Has Leslie Knope become a damsel in distress?

Leslie Knope
Over at The American Prospect, Amanda Marcotte argues that Leslie Knope has fallen from her previous heights of feminist heroism and become a “damsel in distress” in this season of Parks and Rec. I disagree.

Things started to go off the rails with an artificial obstacle thrown in the way of Ben and Leslie’s happy coupling: an arbitrary rule established by their mutual boss disallowing office romances. The only purpose for this plot contrivance was to put Leslie in the role that anti-feminists paint as the fate of all ambitious women—trying to choose between love and work, and unable to have both. The writers expected the audience to believe that Leslie’s romance with Ben would somehow sink her reputation with the voters during her run for city council, making the citizens of Pawnee vicious tyrants enforcing the mutual exclusiveness of love and work for women. For a show that used to subvert stereotypes of feminist women, it was a low blow.

I agree that the office romance obstacle seemed pretty contrived. But careers and relationships do sometimes collide for ambitious women, so if the show needed to introduce a conflict into Leslie and Ben’s storyline, that seems like a fine, if obvious, one to take on. Of course, I’d be pissed too if they ended up sending the message that she was “unable to have both,” but, at this point at least, it’s been resolved. Leslie has the man and the job and the city council run.

Even more insulting, once Leslie found herself in this untenable situation, the formerly competent administrator needed Ben to rescue her at every turn. When Leslie, who once swiftly dumped a boyfriend to keep the job she had, finds herself unable to break up with this new boyfriend to get the job she has always wanted, Ben saves her by dumping her first. Ben also comes to the rescue when their relationship is revealed to their boss; he quits so that Leslie doesn’t lose her job. Ben immediately goes to work as Leslie’s campaign manager, because by this point in the show, it’s just assumed that he’s her natural caretaker.

I’m not buying this at all. Is it really “saving” in the traditional sexist rom-com sense to have Ben sacrifice his own happiness by ending things when Leslie can’t because he respects how important running for office is to her? And then quit his own job so that Leslie doesn’t lose the job she loves so much? And then starting working for Leslie herself? I guess you could call all that “rescuing,” but to me, it just seems like supporting Leslie and her dreams. And isn’t a boyfriend who happily takes on the self-sacrificing, supportive role exactly what we’d want for an driven, independent woman like Leslie?

Last week’s episode, “Bowling for Votes,” epitomized the worst instincts of season four. Leslie, who used to be so competent that she gave a presentation while deliriously ill and nailed it, struggles to understand Ben’s instructions to appeal to the voters en masse instead of trying to win over one guy who disliked her in a focus group. Leslie’s downward spiral of political incompetence only stops when Ben punches the gadfly after he calls Leslie a “bitch,” which causes Leslie to swoon gratefully. It’s hard to imagine season two “bitches get stuff done” Leslie condoning a white knight’s violent antics, much less finding such a thing arousing. Even while rating the episode a B, the Onion AV Club described the it as “not Leslie’s finest episode by a long shot.”

While Amanda sees Leslie’s single-minded focus on the one guy who disliked her as a sign her growing incompetence, it seemed pretty in character with the intense Leslie we’ve always known to me. And when Ben punches the jerk who calls her a bitch, the “violent antics” are subverted a bit by the fact that Ben immediately starts apologizing and grabbing his hand in pain. It’s endearing–to the audience and presumably to Leslie–precisely because Ben is so not the white knight figure.

In my opinion, Leslie is definitely still “the hero of her own story.” Now she just has another person who’s got her back. Describing Ben’s role as that of a “caretaker” actually seems pretty accurate–he’s doing the supportive, behind-the-scenes work that we typically associate with wives, while Leslie’s out there–in front of the cameras–being the star.

What do you guys think? Is our beloved Parks and Rec about to start a downward spiral?

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/bellerenee/ Renee

    I absolutely disagree with Marcotte, for many of the same reasons as you do, Maya. I still think Leslie Knope is one of the best female characters on TV ever. She’s still running for city council, which is awesome even after her relationship with Ben became public. I think that’s HUGE, that she didn’t let a “scandal” get in her way. She’s driven and sure of herself and is navigating how to share this with someone she loves. No, Ben didn’t need to punch the guy at the bowling alley, but he was being a Class A Douche, so something needed to be said/done (not that punching him was the best solution, but Ben doesn’t always have the best solutions).

    Bottom line: Leslie is a self-identifying feminist and we have to trust that Amy Poehler won’t do anything with this character that would jeopardize that big part of her identity.

  • http://feministing.com/members/christeenie/ Christine

    Agreed. When I read Amanda’s article yesterday, I immediately had the same reaction as you regarding Ben’s supposed “rescuing” of Leslie. I saw it more as a sacrifice. And seeing a male sacrificing his career to support his female partner’s without it even being mentioned as a gender-role reversal on a television, is progressive to me.

  • http://feministing.com/members/feministagendapdx/ Amber & Katie

    I wholeheartedly agree with Maya. Of course the show isn’t going to be perfect…but alas…it’s pretty effing close to as perfect as a show can be. I also agree that Ben was in no way saving leslie as a Damsel in distress. I think it is refreshing to see a guy give up things for his lady to pursue her dreams. It’s often the other way around. I also think that Leslie is learning a lesson that while she often thinks she can be wonderwoman and do everything on her own, she does need people (awesome friends and partners) to help her and there’s nothing wrong with accepting help.

  • http://feministing.com/members/genie3288/ Genie Leslie

    I totally agree. Self-sacrificing is not the same as rescuing. And come on, even feminists aren’t perfect feminists all the time. I’m not a fan of violence, I’m not a fan of boyfriends playing the protector role, but seeing my boyfriend get really angry on my behalf after an internet idiot wrote some crude, sexist, dumb remarks on my blog was kinda hot. No one’s desires can be politically correct all the time, and a partner taking a stand on your behalf, even if not done in the best way, is endearing, arousing, and exciting. I still love Leslie Knope.

  • http://feministing.com/members/agiacchetti/ Angela Giacchetti

    Great article! I agree with your perspective on this and can relate to the character even more as the struggle to “have it all” is a harsh reality in so many of our lives.

  • http://feministing.com/members/soothingoceansounds/ Michelle

    I generally agree that Ben is much more a caretaker/supporter (traditionally the feminine role) and I think the series is doing a good job of portraying that kind of role reversal without resorting to stereotypes. Ben punching the guy is not an unambiguously positive thing, since it jeopardizes her campaign, hurts him and calls into question Leslie’s ability to take care of herself. However, she sees it (as does the audience) as a deeply personal act, triggered by caring and loyalty – not some hero complex.

    I will admit, however, that I was a bit perplexed by Leslie’s behavior overall in the bowling alley episode. She does certainly have some constitutional blind spots, which is part of what we love about her, but worrying too much about what strangers think of her isn’t really one of her primary issues. That kind of reaction is especially confusing in a case where the guy pretty clearly has a problem with women to begin with. I wonder if the creators were worried that Leslie was starting to seem TOO competent this season (leaving her team to be the source of the wacky screw-ups) and decided to devote an episode to taking her down a notch (by making a bad judgment call in fixating on the guy) – for the general good of the comedy. I doubt the choice was made in any way through the lens of gender in any case. I just hope they continue to think carefully about the importance of character consistency as the series wears on. It’s a very delicate balancing act with comedic characters, and doubly so with female characters.

  • http://feministing.com/members/meredithl/ Meredith

    My best friend described my husband this way, and I think it applies to Ben in his relationship with Leslie, too: he goes out into the world and slays dragons for her, not because she can’t wield a sword, but because he wants to do it.

    There’s a big difference between a man rescuing his woman, and a man who voluntarily pitches in to make life a little easier for her. Isn’t this part of what cis-gendered, hetero-identifying feminists want?

  • http://feministing.com/members/samantha/ Samantha O

    I agree with Maya. Wholeheartedly.

    Needing help doesn’t make a female character a damsel in distress – it makes that character more human. They’re developing the character. Weaknesses (finding punching sexy, obsessing over whether or not people like her) and failures make characters more interesting.

    Even awesomesauce feminist superheroes are boring if all they ever do is kick ass and eat waffles.

  • http://feministing.com/members/lintilla/ Dina

    Did they entirely forget the episode in which Ann was Leslie’s campaign manager and it was a complete disaster? (Or would that be seen as a sign that women can’t organize things?)

  • http://feministing.com/members/maxrm/ Max

    I totally agree that she is still a great feminist character, and I would definitely vote for her if I were a resident of Pawnee. :) I actually thought the bowling episode was a great episode. I think it is frustrating for any person to realize someone just doesn’t like them (and not know why). After he called her a bitch, it became pretty clear that his aversion to her was based on sexism and not liking strong women. I’m sure a lot of feminists can relate to having people who don’t like them because of a feminist vibe they give off. Also, I think having anyone–friend or romantic partner–defend you after someone calls you that would make you feel happy and supported.

  • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ toongrrl

    Hey Leslie is still the same Pawnee-loving, Madeline Albright idolizing, whipped waffles eating, go-to feminist we all know and love. The same woman that would work for the women of Pawnee and hopefully the world to be judged not by the flatness of their tummies, but by the content of their character.
    And she isn’t a [redacted]-ass in distress

  • http://feministing.com/members/arose/ Allison

    They’ve made Galentine’s Day a recurring thing! I think this show is doing just fine. To be honest I only watch it to be inspired by Leslie’s proud feminism, a lot of the times I feel like as a show it lags and if there were no Leslie I’d be a lot less interested. All the other characters, while entertaining, aren’t as refreshing.

  • http://feministing.com/members/catherine651/ Catherine

    A little late to the conversation, but I agree completely with Maya, and Michelle makes a good point that Parks & Rec writers reach for comedy in the bowling episode, since mistakes are just funnier than Leslie’s otherwise reliable competence. Under those circumstances, doesn’t the episode serve as a great microcosm of American political rhetoric? Many progressive politicians — along with some Republicans like Romney — seem preoccupied with pandering to those voters who (imagined or otherwise) WOULD vote for them IF ONLY they had more down-home, no-biggie, relaxin-with-a-beer personalities. Aligning Leslie with candidates who have tried this strategy (including Kerry, Obama, and now Elizabeth Warren) hardly makes her bumbling seem atypical or inconceivable for someone with political experience.

    Parks & Rec is so good at spotlighting some of the stupid ways American society operates. (Anyone remember the time Leslie asked Ben what he was wearing, and whether he might have been “asking for it,” when her Mom hit on him?)