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?

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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