

    And I love Ron Swanson as much as I love Leslie Knope.

    AK, it’s totally worth the watch.

  13. March 28, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    @Stella: Yup! Ohio! But New York, now.

    And, Lauren, we need to T.A.L.K. about this Midwestern business. Because I spent lots of my summers, growing up, in Indiana. My aunt and cousins lived on a farm! It was pretty awesome! And I’m always weirded out by how Indiana is shorthand for “basically Amish,” on TV and elsewhere. Whereas Ohio is that one nondescript Midwestern state that everyone is “from.” (And apparently a lot of sitcoms have been based there? There was an infographic. “Ohio” basically means “everyplace for everymen and everywomen,” in TV language.)

    I did start loving 30 Rock hardcore around the time of its Cleveland episode, though. Which was a remarkably accurate assessment of the Ohio-to-New-York cultural differences. WE’D ALL LIKE TO FLEE TO THE CLEVE!

  14. Dawn.
    March 28, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    I adore Parks and Recreation and this bad-ass feminist love letter!

    I don’t think Leslie Knopes is a “bad feminist,” but I do think she’s what some people think of as a “bad feminist,” i.e. not that knowledgeable of theory and possessing an innate naivete. These are two of the things I love most about her character.

    Sady: I’m from Ohio too! Born, raised, and still here, but impatiently waiting to relocate to the Pacific Northwest. I totally feel your and Lauren’s frustrations with TV/film depictions of the Midwest.

  15. Secondrink
    March 29, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Hey, hey, Ohio ladies! Ok, so that’s out of the way; Sady, I am thoroughly enjoying your site and your analysis of 30 Rock/P&R feminism in particular, because, yeah TV! It’s interesting to note that Poehler and Fey are dear friends, but seem to express their fem viewpoints differently, as folks are wont to. I think I’m starting to prefer Amy’s way of going about things after reading this blog. Maybe Fey should do a one-woman show so she can expose her viewpoint unadulterated by other writers.
    I was really struck by your reference to Jan from The Office. She was a pretty ok character in S2 and then the writers just fucking threw her off a cliff and into the path of a crazy train. I did not appreciate how they treated that character at all. And ironically, the showrunners of P&R are Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, who ran The Office for 4 seasons. I guess they can write realistic women when they try. But really, Pam kind of sucks and always has. I know that in my heart of hearts, but am just now admitting it. It feels good to let go.

  16. RD
    March 29, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    I hate it when I tell certain people in NYC that I was born in Colorado and they say, “Yeah I’m from the Midwest too!” Nothing against the Midwest, but Colorado is not the Midwest.

  17. March 30, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Awesome post, Sady. I just started watching this series, and I think Amy Poehler is fantastic in it. I am really early in, but I’m looking forward to new episodes even more after reading this article.

  18. M
    March 31, 2010 at 12:33 am

    My favourite scene of P&R is the scene where Leslie confesses to having shot Ron to protect Tom (who didn’t have a hunting licence and would therefore have faced a huge fine and possible jail time). When the ranger fellow is interrogating her, she picks up on his sexist assumptions about her (being a female hunter, she /must/ be careless *eyeroll*) and throws out every ludicrous sexist, stereotypical excuse/comment imaginable (which Amy Poehler improvised, by the way) to convince him of her “guilt” and her incompetence:

    “I got that tunnel vision that girls get.”
    “I let my emotions get the best of me.”
    “I cared too much, I guess. I was thinking with my lady parts.”
    “I was walking and it felt icky.”
    “I thought there was gonna be chocolate.”
    “I don’t even remember!”
    “I’m wearing a new bra, and it closes in the front, so it popped open and it threw me off.”
    “All I wanna do is have babies!”
    “I’m just going through a thing right now.”
    “I guess when my life is incomplete, I wanna just shoot someone.”
    “This would not happen if I had a penis!”
    “Bitches be crazy.”
    “I’m good at tolerating pain; I’m bad at math, and… I’m stupid.”

  19. April 2, 2010 at 5:53 am

    I looooove Parks and Recreation, particularly for its depiction of feminism as something that enriches a life, fill is with joy and happiness and connection to people, not something that drives you to be angry and alone.

    But in the spirit of critiquing what you love, the episode three weeks ago that was one long fat joke about Jerry pissed me off a lot. It’s funny to me when they inexplicably hate Jerry, not when they hate Jerry because he’s fat.

  20. BrianWS
    April 14, 2010 at 11:08 am

    Sady —

    Love this! I love the show and everyone on it, and you’ve captured that perfectly here.

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